Being ruder than Boris
The left should have no time for establishment MPs and their worries about extreme language, argues Paul Demarty.
If anyone expected Boris Johnson to show contrition after the Supreme Court found he had acted unlawfully in proroguing parliament, they were in for a rude awakening - and no doubt are in for many more.
Before the prime minister even boarded his plane back from New York, the rhetoric was heating up. In parliament on September 25, he finally opened fire, repeating his characterisation of further delays to article 50 as “surrender”, and castigating his opponents for their betrayals of the British people. There then ensued the dispute which is of interest to us today. MP after MP lined up to demand Johnson cease using such language. They were receiving death threats, and surely Johnson remembered that a little over three years ago one of their colleagues, Jo Cox, was murdered in the street by a neo-Nazi terrorist using just the same sort of rhetoric?
Johnson, for his part, was having none of it. This was all “humbug”, and the best way to honour Saint Jo’s memory was to “get Brexit done”. There then followed a great ocean of crocodile tears from these beleaguered politicians, and then from their friends in the more ‘liberal’ sections of the press. Johnson, of course, refuses to apologise; if he can brass out lying to the queen, he is unlikely to worry about triggering Labour MP Jess Phillips, who claims she has been the subject of abuse since Johnson’s remarks.
Needless to say, Johnson and his goon-boys, as well as the tiny-violin section on the opposition benches, are guilty of acting contemptibly in the face of democratic principle. We will take the second group first.
We must say at the outset that the level of real threat directed at these plucky résistants is plainly being exaggerated for political effect. The object of the exercise is to make an amalgam out of the prime minister and Jo Cox’s murderer; it uses as its main method the liberal aetiology of ‘totalitarianism’, whereby violent and lawless regimes are supposed to come about first by decreasing civility in public discourse, which leads in turn to people being dehumanised - by which point political norms are reduced to a hollow shell and a Hitler type can just walk in the front door.
This sort of argument is used routinely by people across the political spectrum whose opinions arouse forthright opposition. Perhaps the most absurd example in (relatively) recent history was former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey’s widely derided argument that he ought not to be called a bigot for opposing gay marriage, because “let us remember the Jews in Nazi Germany … What started against them was when they started to be called names.”
No doubt many of the people bawling their eyes out about being called traitors today were among those bashing the bishop back then. Their arguments are not different in substance - merely in degree; it is better manners by some distance to bring Jo Cox into such a conversation than Primo Levi. But, by dampening things down, the argument becomes somehow more ridiculous. Of course, great violence has in the past been preceded by parliamentary rancour. A glance at such examples, however, demonstrates how distant such times are even in the current crisis.
The American Civil War was preceded by periods of total breakdown in the functioning of the legislature, for example; for months on end, speakers could not be elected. Indeed, proceedings repeatedly descended into brawls. One particular contretemps stands out: the radical, free-soil senator, Charles Sumner, delivered a visceral condemnation of the slave states’ attempts to prevent the new territory of Kansas adopting a constitution that outlawed slavery, in a process that rapidly descended into low-level guerrilla warfare. The slave-state’s “hirelings” were “picked from the drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilisation”, and much more of such stuff.
Not long after, a congressman by the name of Preston Brooks - a relative of the South Carolina senator, Andrew P Butler, who was accused of unspeakable things in the speech - confronted Sumner on the floor of the Senate, and beat him over the head 30 times with a gold-headed cane. Sumner never fully recovered, and for the emerging Republican movement became a symbol of the bestiality of the slave-owners. His assailant, however, became a hero in the south, and for some time received gifts of canes from supporters, engraved with messages like ‘Hit him again’ and ‘Use knock-down arguments’.
This is clearly not the sort of thing going on in the Commons. The Clausewitzian dialectic of violent and peaceful means has not coiled up so tightly as all that. The irreconcilable differences of class interests that marked antebellum America - or for that matter England in its long 17th century of wars and revolutions, or even the European states that fell to fascist barbarism in the 1920s and 30s - are not so plainly evident today. (It may be, as Mike Macnair has argued in this paper1, together with historian Adam Tooze in the London Review of Books2, that American global strategy is transitioning away from propping up the European Union and the like, in the light of which Boris Johnson is a distant effect of that shift; but if this really is the fundamental meaning of Trumpism, it is surely yet to work itself out even in Washington, never mind this side of the pond.)
Instead, we are witnessing a constitutional tussle between the legislature and executive, with the judiciary backing the legislature (for now) The crisis consists in the tussle’s prolongation, not in its teetering on the edge of mob violence. The pearl-clutching going on is merely a cynical tactical manoeuvre against Johnson, just as the second referendum is a dishonest veil for the true objective of abandoning Brexit altogether. Similarly, the characterisation of moves to deselect MPs in both main parties as ‘bullying’ (in the news again thanks to Margaret Hodge’s poor fortune) deflects from the anti-democratic character of ‘career politics’. It seems altogether likely the attempt to smear Boris Johnson by association with neo-Nazi assassins will turn out quite as transparently false to the gammon army as the ‘second referendum’ ruse has.
