Bringing the bullies low
The curious tale of Elliott Johnson tells us something about capitalist society, argues Paul Demarty
Elliott Johnson began the year as an ambitious Tory activist: a very particular phenomenon, a product of (and input to) modern machine politics, a man whose ambitions ran to a front-row seat in the theatre of government.
In death, however, he comes to represent something universal about the human condition in capitalist society. He is every groped secretary, every brutalised squaddie, every cowering schoolyard wimp. The psychological violence inherent in the rigid, Bonapartist hierarchies everywhere in capitalism find themselves expressed in his suicide.
Among the causes of death, suicide is the most straightforwardly loaded with meaning. Someone has chosen to die, in defiance of immediate social taboos and hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary conditioning. Humans seek meaning in tragedy, giving rise to profound theological arguments, trite Hallmark card slogans and everything in between. With suicide, the mystery of existence becomes a very particular one - how did life become so intolerable?
Thankfully, it is traditional to leave an explanatory note. Johnson left three (or four, depending on how you count them): one addressed to his parents (by their first names), another to his “friends and allies”, and finally a brusque sign-off to “bullies and betrayers”. “I could write a hate message,” he wrote, “but actions speak louder than words. I was never one for hate anyway. But I think this should be on your mind.” In this frame of mind, Johnson sat down on a railway track, where he was later hit by a train.
In fairness to him, you cannot argue with results. Johnson’s death has sent the Tories into an acute crisis. The figure at the centre of the story is one Mark Clarke, a Tory activist of some years standing, who ran the Road Trip operation, which dispatched promising young Conservatives up and down the country in May to canvass, compensating for the dwindling and ageing Tory membership. Clarke, according to a flood of allegations (all of which, naturally, he denies), is a bit of a bad egg: a manipulative, ruthless sociopath, who thinks nothing of resorting to bullying and blackmail to get his way.
He has now been barred for life from the party, but hardly reflects well upon it. Though Johnson’s death opened the floodgates, allegations against Clarke - of bullying, of spiteful grudges, of sexual harassment - have been raised with the Tory authorities since 2007. He embarked on several wars of words with Sayeeda Warsi, who complained about him at the beginning of this year after he accused her of anti-Semitism. No action was taken.
Not until Elliot Johnson reached the end of his tether, anyway: Clarke is now banned, and a murky light shines on his erstwhile superiors. Grant Shapps, Tory chairman at the time of Road Trip, has had to resign from his ministerial post, and pressure mounts on current chairman Andrew Feldman to step down as well. The entire executive of Conservative Future, the Tories’ youth wing, has been suspended.
The irony of the situation is that Johnson was a staunch and vigorous Thatcherite. The promise of Thatcherism, to many who voted for three of her governments, was liberation, through the agency of the capitalist market, from the dead hand of bureaucratic harassment. Tired of the petty whims of the council house manager? Buy the damn thing! Yet the machine politics of a Tory election campaign seems to be just as poisoned by arbitrary authority. Who’d have thought it?
The scandal has already, clearly enough, expanded to engulf the Tory Party as such; and many bourgeois commentators are smart enough to mention that it is hardly unique in Westminster on this point. Yet this is still too small a canvas. The truth is that capitalist society is riddled with bullies; indeed, it is a phenomenon that unites the heights of government, the shop floor and the barrack room.
Indeed, we were reminded by all this of the dodgy goings-on at Deepcut barracks, which saw four suspicious deaths attributed to suicide over a 10-year period. Not all of these bright-eyed trainee soldiers, of course, really committed suicide, whatever the surreal official reports say. (One such individual is alleged to have shot himself in the chest five times, four of them from medium range, demonstrating a degree of thoroughness and innovative thinking rarely seen among those in the midst of an acute suicidal depression.) But say some, or all, of them were: it would hardly surprise anyone. We know the military dehumanises its recruits. We all feel, at one point or another, that some manager thinks of himself as a drill sergeant, to whom nothing is denied in the pursuit of higher ‘productivity’.
All this has profound social roots. First of all, capitalism is based on the exploitation of the many by the few. It is maintained, then, by the disciplining of those below by those above; their subjection. It is inefficient, as the cliché goes, to administer beatings until morale improves. Far better for the discipline to be internalised - something that can be achieved with subtlety by the sort of talented sociopath that climbs the managerial ladder.
