Discussing Johnsonism

by Tom Gann, Rhian E. Jones, Adam Blanden, Sabrina Huck / August 25, 2020

Image: A Birmingham Toast by James Gillray

Bad New Times | What Is Johnsonism?  }
What can we learn from Johnson’s spell as Mayor of London? What are the ruling class strategies of the Johnson project? How does it stand in an international context? 10211 words / 40 min read

Following on from their own pieces on Johnsonism, Tom Gann, Adam Blanden, Sabrina Huck, and Rhian E. Jones explored in more depth the questions raised. This discussion took place on June 22nd.

TGHow to think through Johnson’s previous career notably as Mayor of London and its implications for how we might think about Johnsonism and the current situation? Coming out of some of the pieces, there’s a question of how one thinks about “corruption or cronyism”. There’s a liberal criticism of Johnson that’s maybe right within its own boundaries but misses any structural component – to say Johnson’s immediately corrupt and be done with that does away with the question of structural determinations. In Adam’s piece, it might be a question of cronyism being inscribed in or lubricating state – capital relations but they don’t determine decisions in the end – anything cronyism and corruption are what is determined. With London, that relates a bit to Owen Hatherley’s recent NLR piece and there’s some useful stuff in there in relation to, as Adam put it, Johnson as state ambassador to capital. How far do the political and economic strategies of Johnson, which weren’t entirely a break with the logic of Ken Livingstone as Mayor and which were to invite global capital into London as a safe haven, not worrying too much about the origins of this capital get retained with Johnson as Prime Minister? There’s a role for corruption or cronyism here (or at least ignoring it) but its constituted by a set of strategies of the capitalist state – so what would Johnson as Mayor of London tell us about this corruption rooted in something deeper?

ABI think there’s a gap between corruption – or what may or may not be called corruption - and the personalised access granted by Johnson during his mayoralty to selected investors. So, I don’t know if corruption or cronyism are the right words, but it’s definitely a highly personalised form of rule. In Douglas Murphy’s book Nincompoopolis, which I read recently about Johnson’s time as Mayor, he talks really well about Johnson’s various follies during his time as Mayor and his willingness to go all out for various seemingly quite bizarre public works projects that didn’t always necessarily seem to have an obvious or immediate rationale in terms of profit, but it’s clear that the granting of access to scarce resources to certain investors was part of the way of ruling. These could be quite extravagant and you see a lot of the results of that in the Olympic Park in Stratford – that weird tower, The Arcelor Mittal Orbit, a gargantuan red swirly thing that’s really strikingly odd and it’s useless, it wasn’t profitable, it didn’t come with an immediate exchange value boon to the area. But then, the whole surrounding area gets gradually developed and turned into property so there’s something there in that process.

TGI think that’s really interesting and important, and how is this a state based on or at least partially initiated by an accumulation strategy that makes sense in a big “desirable” city like London, and you have the theorisations of gentrification from people like David Harvey or Neil Smith1, where if capital lacks certain opportunities for productive investments for it to turn to various projects in the built environment – that makes sense as Mayor of London but as Prime Minister of the whole country it’s different - indeed the process is constituted in part through geographical inequalities, uneven development and the desirability of London compared to the rest of the UK. The strategy can’t work like this – is there a scaled up equivalent?

ABTom, you referenced Will Davies’s piece about a rentier alliance that seems to have supported Johnson and helped him into office in 2019, and I think, people are right to be very cautious about uses of ‘rentier’ capital as it can be used to distinguish between good and bad capitalists, where the bad are those who do-nothing and profit just by ownership of wealth opposed to the good, ‘productive’ capitalists. But, there is still some usefulness in the term, I think, if you’re careful with it and with locating rent in the history of capitalism and make sure that you’re not distinguishing it as a purely parasitical, bad capitalism that feeds off “productive” capitalism. There’s a book coming out by Brett Christophers with Verso called Rentier Capitalism and it’s about the rentierisation of the UK economy so in that sense we can talk about a scaling up, it’s national. The way in which heterodox economists define rentier capital is as the acquisition of profit through monopoly rents acquired from restricting access to scarce resources so in these terms restricting access to land means you can charge a monopoly rent for that land. But it’s a concept that also applies to financial assets, to natural resources, to natural monopolies like public infrastructure, to privatisation of public services. If you can grant access to specific bits of capital, allowing them to control these monopolies you can then allow them to extract monopoly rents from their ownership and control of it.

On the those terms, Johnsonism and the figure of Johnson can be the conduit through which access is granted and it’s a highly personalised way of thinking about his role in the UK economy.

There’s even a piece by David Harvey where he says even cultural spectacle can be a form of monopoly rent extraction – how do you grant a particular commodity some unique characteristic by which excess profits can be extracted from it? You create a sense of cultural spectacle and by granting capital access to it, it can get certain monopoly rents. The Olympics is a perfect example of that, but as rentier capital it can be thought of as operating at a national level too.

SHDo you think then this is something that’s very distinct to Johnson rather than just typical of Conservative politicians in terms of the granting of access particularly to property developers? This seems to happen fairly generally, so what’s the distinct, specific feature of Johnson’s personality that facilitates that? A comparison could be around Robert Jenrick and the Westferry scandal, where is that different? The development in East London, Westferry, was called in by the Secretary of State Robert Jenrick and then it was granted permission by Jenrick after the developer was at a Tory fundraising dinner and directly lobbied him, showing him videos about the development and also made a donation to the Tories. It’s been in the news now for about two weeks but nothing really has happened so they clearly don’t think that this is a sackable offence in the Conservative government. It seems like this is more general than just Johnson. I don’t know that much about Johnson as Mayor of London because I didn’t really live here for most of the time he was Mayor so I’m not quite sure what his key achievements are, apart from the bikes. I then also found out they were actually Ken Livingstone’s idea. There was trying to do ‘Boris Island’, the airport and then the Garden Bridge, these vanity projects that never worked out. So, it’s hard for me to think through what is very distinctive. The other thing that I think is very interesting is the way that a lot of people now talk about Johnson and his team at Number 10: on one hand you have the old advisers from Vote Leave like Dominic Cummings and then you’ve got people like Eddie Lister who were with him at City Hall. In Westminster, people always think the old London Mayoralty crowd are the more sensible people whereas the Vote Leave people are ‘mavericks’. I would be interested to understand how his time as Mayor of London might be important to understanding that and whether their approach is distinctive from the one offered by the Vote Leave people.