Boris Johnson knows this as well, of course, and so refuses to back down. His aggressive stance is no less calculated than his cheap jibes at those who wear the niqab, and - we suppose - his scribbled Molesworthian sneer at the “girly swot [David] Cameron” that was leaked recently. Surely he was desperate for that to come out - and his opponents obliged him.
And, while we cannot but permit ourselves a snigger at Johnson’s naughtiness, we must point out that there is a deeply cynical game behind his behaviour. If the smelling-salts brigade are guilty of a piece of political theatre, Johnson inverts it theatrically. John Sullivan, the house satirist of the 1980s far left, memorably compared Tony Cliff’s Lenin to a biography of John the Baptist as written by Jesus Christ, and the comparison may be usefully extended to Johnson’s Churchill factor. The ‘no surrender’ bulldoggery is plainly sounded in Churchillian mode, and for that matter his contempt for traitors and girly swots calls rather distantly to mind the great national myth of Churchill’s fight against ‘appeasers’.
But Johnson also has more contemporary role models. Donald Trump’s selection as Republican presidential candidate was characterised by exactly this sort of relentless assault on political etiquette and, the more he had apparently put himself beyond the pale, the more the crowds went wild. The hypothesis that the general electorate would recoil from him in vast numbers was equally dispelled by his victory, as dubious as it was. The stupidity of the pearl-clutchers in the present case consists in somehow not noticing that people hold them in contempt and get off on the idea of somebody fighting dirty against them in itself. Johnson exploits this attitude, and thus in the end is no less radically a liar to the general electorate. He, too, pretends to be something he is not - an outsider, a new broom - to conceal what he really is: the opportunist’s opportunist, a liar climbing over the bodies (metaphorically speaking) of other, less convincing liars.
Faced with a division between a false rhetoric of fragility and victimhood, and another false rhetoric of ultra-virile transvaluation of all values, we may usefully abandon this sterile terrain altogether for a moment, to ask what a principled rhetoric appropriate to authentic democracy might look like.
Politics, to return to Clausewitz, is war by other (peaceful) means. The fundamental insight of Marxism is that the war so displaced is between the fundamental classes in society, which in the present state of society are the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie is a minority class, and like all minority classes in the driver’s seat requires a certain amount of prestidigitation to keep the upper hand. For its immediate predecessor, the feudal aristocracy, religion sufficed - the clearest example in the western context is the late-antique and mediaeval idea of an uninterrupted hierarchy linking illiterate peasants, via the successive estates of their betters, to the orders of angels and then to God himself, but other celestial pyramids were constructed to much the same effect. The legitimacy of the capitalists is based, instead, on the myth of primitive accumulation - that their wealth is well-deserved, and the society in which they thrive rewards the deserving on their own merits and punishes the indolent and otherwise virtue-deficient.
In contemporary society, both left and right versions of this idea are available - perhaps best dramatised in the conflict between liberal advocates of affirmative action, so as to offer true equality of opportunity to the marginalised, and the rightwing reaction to the same, directed against snowflakes who do not have the balls to make it on their own. In the sphere of high politics, however, the basic result is the emergence of a distinct political profession. Thus all aspirations must be mediated by the ultra-sectional interests of a single caste.
For Marxists, this professionalisation of society - an expression of the division between mental and manual labour, those who issue orders and those who carry them out - is the very thing to be overcome. All else is in vain if, at the end, the world is so divided, but according to contingently different rules. The very first item on that particular to-do list is politics. For that is the lever for dealing with all the rest.
We hear a certain note in present discussion to the effect that bullying and abuse in the workplace is intolerable, and therefore MPs in their workplace - the Commons and their constituency surgeries - ought to enjoy protection similar to groped secretaries and victimised shop stewards. Indeed, we have even seen Trotskyists calling rather daftly for workers’ defence committees to protect rightwing Labour MPs from purely notional mob violence. In truth, politics as a job, parliament as a workplace, must serve the interests of the bourgeoisie. The proletariat, having an interest in democracy in its most radical and republican forms, must demand that MPs - especially Labour MPs! - suffer greater job insecurity than the slowest Deliveroo rider in London. They must suffer the most excruciating questions and corrections as to their behaviour, and the ever-present threat of deselection. The career in labour-movement politics must be abolished - not in the distant socialist future, but now.
Plainly this cannot be achieved on the basis of laws about ‘acceptable’ criticism drawn up by the political caste itself. But if it were achieved, the insubstantial, Bonapartist froth of a Boris Johnson would not survive 10 seconds. Without an establishment to rail against, what would he be but the last remaining specimen of a defeated layer of exploiters? Who could take televised bombast more seriously than meaningful, mass collective politics in the localities, the country and the world stage?
The great crime of the dispute between Johnson and his foes is that both seek to strangle such initiatives, either by posing as the man on horseback, or as his victim.
‘Is Trumpism the future?’ Weekly Worker January 18 2018.↩︎