The Age of Authentocracy

Authentocrats is a staging-post in cultural criticism post Corbyn and post post-politics, where it's valid to talk directly about politics and left-populism without being deemed passé.

A review of Joe Kennedy’s Authentocrats, published by Repeater Books.

Authentocracy broadly describes the insistence on, and the weaponised performance of, an “authentic” class identity. Inevitably, the main identity policed in this way is working-class. As part of this performance, authentocracy insists that a narrow conception of the working class as socially, culturally and economically conservative is the only authentic one. In Authentocrats, Joe Kennedy writes with cautious affection about his North East hometown of Darlington, its cultural history and socio-economic complexity, which runs counter to the simplistic authentocratic – as opposed to authentic – depictions of post-industrial working-class towns. He looks at his adopted south coast home of Brighton in similar depth, and emphasises that the Britain that lies between the two is more heterogenous, nuanced and intricate – as well as more interesting – than authentocracy’s received wisdom dictates.

In a similar spirit of circumspection – in the age of authentocracy, your economic, cultural and geographic credentials are demanded at the door so that you can be safely categorized as one class or another, and your views and experience thereby lauded or dismissed – I should disclose that I read Kennedy’s book on one of my regular coach journeys between London and the Welsh Valleys, the latter laid waste in the 1980s and treated in the 1990s as though we’d all vanished down a disused mineshaft. In the 2016 Labour leadership contest, my home constituency of Blaenau Gwent was the only CLP in Wales to nominate Owen Smith against Jeremy Corbyn for party leader, in a closed delegate meeting which excluded the wider party membership. Two years on, Kennedy’s book opens on the scene of that frequently ludicrous, lurching catastrophe of a leadership challenge, which saw Smith – the son of a Welsh establishment academic, and an ex-PR man for pharmaceutical giants – at pains to establish how authentically working-class he was. Perhaps the most tellingly ridiculous instance of this was Smith’s interview in a café in Pontypridd, where he insisted he had never before been presented with “little biscuits and a posh cup” of coffee, and would “have a mug normally”.

In Kennedy’s potted history of the working-class appetite for Italian coffee and café culture, he references the “Bracchi cafés” of South Wales. These products of Italian migration to the Valleys, which began as far back as the nineteenth century, are a distinctive aspect of the area’s culture that someone more subtle than Owen Smith might have folded into an attempt to seem like an authentic exponent of his chosen background, rather than fronting as a man baffled by a cappuccino. But authentocracy allows no room for subtleties, being wedded to ideas and narratives about the working class based not on locality and consciousness but imposed from outside and usually from above. Authentocracy is precisely inauthentic; at heart, like so much of contemporary politics, it is performative and not instinctive, and it highlights the contrast between security in one’s class identity and flailing, farcical insecurity when trying to perform what one assumes that identity is. Authentocrats end up so terrified to deviate from a self-imposed model of working-class identity as “simple, plain, honest” that a cup of frothy coffee becomes both threat and deadly weapon.

How did we get here? In the 2016 European Union membership referendum the Welsh Valleys, in common with several other post-industrial parts of the country, voted narrowly for Leave. This was widely attributed to an abandonment of the “authentic” working class – not, curiously, by the governing Tory party but by a “metropolitan elite” wing of the Labour party represented, however counter-intuitively, by Jeremy Corbyn. What this analysis missed, denied or neglected is that in the decades following the supposed “end of history”, New Labour’s contentedness with the present neoliberal settlement, and the assumption that the struggles of the 1980s had been solved, involved a more concentrated forgetting of the post-industrial working class than anything more recent. Thatcher’s destruction of the material basis of industrial working-class communities was followed by New Labour’s denial that working-class identity existed in any meaningful form – that we were “all middle-class now” – and its preoccupation with catering to middle-class support at the expense of its residual working-class base. In addition to this political vanishing act, the disappearance of a nuanced multiplicity of working-class representation in media and culture took place alongside the restriction of working-class access to channels of political, media and cultural communication, via the preponderance of unpaid internships, precarity, and the difficulty of existing as a cultural or political worker without independent wealth or connections made through family, school or university.1