TGI wonder here if some of what Adam’s saying is helpful on that – there might not be so much of a contradiction, at least in terms of the strategies of a particular social base in certain fractions of capital. The ‘rentier’ fractions do have a leading political role and they had that part both in Johnson’s Maryoralty and in the Vote Leave coalition even if the cultural forms of that fraction are different; in one case this “Metropolitan liberalism” that might have represented the cultural-ideological strategy even Johnson might have prefered – as both Rhain and Sabrina argued in their pieces, and maybe that goes alongside my argument capital wouldn’t have politically chosen Johnson if it had other options, Johnson might not have chosen to be the version of Johnson we encounter now if he’d had other options – but despite the different cultural-ideological expressions, including perhaps on Brexit or on seeming ‘sensible’ rather than ‘maverick’ there’s a core shared interest. So, the ideological contradiction, which might be quite substantial, is less significant in terms of coherence than the social base represented.

RJThat makes sense to me. I’m trying to think through too, as someone who remembers quite clearly when Johnson got in as Mayor, and there was an anticipation of total disaster because we didn’t know what his Mayoralty would be like, but in retrospect I’m surprised at how little he did. It certainly wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. One of the first things he did, oddly, was to ban drinking on public transport, which everyone completely ignored and there was barely any enforcement of that and what he seemed to concentrate on was cultural spectacle, even if they were sometimes things that were materially useful, like the ‘Boris Bikes’, though obviously again that wasn’t his idea but something that just happened under his remit. There was the buses as well, I can’t remember on what route, unusually, but he introduced a new style of bus, the new Routemasters, but it didn’t work as it was supposed to and ended up being dropped in the same way as the Garden Bridge was talked about and never came to fruition. So, he seemed to have conjured up a lot of vanity projects and spectacles that made no material difference to the city and yet allowed the city to keep functioning in the interests of the same fractions of capital as it had previously, so I feel that one of his most useful functions is as a kind of means of obscuring the fact that it’s business as usual, and I think - as we’ll come on to with Brexit and the Vote Leave campaign - giving an illusion of change while things continue to work in the same interests as they have previously. He will do that as Prime Minister by concentrating on spectacle and on the cultural front in a similar way to how he did as Mayor though massively scaled up and more dangerous.

ABI suppose part of this comes back to a question of do we regard him as an exceptional figure or do we regard him as a symptom or result of tendencies and trends within UK society more broadly? Do we think he’s different to other Tories or is he in a similar model as Sabrina’s asking?

TGThe really crucial thing for me at least is current conditions mean the continuity of that project, and I think this overlaps a bit with what Rhian’s saying about his ability to obscure continuity of interests being represented, needs something quite odd to lead it. Coming back to Marx on Louis Napoleon – why does capital need these rather peculiar “grotesque mediocrities” in certain conjunctures? The striking thing for me is all the other strategies capital tried before alighting not only on Johnson but this version of Johnson. Cameron (or the Cameron-Clegg coalition) worked up to a point but then there was the referendum and the running into trouble with that strategy, then the May strategy, whose limits very rapidly emerged. The oddness of Johnson is constituted by a failure of other strategies.

ABThe interesting thing there though is with Theresa May, the class coalition was basically the same, maybe she disgruntled some of the more renegade bits of pro-Brexit British capitalism. But was essentially the same coalition so it does seem to be the figure of Johnson that made the difference and, the Tory Party being the Tory Party, they got to fail in the form of May and were still given the space to succeed with the same project but in the form of Johnson.

TGAnd I think this brings us on to the Brexit and Vote Leave stuff, what we’re talking about too is what’s the capacity of a strategy of certain fractions of capital to command support from enough of the popular classes, and thereby to lead capital in general. Something really striking in the Labour Together report was how successful Johnson was at getting out the vote, in a way May wasn’t. Usually, boosting turnout has been the basis of a Labour, and particularly left Labour strategy, with the presumption that if we maximise turnout most of those voters who would otherwise have stayed at home are going to be Labour voters but the argument of the Labour Together report seems to be Johnson was able to bring in 2017 non-voters in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats, so (again as with the left Labour strategy) the electorally decisive elements are not necessarily Labour/Tory swing voters – the task is to expand the coalition through this capacity to bring in – and I’m reluctant to say unambiguously working class voters in the Tory case – voters from the popular classes who might not have voted.

SHIt’s the same thing that Vote Leave did – Vote Leave also managed to mobilise a section of society that was not captured by other campaigns. If you look at Britain Stronger in Europe, it wasn’t geared towards turning out new sections of the electorate. As I wrote in my article, the difference is that May was not really able to tap into that coalition that Vote Leave managed to assemble. Johnson managed to do that. I don’t have all the polling so it’s hard to fully determine why that is the case but to me, I think that Mayism did try to appeal more to a consensus politics, whereas Johnsonism is agitating. It has this ‘against the elite’ language so it manages to tap into a group of people who do feel dissatisfied by the current status quo in a way that Mayism never attempted to do. May focused on ‘bringing the country together in the national interest’. That’s quite a big difference.

TGI thought that was really valuable in your piece, that there may be this politics of the middle (both in terms of social base and political orientation) that doesn’t have a sufficient socal base to be electorally decisive in a referendum or election, which also poses some problems for Labour under Starmer, as you were also saying. On the other hand a politics that can knit together a coalition of significant fractions of capital and enough of the popular classes has that weight and that almost definitionally can’t be a centrist politics.