Secondly, class societies in general cannot survive without a governing ideology, a complex of widely accepted ‘just so’ stories that justify its continued existence. Without such insulation, only naked force can be used to maintain social cohesion; and the trouble with naked force is that it is naked, and thus plainly acts against the interest of the exploited. For capitalism, there is the need for a secular explanation for the grotesque inequality at its core, as opposed to the ‘divine right of kings’. (Religious apologias for the vast accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few capitalists are, of course, also available.)
That need is fulfilled by a fetishism of individual talent - the myth of meritocracy. Billionaires deserve their money - they are, after all, just better at making it than the rest of us. They constitute a race of Nietschean Übermenschen, who have conquered supremacy by the sheer force of their will. Not so great are the millionaires, but still definitely better than the middle managers, who in turn have proven their worth over the rest of us unwashed.
Yet it becomes, ultimately, more than an apologia: an affirmative philosophy. The great men (or, in our more enlightened age, persons) are responsible for the progress of society, abetted by the moderately great, and then in turn by the merely above-average. The rest of us are merely failures; by birth or by misadventure, we are only a retardant on history. Whatever our betters have to do to us to get us doing the shit-work needed to keep the wagon rolling, they must do. Basic morality demands it!
It is fruitless to pursue the question of where this secular theodicy first flowered. Mike Macnair has pointed out that the New Model Army of the Parliamentarian side of the English civil war was based on this principle: the career open to all the talents, a revolutionary move against the backdrop of feudal right and patronage.1 The arbitrary power of the aristocracy, however, is replaced only by a new and more devious form of arbitrary power.
Thus, bullying is everywhere in capitalist society, at all levels, simply because getting above the next guy is a perverse proof of moral greatness. The CEO howls at the VP; the VP browbeats the middle manager; the middle manager harasses the grunt; the grunt beats his wife; the wife beats the children; the children shoot air rifles at cats.
There are two approaches to defeating this dismal cycle. The first is very much hegemonic today, and is best exemplified by the course of the official labour movement in the past few decades.
As Thatcher’s anti-union laws piled up, so unions found it more difficult to resolve issues of individual victimisation through collective industrial action. What to do? Fortunately, our society was becoming more ‘enlightened’ - mental illness was increasingly treated as illness. It was also more widely defined. It became possible to argue in court, or in quasi-judicial settings like employment tribunals, that victimisation had a detrimental effect on the victim’s mental health. Thus workplace bullying could be recast as a health and safety issue.
The ingenuity of labour-movement lawyers in making this case is genuinely commendable. Yet there is a striking and obvious flaw, from our point of view. It is an entirely bureaucratic enterprise. Instead of appealing to the better nature of our employers (fat chance), we appeal instead to the better nature of judges (again, fat chance). The logical result is that something must be done about bullying, and thus somebody must be appointed to do it: some kind of subcommittee, or in the telling language of contemporary government, a ‘bullying tsar’.
This mindset has penetrated into the far left, at least in part as a function of far-left organisations being run like corporations, with all the bruising interactions between rulers and ruled that implies. The results are often bizarre: there is a faction of Left Unity, led by Felicity Dowling, whose entire project appears to be focused on bringing LU into compliance with child-protection legislation. More commonly, the results are merely tiresome: the endless recitals of the misery inflicted upon this or that section of the population, as if stubborn repetition was enough to solve matters.
For Marxists, the core of the problem is that class society necessarily engenders strict hierarchies - and as a consequence the abuse of those lower down by those higher up. The point is to flatten those hierarchies forcibly, not add yet more layers to them. That was a benefit of widespread trade union militancy, when we had it: with an entrenched culture of solidarity, managers and bosses had to tread carefully. They no longer do.
We do not need a bureaucracy tasked with shutting bullies up, but an amplifier for the bullied. The real disparities of power in society need to be addressed, and we can start addressing them now: by fighting back, and fighting for the greatest of prizes - a society free of these deformities.
Such a conclusion was alien to Elliott Johnson. Let it not be alien to us.
1. ‘Doing war differently’ Weekly Worker May 28.