The aftershocks of Brexit, as the country’s caught-out commentariat searched for a way of justifying their own existence, saw both Darlington and South Wales lit upon by journalists – “iPad Orwells”, in Kennedy’s term – from liberal broadsheets whose hiring practices, reportage and frames of reference for the past few decades had themselves worked against working-class representation, but who now breathlessly discoursed on a left-behind working class conceptualized as homogenously right-wing and hostile to Labour under Corbyn. This “rediscovery” of the working class swallowed whole the authentocratic idea that “authentic” working-class identity is inherently unsympathetic to a left-populist Labour platform rooted in wealth redistribution, and which instead suggests that the solution to economic malaise lies in attending to “nationalism, defence and community, the nuclear deterrent and patriotism”.

The 2017 general election should have dealt these delusions a death-blow, but they have proven remarkably enduring – partly, of course, because of how usefully divisive their inaccuracies are. Projecting the idea of London as an obliviously progressive and cosseted oasis versus the rest of the country, for instance, obscures material conditions in both areas which contradict the idea of the working class as white, provincial and reactionary. On this, Kennedy cites Jude Wanga’s essay for New Socialist on the London borough of Islington, its socio-economic reality more complex than post-Brexit binary essentialism would have us believe. In the Welsh Valleys, in successive local and general elections before Brexit, support for Labour under Corbyn’s predecessors had already been ebbing towards independent candidates, Plaid Cymru, and even Ukip. Contrary to the authentocrat diagnosis which frames this in cultural and not material terms, blaming a nebulous cappuccino-quaffing London elite that fails to connect with working-class concerns centred around nationalism and nuclear weapons, Labour’s loss of support has been locally attributed to political stagnation, contempt and complacency in its attitude to governing and its related failure to propose economic solutions – with Corbynism in fact offering a potential escape from this malaise.

One of the most frustrating aspects of Owen Smith’s media presentation was that it was a painfully transparent attempt to position him as representative of a particular cultural demographic – working-class regional male – which is perceived as outsider in a politics dominated by public-schoolboys and professional elites. And, in turn, one of the most frustrating aspects of this attempt was that, as outlined above, the perception of a crisis of class representation isn’t at all incorrect. But the attempt ultimately came across as excruciating, due to this demographic being one that Smith doesn’t quite occupy, and consequently his attempt at representation insultingly presented it as characterised not just by frothy coffee as anathema, but also by unreconstructed machismo. Although Kennedy identifies the early-2010s Blue Labour project as an outrider of authentocracy, he does not mention its architect Maurice Glasman’s conceptualization of the Labour party as a “cross-class marriage” between a “decent working-class Dad” representing its civic institutional tradition, further characterized as small-c conservative, and an inconveniently empowered and educated middle-class progressive wife who now distressingly dominates the partnership. Authentocracy frequently employs similarly gendered constructions and associations to present women’s empowerment and other post-60s gains as alienating and disenfranchising losses for the working class, as though liberation is a zero-sum game – again demonstrating a narrow definition of “working class” as exclusively white and male, and layering a reactionary approach to gender and race beneath an already reactionary approach to class.

It’s in the context of these broader aspects that Authentocrats could benefit from widening the scope of both its targets and its allies. The book occasionally feels wearyingly framed as an argument between more or less entirely male political and intellectual opponents – David Goodhart, Owen Smith, Paul Kingsnorth, 90s music journalists, centrist dads – as well as in terms of the cultural subjects examined: Bond, Batman, Barley, Brooker, Mark E Smith, a barrowload of comedy, Britpop and YBA geezers. Although Kennedy correctly critiques both Jess Phillips MP and Caitlin Moran (and, marvellously, manages a convincing critical deconstruction of Hyacinth Bouquet), the book still risks an identification of political ideas and analysis with men, and a preoccupation with political and intellectual discourse as single-hand combat between them. Given the implications of the macho authentocrat posturing which Kennedy identifies, and the prominence of women among supporters of the Corbyn project that authentocracy opposes, a greater integration of gender would only strategically strengthen the book’s argument. The tragicomic scrambling by Labour’s authento-technocrats, like Andy Burnham or Chuka Umunna, to identify themselves as football fans – which Kennedy notes as an example of performative blokeiness – makes even more sense (well, “sense”) when read as an uneasy attempt to perform male-coded class authentocracy within a framework that constructs Fabian technocracy as feminine.