SHIt’s also interesting in the Labour Together report that one of their recommendations is to try a similar strategy, one of “bold economic investment” and grounding politics in “community, place and family”. This sounds similar to the Vote Leave approach. It combines a sort of social democratic economic policy, particularly targeted investment (and Johnsonism is very much about the levelling up agenda) with socially reactionary values. It’s interesting because that doesn’t seem to be what Labour members would have expected Keir Starmer to do. People would have thought he wouldn’t be the Blue Labour kind of guy, but that seems to be the broad strategy the Labour Together report recommends. It would be interesting to see if that can be successful. It would mean that Labour and the Tories would essentially be fighting over the same coalition. For Labour this would turn focus on switching existing voters rather than mobilising a different section of society that is currently not (or only in a limited way) spoken to by Labour Party and not at all targeted by the Conservatives. Labour risks abandoning these groups by taking too much to the perception that you have to get the Tory vote to swing to you rather than building your own coalition.

ABYes, whether or not a strategy like that can be successful depends on how firmly held together the Johnson coalition is and to what degree it is composed of former Labour voters who are still inclined at some level to come back, though even then a strategy like that is going to go back to 2017.

SHI think that’s right, probably, especially as the whole danger of combining social democracy and social reaction is that it reinforces the kind of narrative that will always be harmful for people who try to push further left. If we give into those socially reactionary values, we can never win genuinely transformative or anti-capitalist politics. I don’t believe that you could ever have a successful Labour government on that basis. Blairism is interesting here because of how socially authoritarian it was, which surprised me, because Blair is often perceived as a social liberal. I was recently researching law and order policies under Blair and I was really shocked by how reactionary he was.

TGI think it was interesting in terms of what a Starmer anti-Johnson strategy might be, is in some of the debates around Thatcherism, you have Stuart Hall making this argument against very much a left position, though not a useful one, which went along the lines of ‘there will be an economic crisis, that will lead to unemployment, and then, somehow, almost automatically the left will win’ without much need for political and ideological work and it feels that what’s unsaid in Starmer position you’re talking about is again that there will be an economic crisis so severe that the slightly lefter offer in terms of social democratic politics will become persuasive provided you reduce the salience of these socially reactionary issues, which you reduce by basically agreeing. The implicit argument here is a vulgar Marxist one – economic crises produce kinds of political polarisation around economic beliefs towards the left provided we don’t wind up this ‘natural’ functioning by challenging social reaction. Whereas, it’s much more likely, that the crisis, particularly with these socially reactionary values being unchallenged, becomes lived through socially reactionary themes, giving the left no chance, not least because even a Starmer led party pivoting to Blue Labour can’t out reaction the Tories even as it affirms that political parties should be judged by their obedience to socially reactionary values. I presume the original Starmerite argument was that it would the crisis entailed by No Deal Brexit, now there’s Covid, which for various reasons may well work out very differently in its political implications. But if you don’t challenge the themes, when the crash happens, it won’t be lived in ways useful for the left – the Starmer strategy is underpinned by an incredible vulgar Marxism that can’t think through how crises are lived.

If you don’t challenge the themes, when the crash happens, it won’t be lived in ways useful for the left.

ABIf the dominant cultural affect of this decisive popular layer that voted for Johnson is oriented around a perceived threat to its status or a desire to punish others seemingly threatening their access to scarce public resources, then a crisis is likely to compound that basically socially sadistic cultural affect and Starmer seems remarkably ill equipped to oppose that or restructure it in a more progressive direction.

SHThere is a danger now that the opposition that expresses itself through social movements will move largely outside of Labour. People who might have prioritised Labour activism under Corbyn will now organise in other ways. We may end up in similar situations to what we’ve seen with the Black Lives Matter protests. Starmer turns towards a reactionary response while at the same time the Tories welcome any opportunity to clamp down on oppositional organising. The Covid crisis or climate change might prompt more extra parliamentary organisation. Further civil liberty restrictions as a response from the government could make it harder for Johnson to be read as a liberal. And even for all his liberal presentation as Mayor of London, it was Johnson who ordered the water canons to use on protestors. The very same cannons were banned in Stuttgart after blowing out someone’s eye at a protest. This might show a tendency to be quite authoritarian, particularly in the event of civil unrest. So how will Johnson react to that in the future? And how might the changed approach to social movements from the Labour Party influence Johnson’s likely response?

ABAt a leadership level, I don’t think there’s going to be much strategy in response to authoritarianism. On the ‘war on woke’ stuff, the Labour leadership’s been nowhere, so I think the tendency will be to fall in line with it, and that will be in part because of this analysis of 2019: “we lost among socially authoritarian voters therefore we have to be more socially authoritarian”. But, how decisive do you all think they are to the class coalition that comprises Johnsonism? How central are they and how influential are they over Tory policy? Is it those specifically who are getting things like NHS spending commitments and spending on police, whatever these nominally popular policies are that the Tories keep promising, is it that particular layer of voters who are decisive here?

RJWasn’t there something in the Labour Together report saying that spending commitments on the NHS were something like ten times more important than Brexit in persuading those Red Wall voters to vote Tory? So, whether that makes them decisive as Tory voters is perhaps another question, but they absolutely are a particularly volatile group of voters and they were easily pulled in by quite un-Tory promises on public spending. I don’t see that certainly Johnson himself has shown any sign of being willing or able to deliver the things that pulled those voters in, and whether that means that will disrupt that coalition or this voting base, I don’t know. But it does mean there are certain crucial tensions around what voters want a Tory government to do and what a Tory government is capable of or able to even consider doing. I think it’s quite an unstable coalition going forwards and because of that instability almost any section of their voters could be decisive in pulling it apart whether it’s the Red Wall voters, or disaster capitalists or far-right white supremacist voters – and there’s a whole host of elements there that could be in danger of being lost by this government but while they hold them together it’s quite a strong coalition.

