Monday, 22 July 2019

Rough Beast

Boris Johnson is a scapegoat. I don't mean that he is an innocent taking the blame for others, but that he is a timely character on whom we can load a lot of different sins. Contrary to the pen-portraits in the media, he is not the product of Eton, Oxford and the right-wing press, but of the collapse of centrist politics. Just as the relentless monstering of Jeremy Corbyn reflects the Labour right's lack of policies sufficient to address either the causes or the aftermath of 2008, so Johnson's elevation reflects the failure of the Conservative party's programme of austerity as much as its internal divisions over Brexit. With nothing to offer the electorate, the centre-right has given way to the sounding brass of Quixotic nationalism while the centre-left has found itself marginalised from the left by the very social democracy that it long claimed to represent. There are obvious differences between quitting the EU without a trade deal and renationalising the railways, but there is also a similarity: both were considered impossible by the centrist consensus of the last twenty five years.

British political history during the democratic era can be crudely divided into periods defined by either antagonists or scapegoats. Wartime obviously falls within the former category, but so too do periods defined by a collective will to address specific problems, such as the "Homes fit for heroes" activism of the 1920s, the investment in the welfare state in the 1940s, and the slum clearances of the 50s and 60s (housing and health are recurrent themes). The periods defined by scapegoats tend to be longer, if only because the intellectual and emotional energy required for low-level hate is easier to maintain than the optimism and exertion demanded by an antagonist. Our current scapegoat period is the longest-running in the democratic era. While social phenomena such as teenage delinquency, unmarried mothers and inter-racial "friction" weren't novel, it was only in the late-60s that they were widely seen as part of a general social malaise rather than as individual or group failings. The inhabitants of borstals were no longer feral individuals who had been inadequately socialised but symptoms of a society-wide breakdown in morality.

This appeared at the time to be a move towards a structural or sociological analysis, and was therefore seen as essentially "leftist", or at least as an attempt to avoid personal responsibility, but in fact much of the critique came from a re-energised political right arguing for free enterprise, self-reliance and the rolling back of a state deemed to be responsible for this illness through misguided "social engineering" (Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange was a good example in literature that caught the mood: a reactionary impulse clothed in a radical sensibility). The drift towards pessimism as the 1970s opened reflected the increasing tension within postwar society as profits were squeezed by labour. Though it is often ignored in today's analysis of populism, when a straight line between the 1930s and contemporary developments is preferred, this was a time of real populist anger in which traditional party politics came under strain and street demonstrations against political and business elites were common.

Though the structural causes of this tension were obvious enough - the ending of the Bretton Woods financial system in 1971, the oil crisis of 1973, the early stages of deindustrialisation - the media preferred to seek scapegoats, from public sector workers to Rastafarians, to channel popular anger at symptoms as diverse as inflation and the gradual breakdown of social homogeneity. Succeeding decades saw the circle of scapegoats widen. The 1980s were marked by "the enemy within" and the emasculation of trade unions, while the 1990s saw the scapegoating of the long-term unemployed, anti-social youth and "bogus" asylum-seekers. Come the 2000s, this scapegoating was further widened to Muslims en masse and welfare recipients in general. By the 2010s it was even extended to the disabled and the long-settled immigrants of the Windrush generation. Politics appeared to be running out of scapegoats. By 2016, the entire country appeared to fall into one scapegoat group or another, from the ignorant bigots of the "white working class" to a patronising "Metropolitan elite" that included pretty much anyone living in London.

A distinction should be drawn here between Conservative and Labour governments during this period, which is reflected in the official framing of scapegoats if not necessarily in their demonisation by the press. Paradoxically, given their focus on individual responsibility, Tories tend to prefer opponents who are deemed collectively illegitimate: they are in the wrong because of who they are, not simply because of what they do. Their antipathy towards trade unions reflects an affront at the presumption of labour in seeking to dictate terms to capital, not simply an irritation at the inconvenience caused by particular strikes. Consequently, membership of a scapegoated group is sufficient to indicate guilt: an attitude that hasn't really changed since the days of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. In contrast, and in a complementary paradox, Labour administrations tend to be moralistic, seeking to justify their discrimination on the grounds of individual culpability, hence the personal focus of ASBOs and programmes such as Sure Start and the Respect Agenda.

In contemporary politics, the right is distinguished by a tendency to invent rhetorical groups that are guilty by definition, from "enemies of the people" to "remoaners". The political centre prefers to blame real world groups and institutions, or to indulge a liberal materialism. For example, in today's Guardian Matthew d'Ancona admits the guilt of the press in the rise to prominence of Boris Johnson, but then shifts the blame to the entertainment industry (recycling the myth that Johnson owes his prominence to Have I Got News For You): "one must acknowledge, without qualification or excuse, the huge role that the media – and not just the rightwing press – has played in Johnson’s rise … Thus indulged by his peers, Johnson was perfectly placed for a cultural shift of prodigious importance that he intuited very early: namely, the colonisation of politics by the entertainment industry." Meanwhile, John Harris first blames technology, from power-looms to robots, and then exonerates it as an ultimately progressive force. Both ignore that these factors - the press, mass entertainment, disruptive technology - have been around for a century or more. What distinguishes the current moment is the political vacuum created by the collapse of centrism.

In considering Boris Johnson's rise to the top, commentators are usually prepared to acknowledge the advantages conferred by Eton and Oxford, and some even note the pivotal decisions of others that could have terminated his career early, such as John Major's reluctant agreement for Johnson to become a Conservative parliamentary candidate, but few are prepared to point the finger at those who consciously helped him, such as David Cameron backing him as the Conservative party's London Mayoral candidate in 2008. It's now lost in the noise, but Theresa May's decision to anoint Johnson as Foreign Secretary in 2016 - an appointment that panned out pretty much the way that any halfway informed person could have predicted - was either a calculated insult to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office or a simple dereliction of duty. Johnson is the Conservative party's man in a more profound sense than Trump is the Republican party's man. One obvious reason for his rise to the top is the fear that the Conservative party's time in power is coming to an end. Johnson is not only a last throw of the populist dice, he is also a tailor-made scapegoat for possible electoral failure.

Jeremy Corbyn is less a scapegoat than a patsy in that he is being fitted-up for an imaginary crime, namely his Harold Shipman-like injection of antisemitism into the party in 2015. The focus on his personal culpability is typical of Labour's approach to scapegoating, giving rise to the bizarre sight of a party supposedly committed to a structural analysis of society being apparently ignorant of what the word "institutional" means. The recent bad faith of the liberal media (the suppression of Simon Wren-Lewis's cogent argument for a Corbyn government by the New Statesman, the misrepresentation of Gloria De Piero's resignation statement by the Guardian as criticism of Corbyn etc) reflects this personalisation and is the flip-side of the continuing hagiography of Tony Blair in certain quarters. But ultimately what is driving the campaign against Corbyn is not just the desire to create a scapegoat in the manner of the Tories, but also the need to flood the discourse and so avoid the necessary debates over social, economic and environmental policies. Centrism has been reduced to militant anti-antisemitism because it has nothing to offer either the Labour party selectorate or the wider electorate. If we get a general election before the end of this year and the leading candidates are Corbyn and Johnson, it will be a choice between politics and anti-politics.

1 comment:

  1. I suppose the Girardian (Rene Girard) take is that the political crisis is precisely because no one faction can gets its scapegoat to function efficaciously, that is it cannot appear to be a scapegoat to function as one. The centrist meconnaisance you point to actually marks them out as partial exceptions. They really really believe that both Corbyn and Johnson morally deserve to be taken down, and critically if they are, then the situation will be fixed, and the true king will return, and land will bloom.