Thursday 26 September 2019

The Death of Decency

There has never been anything decent about the Conservative Party. Since their formation, they've done what they believe is necessary to push the interests of their corner of the ruling class. Consequences, in every instance, be damned. And they were damned, as long as someone else picked up the tab. Yet whatever the Tories have overseen or done, be it war abroad or class war at home a certain decorum was maintained. Thatcher was, more or less, a stickler for parliamentary conventions while the Met smashed their way into Yorkshire miners' homes. John Major and Dave rarely if ever deviated from polite modes of address, while their policies sundered community ties and plunged hundreds of thousands of families into destitution. It didn't matter how awful the decision, how many victims it created and, in the case of the Tory cuts programme, the number of bodies piled up, convention was observed. The clubbiness of the Commons was maintained, on the whole.

And then we have Boris Johnson. Dave may have proven intemperate and May an authoritarian, albeit an incompetent one, but the parliamentary illusio is truly punctured by Johnson's terrible and purposely inflammatory responses at the despatch box. His dismissal of Paula Sherriff's complaint against his contrived surrender-mongery and enlistment of Jo Cox for a flash of rubbish Commons oratory was crass and irresponsible. He knows full well peddling this pathetic rhetoric can rile up his base and put boosters under two-bit extremists, racists, and neo-Nazi fantasists, but he also knows that despite the murder of a MP there are no repercussions or consequences for those pushing it. After all, Leave won. And those who made the arguments, identified the scapegoats, and mobilised discontent and division for entirely miserable ends went on to bigger and better things. What does it matter that people's lives are being put at risk? It's not his neck, their necks, after all.

On the narrow point of parliamentary convention and its complete flouting, why now and how now? And, more interestingly, why does the defiance of convention not carry the costs they were assumed to have? It's not as if the country hasn't been up in arms before, and sharply polarised politics haven't stalked the land. Clearly, something has shifted. MPs used to resign from high office if they were literally caught with their pants down. Now resignations are nigh on impossible, and it's almost inconceivable Johnson would ever consider his position regardless of his wrongdoing. How?

In his 2008 collection, From Marxism to Post-Marxism?, Goran Therborn argues the cultural tendencies associated with the ascendency of capital (vis a vis labour) in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s were simultaneously corrosive of the authority structures that had fostered and incubated them. Widespread cultures of deference to politicians, monarchs, older people, clergy, celebrities, experts, bosses and union leaders, as a general rule were undermined. Mammon was the goal, and it came via a neoliberalisation of the soul. The atomised, self-activating, indebted and responsible individual is the ultimate source of authority about all things. Irreverence then was the chief legacy of the youth rebellions of the 1960s, but was quickly hitched to consumer cultures and conservative rhetoric as Thatcher and Reagan waged war on classes and institutions in the way of the unhampered freedom of capital.

The strategic nous of Thatcher and co. lay in appealing to this irreverence. After her, albeit on a lower level, Blair did the same. There was Dave's austerity populism, and Farage's Brexit populism. Each case, each type chipped away at the legitimacy and convention of the institutions keeping Britain's limited democracy ticking over, culminating in a Prime Minister and his shadowy sidekick seemingly bent on blowing the whole lot up. Their act works, because Johnson is the political instantiation of this irreverence. His cracked support don't care, because he epitomises their contempt, and his trampling of norms, threats to break the law, and kamikaze commitment to Brexit fits with how they like to think their relation to the world. They hate its tolerance, the growth of progressive social values, the binning of old backward norms, and most of all the decentering of the first self-centred generation. i.e. the notion the spotlight is no longer on them. Johnson's calculation, as long argued here, is by playing up to them he thinks he can keep his decomposing party in office, that it would be enough to win an election. It almost worked for Theresa May, so why not Johnson?

Therefore, the bull in a china shop performance is exposing the conventions of office and parliament as exactly that. What point is a gentlemen's agreement when neither party to it are gentlemen? The pitch of irreverence is such Johnson knows he's not likely to suffer too much politically for thumbing his nose at precedent, and might even curry favour among the massed ranks of Brexit. Nevertheless, as a strategy it has backfired terribly so far, almost (almost!) radicalising centrist Labour MPs in their outrage against him, raising the costs for Labour rebels and "ex" Tories to back any repainted May deal he comes back to the Commons with. And now he's suffered his seventh Commons defeat in a row over a recess for Tory party conference. And yet he sticks to it, because Johnson reasons it plays well to the dead core of his support and reaches over to the Brexit Party. The people vs parliament is what he craves, and how he thinks the Tories can win the next election. And if that means the effective death of parliamentary custom and practice, so be it.

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Dialectician1 said...

The politics of irreverence.

What we are seeing is the Class of 68 coming home to roost: the 'clash with authority' trumping the 'clash with class'. Or to put it philosophically, Nietzsche trumping Marx. For that post 1968 hippy generation, who turned their back on Marx, the focus shifted from the economy to power, from the ontological to the epistemological, from 'life chances' to 'life style', from Dialectical Materialism to poststructuralism. It should be no surprise that the rise of neoliberalism runs parallel with the rise of postmodernism. Because capital is unassailable, all that politics is about in the neoliberal age - where the market trumps democracy - is a stage-managed culture war. Rhetoric is god. What is said and how it is said overrides any connect with reality. Thatcher could sell us back our own council houses and the 'enemy within', Blair could sell us the conquest of Iraq, Dave could sell us austerity, Johnstone will sell us 'no surrender to the EU bureaucrats'. The cost of rhetorical flourish is cheap, the cost of real social change is immense.