TGThe sense I get is that the persistence of the Red Wall voters as part of this coalition, and it’s very much a coalition rather than a bloc – it definitely doesn’t have the stability and coherence as Rhian’s saying of a bloc. And, if we’re thinking about what’s the difference between 2019 and 2017, but not only 2017 but 2015 and 2010, so the Tories winning a very substantial majority, then this fraction were decisive. I wonder if we should add to Rhian’s list the other instability is those fractions of capital and then, numerically more importantly, their middle class functionaries, who voted Remain, or who, although I have reservations about the piece, Will Davies describes as having interests in economic stability, especially of supply chains, tarrif free access to markets, and would therefore be predisposed to vote Remain but who faced with a choice between a Johnson led Tory Party or a Corbyn led Labour Party chose Johnson. The interesting thing maybe with Starmer is what’s his appeal to them – one instability is the Red Wall voters, and another, if we don’t have a particularly left wing Labour Party is significant fractions of capital who begrudgingly got hegemonised by other fractions in the Johnson coalition for fear of Corbyn – what if Labour starts functioning as capital’s B-Team again? Will these fractions still be happy to be hegemonised by fractions persuing sets of policies that do them a certain amount of harm when the alternative isn’t a socialist one? That to me feels like perhaps the other volatile element.

ABI’m tempted to suggest though that those bits of British capital are basically marginal, where do they exist? If you look at the FTSE 100, the sheer number of companies there, you can say they’ve got this rational interest in stability and trade integration but if you’re taking this definition of extractive or rentier capitalism, huge numbers of the FTSE 100 firms have connections to that – so where is “sensible, rational, stable” British capitalism? I’m not sure it’s that much of a force. Though there is a difference between 2019 and the Leave Vote, that in 2019 Johnsonism and the Tories had pretty much the whole of British capitalism onside, if you look at the donations they raked in, the public backing they had, there was never any question that The Financial Times would actually back Labour, there’s clearly a project which maybe hegemonic is not the right word but it encapsulated all predominant groups within British capital and that does feel an interesting difference between what Vote Leave was and the Tory electoral success in 2019.

SHTo hold together these different sections of the coalition, both in terms of sections of capital and the ‘Red Wall’, the “levelling up agenda” can do quite a lot. Targetted investment in regional infrastructure or research and development will come from the government, but the money will go to private companies – so it’s not that the state goes in there and does things and invests and creates structures but that the state gives money specifically to firms. The state and businesses work together so both get something out of it. Capital gets something out of it and the people in the region will get something out of it in the sense that they get the investment, the jobs, the infrastructure that Johnson is promising. Obviously, because of the Covid situation, those kinds of plans have been derailed a little bit but there is already the intention to move on. We can see it in press conferences, with the levelling up agenda starting to creep back in again everywhere. They’ve very much been trailing this in advance of the next summer financial statement as an attempt to move on from the Covid situation and back to this agenda.

ABThere’s definitely a similarity between what a boost to NHS spending means even pre-Covid and what public investment means after Covid – it basically means a context of outsourcing and this form of granting specialised access to public resources. And, what they’ve done as the policy response to Corona Virus is essentially subsidy – it’s an elaborate system of subsidy, the furlough scheme itself is a subsidy to capital. Obviously, it incentivises continued employment and therefore maintains the capital-labour relation but ultimately all of these things support the reproduction of capital.

SHThat’s the point, they would a still rather have some intervention in the economy to save the baseline of these businesses rather than watch them crash and burn, which part of the mistake of those who think either the virus or Brexit will lead to that sort of rupture that will escalate contradictions and lead to changes – they’re probably not going to let it get to that point.

ABThere was an article by josie for New Socialist about what the Tories have been doing with various data companies and the co-option of the voluntary sector by the state and entrepreneurial capital. That is, I think, an intensification of capitalism’s reach into the state, rather than the state’s reach into the economy.

SHIt’s interesting in the context of what you were saying earlier in terms of procurement. They might attach a lot of these criterias that relate to the social value that a public contract has or link environmental standards into planning standards.

TGI think there’d be an interesting thing, if the Tories have the wit and the capacity among their councillors for this, they definitely will brand something almost like the Preston Model of the right. These things can be articulated within a right-wing agenda in working through procurement. It will be interesting to see if they can do this on that level or if local government is so hollowed out and Tory councillors so lacking in the capacity to do it. But this feels like a real option the Tories could have in terms of procurement in particular places. I’m also really struck in terms Adam’s point on the extension of capital’s reach into social reproduction through the functioning of the state and what Sabrina’s saying too in terms of state intervention to maintain capital in how essential it is to conceptualise the state as the capitalist state, and that’s a very different line of thought that a lot of popular left conceptions of capital, the state and neoliberalism – the state does intervene very significantly, but it’s for the sake of the reproduction of capital whether preserving it or expanding its opportunities – and I think a lot of common sensical left models that posit a complete distinction between the state and economy miss how the capitalist state operates. And, revisting the ‘Thatcherism’ debates, there’s something else going on of relevance to Johnsonism – that Hall sees the need for emphasising explanation on the level of ideology in “authoritarian populism” is because he has something of this common sense understanding of the neoliberal version of the capitalist state as withdrawing from the economy and social reproduction so popular consent has to be secured ideologically, whereas with the authoritarian statism position, first with Poulantzas then with Jessop and others is much closer to what Adam and Sabrina are talking about that the capitalist state does intervene in the economy, actually extending its functions with material effects that as well as aiding the reproduction of capital economically also secure consent – Poulantzas conceptualises “authoritarian statism” as involving “intensified state control over every sphere of economic life”2. And, I think it’s worth revisting the concept of “authoritarian statism”, which gets missed because of how influential Hall’s characterisation of Thatcherism is, to analyse this constellation of aspects of Johnsonism.

ABAs a general question then, what are the differences or similarities between Johnsonism and Thatcherism – if you looked at the demographics, they’d be roughly equivalent. There are obvious differences in style and mode of political delivery though.