Some of the tropes and traces referenced in Authentocrats have been previously articulated: Mark Fisher’s capitalist realism, Alex Niven’s observation of how artisan culture and nu-folk reanimate a particular conservative idea of Englishness, the whole nascent school of Nineties revisionism. The book pulls these threads together usefully and convincingly. Many of authentocracy’s causes and symptoms – the pernicious idea that “ordinary people” are too thick to understand theory or the word neoliberalism; the erasure of an entire history of working-class radical and progressive struggle through the insistence that working-class views are inherently conservative; the idea that quoting Shelley is hopelessly pretentious; the imputation to “the common man” of racist or reactionary beliefs by politicians higher up the food chain, whether in order to denounce such views or to plead for the accommodation of “legitimate concerns” – are likewise longstanding, but they have so coalesced around opposition to Corbynism that it seems worthwhile attempting to name and anatomize the disease. Authentocrats makes a good job of doing so, particularly when examining the “austerity nostalgia” previously identified by Owen Hatherley and its recent, more tangibly sinister spin into macho patriotism, whether the talking-up of Dan Jarvis as party leader or the fuss over Corbyn’s failure to perform sufficient respect at the Cenotaph (even as, on the following year’s Remembrance Sunday, the BBC gave airtime to Marine Le Pen). Despite the patient and wide-ranging discussion contained in this book, the urgency of the present moment infuses much of Kennedy’s argument, which is righteously impatient with the “strategic idiocy” and “clowning irresponsibility” of his subjects.

Kennedy makes the point that some of this strategic idiocy has been enabled by the framing of 1945 and its welfare-state settlement as a patriotic rather than a socialist achievement. Authentocrats looks further back to locate the cultural and intellectual roots of authentocracy: from Chaucer through overlooked social novels of the mid twentieth-century to the, in retrospect, oddly fulsome welcoming of Alexandra Harris’ Romantic Moderns, with its straw-man conception of both Romanticism and modernism. A subsequent chapter of quickfire Nineties cultural criticism argues that Blairism, in its caricaturing and overplaying of the threat posed by its staid conservative opponents, contained the seeds of authentocracy itself. This discussion occasionally highlights the peculiarly turbo-charged quality of contemporary politics and pop culture: who now, in these absurdist, desperate days, remembers the damningly and comically indicative picture of David Cameron and Jeremy Clarkson at Alex James’s cheese festival? But there was a time when all that seemed to matter terribly, too. For the past few decades an exhausted and retreating left within academia and para-academia, unwilling or unable in mainstream political discourse to raise the possibility of an alternative to the currently collapsing capitalist consensus and the austerity needed to sustain it, has resorted to both identifying and puncturing capitalist realism by using cultural theory and criticism as a proxy for politics. One important function of Authentocrats is the staging-post in cultural criticism that it hopefully represents, post Corbyn and post post-politics, where it’s valid to talk directly about politics and left-populism without being deemed embarrassingly passé.

The book is also helpful when fed into the current state of Corbynism and its critics. Kennedy’s final section looks at the degree to which a preoccupation with authenticity operates within Corbynism itself, manifesting, for instance, as a tendency to triangulate over issues like immigration. This concluding chapter, which also contains a constructively clear-eyed assessment of the anti-war activism of the Blair years, is marked by a turn from snark to generosity, and makes the argument that Corbynism’s opponents on the left should acknowledge and engage with the Corbyn project as a movement wider and more diverse than a single, inevitably flawed figurehead.

  1. See Dave O’Brien et al, ‘Producing and Consuming Inequality: A Cultural Sociology of the Cultural Industries’; in Cultural Sociology Vol 11, Issue 3, July 2017; Rhian E Jones, Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class and Gender (zer0, 2013) 


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) and Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too (Repeater, 2021).