While class is off the agenda, what we constantly end up discussing is the dead cat on the table, not the table's eco-destruction and definitely not the immiserated beneath.

To paraphrase Frank Zapper, never trust a hippy, particularly a public school hippy educated in rhetoric.

Anonymous said...

"convention was observed. The clubbiness of the Commons was maintained, on the whole"

Kind of like disparaging the Yorkshire Ripper because "at least Hannibal Lecter had table manners."

qwertboi said...

Thought-provoking post dialectician1.

Whereas I found your analysis accurate and powerfully written, I'm not so I can accept your conclusion (which seems like little more than an inconsistent inference to me).

No, class is not off the agenda. Even the political left is slow to realise this and is surprised by it, but Phil BC has helped me understand that precarious employment, immaterial labour, horrendously unaffordable homes, etc., etc. in short, the non-availability of economic security and progress for many means that under capitalism in its current guise, things will not assuredly get better and class becomes pivotal to ending and fixing this.

I’m just behind the hippy generation and it is my peers (approaching 60yo) whose discomfort with class, caused them to replace it with mickey-mouse identity politics , even allowing Clinton and Blair to consolidate our mickey-mouse-ism with an empty third-way play on words and vicious anti-socialism. At that moment, Class was briefly never admitted as a driver. It was maybe off the agenda (history had, afterrall feigned death).

But is isn’t today.

The 2008 haemorrhage of financial capitalism and the political diarrhoea that followed it, called austerity, reintroduced Class in all its marvellous glory. I dug out (from 25 years earlier, when I was a philosophy student) my well-used copies of Hegel (well, Engels’ Critique of Political Economy’ to reposition him ) and, of course, the fundamental Das Kapital. (I even started checking parts of them in their original German.) The antagonistic relationship of Capital and Labour explained everything that was happening. Class was, and is, the core of everything (sure, gender and race are important, but not to deny or displace Class as the problem and, dialectically, also its simple, essential solution:

"These social relations between the producers, and the conditions under which they exchange their activities and share in the total act of production, will naturally vary according to the character of the means of production. Karl Marx, ‘Wage Labour and Capital ‘,chap 5 -’The nature and growth of capital’.

Sure, the americanisation of politics with its feature-based identity politics is important and useful, but never to displace Class, simply to call attention to it.
Yes, bang a dead cat onto the table and people will talk about it, but doing so does not disappear Class and increasing class-awareness. The neoliberal denaturing of politics kind of puts a spotlight on Class as the essential dynamic of politics.

Unknown said...

I object.

Wannabee hippies maybe?
Those that would have been if they could have overcome their xenophobia.

qwertboi said...

OOOOps, I didn't detect Dialectician1's possible sarcasm when I responded before. I certainly agree with much of his analysis and he probably wasn't really saying class is not relevant. I'm not v good with sarcasm, me.

Anonymous said...

Killing a million in Iraq and destroying one nation after another is apparently decent.

Johnson is acting stubbornly because he is looking at the polling data, May made that mistake. But one sure fire way to test public opinion is for the parties to test their manifestos in a general election.

I saw on a report which said a no deal Brexit was a threat to the NHS. Bullshit. Voting for the Tories is the single biggest threat to the NHS. It doesn’t matter if we are in or out of the EU, vote Tory (or Blairite, same thing) is a vote for the destruction of the NHS.

I don’t think Johnson was the first to bring up Jo Cox’s name was he? Didn’t a Labour MP (You know those same Labour MP’s who have been carrying witch hunts day in day out for the last 4 years) play the Jo Cox card and wasn’t Johnson simply responding to that? I mean since when did humbug incite violence? What next we ban Dickens!

The hysteria we see, where everyone gets insulted by anything anyone says is I believe a pattern we see repeated again and again.

Cocaine used to be legal, it only became illegal once the masses started to partake, at that point it had to be banned.

Free speech is the same, despite the garbage liberals have been claiming for years, i.e. that we had this thing called free speech, in reality free speech was always code for middle class people to write stuff in the Billionaire media. 99% of people never had anything called free speech, other than complaining about stuff in the pub etc.

But now with social media for the first time in history the masses have a genuine platform to express their views, vent their anger and frustrations etc. So for the first time in history free speech is available to the masses and like cocaine it cannot be tolerated!

And even though we are a relatively dead period when it comes to working class organisation, class itself is still fundamental. The problem is only one side is taking part in this class war, the bourgeois. The working class, at least in the West, are simply infected by consumerism. They literally would let the world burn than step out of that mindset. There literally is no reaching these people, unless you are an advertiser and want to sell them something they really don’t need.

But even is this dead period, every last drop of liberal sentiment can be summed up as, keep the rabble in a straightjacket (Hannibal Lecter like)