TGIt would be interesting to bring in Rhian’s piece here, and the style is decisively different and a lot of Rhian’s piece gets at this – the Lord of Misrule, the frivolity, it’s completely different affectively from Thatcher’s image, but whether the bases are different though…

RJI think the class bases are broadly analagous. The style is different, or maybe it’s a question of different presentation. Thatcher, far more than was acknowledged at the time, was highly stylised and highly aware of her own presentation, as a grocer’s daughter, so not an establishment figure, and as someone coming from a small town in an obscure bit of England, through to a very stylised image – the bouffant wig and the handbag – it was a cartoonish presentation and in that way quite like Johnson’s own cartoonish presentation, even though that’s one very much from within the establishment. As odd as it may sound, Thatcher was in some important ways a genuine outsider and was able to come from outside and shape things and, whilst it wasn’t done single-handedly, impose neoliberalism on this country partly by sheer force of personality – and her stylised presentation was a huge part of that force. I feel that what this government is doing, at a point that’s so long after Thatcher, is just mopping up after the transformative changes of the 1980s and putting the finishing touches on an almost wholly authoritarian and neoliberal state, which makes it odd to see Johnson as someone who is so frivolous and almost playful and whether again that is something that is meant to obscure the seriousness of what he is overseeing. I think he would like to be seen as Churchill and that’s something that Thatcher also drew on, but he more obviously embodies a pre-democratic, 18th Century, pre mass franchise strain of ruling class Englishness, which was often presented at the time as overtly grotesque in various 18th century political cartoons and that kind of thing, but he seems to embody that – and have fun embodying it in quite a distasteful way.

ABIn your piece, Rhian, you use that phrase, about the cartoonishness that gives him ‘plausible deniability’ and he’s kind of self-satirising. It’s a reminder of what the function of satire is, or was, allow a certain degree of catharsis or sanctioned mockery but without fundamentally reckoning with anything.

RJYes – and this relates to the Lord of Misrule figure as well – he is a figure who allows a pressure valve for a sanctioned moment of discontent or enjoyment, but that moment itself is there to hold the rest of the edifice in place and ensure it doesn’t break down completely because you’ve got your pressure valve. My last thought on this is that Thatcher very rarely or never satirised herself or had any fun with her methods of presentation – she was always deadly serious and humourless, so very different to Johnson in that respect.

TGIn terms of these aspects, I was thinking about what was if I’m remembering rightly a very good piece by Perry Anderson on Italy in which Anderson suggests that the inertia through clownishness, politicial personalisation, corruption and laziness of the Berlusconi period ended up as a means of maintaining a fair amount of previously won social protections precisely because not much got done, and then you have a figure like Renzi, ostensibly from the centre-left “slashing through” a lot of these survivals. Perhaps there’s something similar to say here firstly, about Johnson as Mayor of London, where as Rhian was saying he was probably less of a disaster than many of us feared, but then now as Prime Minister, on the national scale, after 40 years of neobleralism, that’s also the figure in which the mopping up can happen – no substantial change of direction. On similar terms, I think, I was also thinking about the Mark Fisher “The Strange Death of British Satire” essay, and the analysis of Johnson and his class basis feels really important – where Fisher talks about the psychic mutilation of the public school boy:

we increasingly live inside the mind of this psychically mutilated adolescent bourgeois male. Here, ostensible levity conceals deep fear and anxiety; self-mockery is a kind of homeopathic remedy that is used to ward off the threat of an annihilating humiliation. You must never appear too much of a swot; you must never look as if you might like or think anything that isn’t already socially approved.

So, there’s a getting in your self-satire first, before someone else does worse to you, and that has similar corrosive effects on the possibilities of political change because that precisely requires kinds of sincerity, taking things seriously, risking liking the non-socially approved. That poses and posed huge problems for the left – what do you do if the response to any serious proposal or even feeling is a bully’s laughter? What do you do with this? The figure of Johnson expresses, like Berlusconi, stagnation, lack of ideas – whereas with Thatcher and Thatcherism, there was a dynamic project – not one we would like, of course, but it had dynamism, including in its presentation. With Johnson, it’s so tired on the one hand, on the other, like Rhian’s saying, it’s dealing in pre-democratic forms of securing popular consent, where as in Marx’s analysis, a directly elected President – and although this is technically what happens in the UK, increasingly it functions as if it does – can incarnate the people directly, and this speaks to pre-democratic forms, whereas a Parliamentary form is constituted through mediation, so you have this People versus Parliament polarisation, which proved very effective and that absolutely required this style, particularly in what Rhian’s saying of this pre-democratic style, which feels crucial and might overlap a bit with the “authoritarian statism” thesis, which involves “the radical decline of the institutions of political democracy.”

..."you wonder why the man hasn’t exploded out of guilt"

RJI feel too it’s part of a bigger tendency towards popular disenfranchisement – I think the forms that popular protest globally as well as nationally have taken over the last decade - the Middle East uprisings, Occupy, various anti-austerity movements - have been very similar to 18th and early 19th century pre-industrial forms of protest. They are mass, collective, often spontaneous and leaderless, they are often opt-in, so, for example, you can just put on a V for Vendetta mask and thereby opt-in to this huge faceless wave of protestors. I think that’s a definite response to the move towards pre-democratic, or post-democratic modes of governance, where those who are supposed to represent us feel so remote and so nebulous that responses or challenges through a broadly constitutional framework, whether that’s through elections, or the standard forms of protest like A to B marches, we seem to have moved beyond those modes of protest because the frameworks we’re operating in have moved beyond liberal-democratic modes of governing.

ABGiven the 18th century was a period of widespread forms of protest against “Old Corruption”, the odd thing is Johnson, at least for now, positions himself as the figurehead of an anti-elitism, whilst embodying that same elitism not only in class background but also in faciliating it in his own career, as we were talking about before in the way he governs in a personalised way. All that seems vulnerable.

RJIt’s so glaringly hypocritical that you wonder why the man hasn’t exploded out of guilt.

ABBut, he’s managed to maintain it, people still buy into it.

TGI guess it’s also worth considering that the 18th century and the early 19th century also had Church and King Mobs, The Priestly Riots, the popular violence that supporters of the French Revolution faced.3 There were deeply reactionary forms of protest taking the forms Rhian’s discussing, whilst if we put them onto left/right polarisation, which is maybe slightly anachronistic, maybe the tendency of protest in the 18th century would be towards the left but it’s only a tendency – and then over the last week we’re maybe seeing emerging rightward versions of this form – how far is the far-right, defend Churchill statue stuff, a contemporary Church and King Mob? Are these some of the terms through which we might understand them as well as fascism or the rough far-right? A couple of other things perhaps to think through the relationship between the right-wing version of these protest forms and the state project – and whether they both comprise “Johnsonism” or not, one is the concept Joe Kennedy’s invented “psychedelic revanchism” –there’s the psychedelic aspect which is perhaps useful in thinking about Adam and Rhian’s question – why doesn’t he explode out of guilt? What gives the space for the glaring contradictions to move? In terms of conventional coherence it’s absolutely wild. And then in the revanchism – and I was rereading Paul Gilroy’s After Empire to try to think through some of Johnsonism – and to go back to Sabrina’s point on Blair, amongst many other things, it’s a really sharp document and critique of what was socially reactionary under Blair, something that does sometimes get missed now – particularly how much this revanchist aspect relates to post colonial melancholia, where you have this failure to work through the loss of Empire and the benefits both materially and in terms of national and racial status, and the presence of migrants and their families from what was the British Empire as a reminder of this loss, at the basis of this melancholy, which in revanchism is intensified.4 And it’s telling there how much the “war on woke” is being fought precisely against efforts to think through Empire.

The other thing that strikes me as possibly important, is the way in which the demand for coherence, which perhaps we failed on by stressing in the election – ‘Johnson’s a hypocrite’ (etc) – and which probably poses an even bigger problem for ‘forensic’ Starmer, who will be an absolute disaster on this. The desire or the stress on coherence increasingly gets coded as a problem – or perhaps even more decisively gets coded as snobbish. I wonder how much we need to think this through with a theory of class and particularly its political effects, and that thinking through might tell us about some of the limits of how the left thinks class. I’ve been thinking a lot about how Poulantzas talks in State, Power, Socialism about the ideological determination of class in the split between intellectual and manual labour (and the articulation of intellectual labour to control via the state).5 How does class operate within the Johnson coalition where you have very significant groups of younger people, often with university degrees so the marks of intellectual labour, and thereby a non-working class appearance (and the way we need to think about ideology here means it’s an appearance but it’s very real, it can’t just be wished away) even as their economic position is in many cases very precarious. With that being associated with a demand for coherence as well as other aspects of that position, I think that not only appears as a talking down but as a repetition of patterns of control at work, to this section of the popular classes, which may well comprise people who are better off than this cohort of university graduates, especially if, for example, they’ve bought a house, maybe a council house, benefitting from that aspect of Thatcherism, but it also comprises people who do or did manual labour and bring with that the experience of being managed, controlled by the bearers of intellectual labour (and perhaps here we can locate a moment of coherence despite the hypocrisy of Johnson’s anti-elite posture). And, perhaps to add to how this grounds the anti-elitist aspect of a clearly elite project – the Church and King Mob articulation, intellectual labour is obviously closer to the state, and its control. So as well as the obvious racialised targets, the targets of an almost stereoidal post colonial melancholy, there’s younger people with degrees, as well as older state technocrats and it kind of all hangs together, not least in the blaming of the second and third groups for the presence and even the loss signified by the first, just about. There is a real determination of class behind it, I don’t think we can wish it away by saying class is purely economic, or whatever.

RJIt does all make sense and it’s something the left is obviously grappling with at the moment. There’s obvious dangers to the sort of Blue Labour tendency to be anti-‘Identity Politics’ and chuck the baby out with the bath water, instead of looking to an intersectional socialism which doesn’t jettison the importance of class but also recognises that it’s one intersection of oppression or exploitation or how people feel themselves to exist. It’s a huge question that we do need to get to grips with, especially as it’s becoming more evident that renewed right-wing populism is taking physical form as well as existing on the Internet.

ABHas Joe Kennedy elaborated on the concept of “psychedelic revanchism” beyond those tweets? I’d need a bit more explanation. I get this idea of acting out, of garishness, of not wanting to be taken seriously in the contemporary right. It made me think of those two guys who were dancing at that Trump rally, this kind of ludicrousness and they were almost aware of it. But I feel that that applies much more to the US right than the British right. The British right is still quite po-faced and serious in terms of how it thinks of itself. As you were saying earlier Rhian, Johnson wants to be Churchill. The Tory Party is still deluded enough to think they occupy some important place in history, but Trump and the MAGA people, kind of know it’s the end of the world. There’s a part of them that knows it, they know they’re seen as ridiculous by the ‘liberal elite’ and they’re kind of happy about that. But, in the British case, I don’t know.

TGI think it can be overstated, and the point that this is as much or more a US mode makes a lot of sense. In terms of a small “mob”, or a group on twitter applying the most incredible hermeneutics to oranges, there’s enough US influence to be decisive, but as a wider project, it’s perhaps only a small but growing element. The Tories definitely still have those serious modes in some of their self-presentation. But, going back to Sabrina’s piece, I think there was a really sharp point on what’s dropped between May and Johnson is the Protestant work ethic. I think that felt like a chucking overboard of a conservative buttoned up seriousness, even if that’s less apparent here than in the US.

SHI guess there’s also something interesting about how these right-wing “populist” tendencies often start outside party politics. In the UK, perhaps a movement is integrating into the Conservative Party that originated in the Vote Leave campaign. In my piece, I explain the German case of the Alternative für Deutschland, a party that very much sprung out of the Pegida street movement. Pegida is so extreme it wouldn’t be considered a mainstream political actor, but through the AfD, a lot of that became legitimised. The AfD was then able to press against Merkel and the German Conservative Party CDU. Refugee policy is an example where huge pressure, often led by more authoritarian conservatives from Bavaria, the AfD and the Pegida street movement, there was a shift to more reactionary political responses. I understand the danger a party like UKIP represents in that way: they could set a narrative where they can galvanise a group of people who feel disaffected and because of that pressure a more established party like the Conservative Party shifts and adopts some of their demands. It was never necessary for Nigel Farage to become an MP himself. He was already successful in setting the political agenda in a way that no backbench MP would have been able to.

TGThis is interesting too in terms of returning to what Johnsonism might have in common, or not, with Thatcherism. And, it overlaps a bit with psychedelic revanchism – acid as eating away of boundaries or distinctions, in Hall’s analysis of Thatcherism, there’s an attempt to simultaneously distinguish Thatcherism from fascism but also note the importance of themes generated by the far-right for Thatcherism, and the structuring role of the distinction between the “rough” and “respectable” far-right, and I think the eating away of distinctions is very evident with Johnsonism, firstly an eating away of the boundary distinguishing “respectable” far-right, in the media, in Parliament, particularly given UKIP and the Brexit Party in the European Parliament, and the further eating away of the boundary between the far-right and the mainstream right. And, Thatcherism lacked that institutional transmission belt of the AfD or UKIP/Brexit Party, whereas that’s a fairly decisive presence in Johnsonism. Having an independent party of the semi-respectable far-right (but one articulating themes from the street, from the rough aspect) does certain things in allowing for that collapsing together.

SHI think one question that I am quite interested in is what is the intellectual bedrock of Johnsonism. With Thatcherism, there was a whole network of think tanks and other institutions developing the ideology. Some of them are still relevant today. Does Johnsonism have anything similar? Who is driving, intellectually, his policies? Policy Exchange is still influential on that level. But are the people who work in these institutions just adapting to whoever the current political leadership is, and develop policies they can sell to them, or is there actually something emerging organically that feeds into these political tendencies? There’s Sp!ked, that’s not a think tank but what they’re writing feels very close to the weird populist far-right mix.

TGIt feels less developed than Thatcherism and its precursors and antecedents and that goes back to some of the image and function of Thatcherism as a project, I think. Thatcherism did aim at materialising ideas, at radical change, whereas it feels like, the organic intellectuals of Thatcherism were relatively serious people, whereas who are the organic intellectuals of Johnsonism? Some Sp!ked people and some other grifters getting on TV, like Tom Harwood (and maybe in that psychedelic eating away of distinctions between far and mainstream, respectable and rough right, the malign role of Paul Staines and his rancid blog needs to be stressed both as a cause in itself and a consequence- it being treated as respectable). It feels like a project of trivialised and trivialising inertia on that level. Maybe there’s a dubious intellectualist or declinist nostalgia, ‘at least Thatcherism had some ideas and arguments’, maybe there’s a mistake in that frustration, but it does feel that…

RJYes, that it’s a fundamentally unserious project, yet also in terms of its social effects, incredibly serious and damaging. They seem so intellectually feeble or just like grifters that you think, surely this is not serious.

ABDominic Cummings would definitely like to be thought of as an intellectual, but it’s a really good point that Johnsonism doesn’t have that long, prehistory of institution building that neoliberalism had. We’ve been talking a lot about Britain and I was interested in contemporary related situations in other countries, we might be at risk of doing that slightly Perry Andersonish thing of focusing on one country and saying this is the conjuncture in Britain but it’s obviously connected to all these international movements and there’s obviously the German example, which Sabrina talked about but what are its closest neighbours internationally speaking?

SHI feel that the German example is a bit complicated in a sense that the Pegida movement was explicitly far-right already. And whilst I think there is a similarity with Vote Leave in the populist angle, it’s not quite the same. Some of the AfD politicians, their strategy is not just populist but _ völkisch _, which really pushes at the boundaries of what’s acceptable in “mainstream” politics. I don’t think it’s quite there yet with Johnsonism. A lot of people compare it to Trump, including in that although he’s done very bad things, it hasn’t quite been the full-on disaster that people feared. The bad things are often quite random and came in here and there without an overarching strategy. Bolsonaro to me seems different in that there’s much more of a strategy for bad things that will be harder to fight against or to dismantle.

ABAre there intellectual, international networks that move between these right-populist movements, I know for a while Steve Bannon wanted to be, ‘I’ve done Trump, now I’m going to move to Europe’, but I don’t think that was very successful. Is there the presence of global free market, or right-wing thinktanks that seek to influence these right-populists.

SHFarage was also in Germany to meet the AfD, there are weird research institutes that exist, one of them, funnily enough is called the Desiderius-Erasmus Foundation, so it would be interested to look into these institutions and what they do and who they are connected to. Far-right groups like Generation Identity do a lot of international work and international training camps.

ABYou’ve got the underworld of weird YouTubers with a dispersed and global audience and then you’ve got the more formalised and professionalised thinktanks.

TGTwo cases that seem important to me are Hungary and India. For, if there has been a new radical right intellectualism in Britain, Hungary has often been significant. There’s the Roger Scruton stuff as an overlap, and then today there was a BBC discussion with very serious people on very serious topics, featuring Tony Blair, George Osborne and a minister in Orbán’s government, so again the respectable far-right there are becoming very respectable, and then there’s Tim Montgomerie, too, who had a role with Johnson for a bit. There’s a certain transmission here. An odd thing about Johnson, but also with Corbyn, in contrast to, say Podemos and Syriza, is to have these radical, “populist” breaks but within the main, old party – in that way Bolsanaro and Orbán, even if there are affinities, are a bit different and even with Trump, the US Party structure is so loose, that it’s a bit different. The other example is Modi and India, where there is an operating through an established right-wing party – though not one as venerable as the Conservatives – and opening it up to (even) more far-right currents and then there’s that link through Priti Patel, though one needs to be careful here not to blame a “corruption” of British politics on something coming from outside, who has talked about her admiration for the RSS, the paramilitary cum social movement attached to the BJP (or which the BJP is attached to). Though obviously with the BJP/RSS there’s a whole world of extra parliamentary institution building and effects, which the Tories entirely lack.

RJI’ve seen this connection made a fair bit on twitter, through British Indian people on the left who are concerned with what Johnson might be drawing from, and Patel in particular given her very hardcore authoritatianism.

TGAnd then even with the Zac Goldsmith, fortunately catastrophic, London Mayor campaign when there were various rancid appeals to a posited Hindu political identity, one notably, and this is probably something that knits it together, defined by Islamophobia. I wonder if Hungary and India would be some points of political-intellectual overlap. Hungary, relates too the decisive “anti-Communism without Communism” as an aspect of some of Johnson and the press’s rhetoric (and maybe how Johnsonism is mediated, how it includes the press isn’t something we’ve touched on as much as we should) and structures Orbánism (and has been key to Bolsonaro).

RJI think the anti-communist hysteria ties into the psyhedelic revanchism, particularly around anti- Corbyn media campaigns and random stuff on Facebook, which could be genuinely surreal and quite psychedelic in its affects, but there’s no communism at the heart of this, there was no genuine threat of gulags and show trials of twitter blue ticks. The fear was out of all proportion.

ABIf it’s revanchist then, what supposed grievances is it seeking to avenge?

TGI guess the big thing is this exaggerated, hyped up form of post-colonial melancholia, and we see that in the anti-Black Lives matter stuff. I was thinking too about Neil Smith’s work on gentrification and urban frontiers in 1980s, and the idea of the revanchist city or revanchist anti-urbanism as a major factor in the British and even more US new right in that period – “a desperate defense of a challenged phalanx of privileges, cloaked in the populist language of civic morality, family values and neighborhood security. More than anything the revanchist city expresses a race/class/gender terror felt by middle- and ruling-class whites.”6 This would overlap a lot with that rejection, following Gilroy, of multicultural conviviality, and this revanchism had very explicitly homophobic features, and there’s maybe a bit of a basis for thinking through transphobia as constitutive of Johnsonism – the ‘war on woke’ and the geographies of its support – decisive popular class support in the North but on the edges or just outside the major urban centres. And, that transphobia is again supported by outlandish claims, nonsense fears. I guess “Cultural Marxism” becomes then almost the articulation that gives us the communism of its anti-Communism? But that’s post-colonial melancholia and foundational transphobia.

ABAnd that transphobia shared by much of the liberal press as well, it’s not the exclusive property of the far-right so you get these weird convergences.

TGI think that’s why it’s such an interesting cement on the level of the state, along with neo-war on terror Islamophobia, cements an alliance of Johnsonism with parts of the state, particularly parts of the ideological state apparatuses, that are outside it as a political project.

ABI am due to go for tea in a few minutes.

RJDo you think we’ve got enough to cover everything?

TGWe’ve certainly covered the points on the list we made. We could round it off, I should probably cook dinner too. Maybe it would be useful to get some concluding remarks if anyone has any?

ABLeading on from what we were just saying, on how the unity of this group is constructed: you’re right not to see the unity of Johnsonism in an economistic- that is, as this or that property relation or collective attachment to some revenue stream. I think it can’t be read off on that level. The coalition is brought together by forms of social sadism that are to do with the super exploitation of wage labour, the exploitation of renters, racialisation and as you guys were saying transphobia – and that isn’t just the property of the popular layers that voted for Johnson, it’s wider than that and shared across the Tory Party and British capital and that unifies them at a non-economically reductive level.

SHI keep thinking about what we were just saying in the context of trans politics and also some of what I read in the Labour Together report. There’s the re-emergence of the family as such an important distinction of that part of the right. You see that very clearly in the US with the Christian Right and its discourses around abortion and birth control. You have it with racist connotations about men of colour coming in to violate white women’s bodies and that links in with the trans “debate” as well, as it is predominantly white cis women who complain about being threatened by trans women. It feels interesting to me that these themes of traditional values of the family are making such a strong comeback.

The role the family plays in capitalist society and in social reproduction is an interesting point that can link a theory of capitalism and anti-capitalism to these more social and cultural issues and liberation politics as we try to discuss, as the left, why these are important.

It’s important to have intersectional politics and consider why anti-racist politics or pro-trans rights politics are crucial. These are still linked, usually, to oppression that is directly linked to the capitalist mode of production, they just might manifest differently for different groups of people. Reactionary forces can capitalise on all this and play different groups off against each other because links can’t be made between the oppression one group experiences to the oppression another does, albeit in a different way.

RJI agree with what’s been said.

TGMe too, and the link between Adam and Sabrina’s point feels really important, the capitalist state doesn’t exist just or mainly to protect profit, it exists to reproduce a whole set of relationships and that’s the key to thinking through political alliances on our side and theirs in non-economistic ways while retaining a material, economic referent – they’re relatively not absolutely autonomous. And that might be the basis too for, like Sabrina’s saying, though we haven’t seen it in anything like its entirety yet, those family values politics coming back to Britain – as a harking back to Thatcher, though as Michele Barrett and Mary McIntosh point out, while the family values discourse was unified on the level of ideology, the effects of policy under Thatcher on the family was contradictory and overdetermined by class.7 Johnson though would be an absolutely bizarre person to front that, though as we’ve been talking about, those contradictions don’t necessarily worry him, but the capitalist state cohering through reproducing a very wide set of relationships – and Johnson as the best bet capital has or had feels key to that.

  1. Neil Smith. 1996. The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. London. Routledge. p. 83 David Harvey. _ Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution_. London: Verso. p. 50 

  2. Nicos Poulantzas. [1978]. 2014. State, Power, Socialism. Translated by Patrick Camiller. London: Verso. p. 203 

  3. E. P. Thompson [1963]. 1991. The Making of the English Working Class. London: Penguin. pp. 82-3 

  4. Paul Gilroy. 2004. After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture?. London: Routledge. p. 110 

  5. Poulantzas. State, Power, Socialism. pp. 58-60 

  6. Smith. The New Urban Frontier. p. 207 

  7. Michèle Barrett and Mary McIntosh [1982]. 2015. The Anti-Social Family. London: Verso. p. 9 


Tom Gann (@Tom_Gann)

Founding editor

Rhian E. Jones (@rhianejones)

Rhian E. Jones writes on history, politics, popular culture and the places where they intersect. She is co-editor of Red Pepper and writes for Tribune magazine. Her books include Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class and Gender (zer0, 2013); Petticoat Heroes: Gender, Culture and Popular Protest (University of Wales Press, 2015); Triptych: Three Studies of Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible (Repeater, 2017) and the anthology of women’s music writing Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them (Repeater, 2017). She is currently working on a book on community wealth-building in the UK.

Adam Blanden (@Adam_Blanden)

Adam Blanden lives and works in London.

Sabrina Huck (@Sabrina_Huck)

Sabrina Huck is a LabourList columnist and an organiser with the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.