“Der kleine Mann mit einem Weltbild”: Benjamin, Sabisky and Irony

Walter Benjamin, in Frédéric Pajak’s “Uncertain Manifesto”.

Last year, one of my uncles sent me a racist screed via a private Facebook message. The first draft of this post quoted it in full, but ultimately I can’t bring myself to reproduce it. It was long – 528 words – and included every racial slur you might imagine, bemoaning nevertheless that, “when we announce our white pride, you call us racists.” It closed with an exhortation: “It has been estimated that ONLY 5% of those reaching this point in this message will pass it on.” The implication was clear: be proud; share hate.

When I challenged him to post this publicly – and suggested he had sent it privately precisely because he knew that to do so would be to court censure – he said that it was all a wind-up, a joke: he’d known I’d find the message disgusting and had chosen to tweak my nose. Lighten up! After all, it’s only a laugh.

The occasions are rare on which it is a useful response to such intellectual cowardice to quote Walter Benjamin, but I’m not always an effective interlocutor. I reminded my uncle that Benjamin had told us long ago, in 1921, that “the cult of the joke … has become an essential constitutive element in fascist propaganda.” Benjamin was a Jew, born in Berlin in 1892, and knew all too well how these things work. He committed suicide on the French border with Spain in 1940, as the Wehrmacht overtook him and cut off all hope of escape.

“Get a life,” my uncle told me.

All this has been brought to mind again – since to be honest I haven’t thought much of it since – by this week’s wranglings in Westminster over the writings of Andrew Sabisky. That a man like Sabisky can be hired by Her Majesty’s Government in 2020 is sign enough that something in Britain’s political culture has become profoundly dislocated; but, beyond that, it’s perhaps worth wondering why the usually canny opportunists who have capitalised on that dislocation – Dominic Cummings, Matthew Elliott, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson – left their critical faculties at home when deciding which of the 35,000 weirdos that responded to Cummings’ call for misfits at Number 10 they should hire. Why didn’t any of them stop to think that a man with links to the Dark Enlightenment movement might not be a wise appointment?

I’d suggest that it’s because the radical right have become reliant on, and almost inured to, a certain mode of speech. It’s possible, of course, that Sabisky’s was a dead-cat appointment: a deliberately provocative move designed to agitate the commentariat and distract from another sleight of hand yet to be detected. But if that is so, the hire was itself a joke – a jibe, a poke, a wind-up. Either it was designed this way – in which case we have demonstrated as true Benjamin’s analysis that a certain stripe of cruel humour offers the most effective means of communicating otherwise unthinkable thought – or it was an oversight born of a complacency around this falsely ironic form of discourse – in which case, ditto.

In this week’s timely BBC documentary on Holocaust denial,  David Baddiel trawled through the leaked style guide of neo-nazi website The Daily Stormer. “Most people are not comfortable with material that comes across as vitriolic, raging, non-ironic hatred,” it informs its writers. “The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not. […] This is obviously a ploy and I actually do want to gas [Jews, original slur omitted].”  The alt-right has mastered this form of self-reflexive communication. From 4chan to Richard Spencer, modern fascists play a game with their audience that Benjamin would have recognised on several levels: not just because they use the joke as a means of transmission for serious ideas, but because their mix of high and low culture, sincerity and irony, signified and signifier is intensely, counter-intuitively, post-modern.

Here’s what Andrew Sabisky said about the compulsory drugging of schoolchildren:

From a societal perspective the benefits of giving everyone modafinil once a week are probably worth a dead kid once a year.

Here’s what he wrote about forced sterilisation of benefits claimants:

One way to get around the problems of unplanned pregnancies creating a permanent underclass would be to legally enforce universal uptake of long-term contraception at the onset of puberty.

And here’s what he had to say on marital sex:

It ought to be obvious that her wifely duty ought to consist not just of letting you masturbate into her vagina but actively playing her part in building a fantastic sex life with you.

Sabisky is not as sophisticated a communicator as many on the radical right – despite his clear self-regard he has not mastered the art of irony. But in all three of these instances there are the exaggerations, the sillinesses, the informalities that the alt-right habitually employ to insert distance between their words and their beliefs: Sabisky’s wilfully bathetic “dead kid” signals, he would argue, a flippant thought experiment; the gross-out idiocy of “masturbate into her vagina” signposts a rhetorical flourish. The middle of those quotations is the most sober in its expression, but its use of the future conditional – that “would be” is doing a lot of work – positions Sabisky as a philosopher, and possibly a satirical one in the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal.

That these markers offer a weak defence is less important than the fact that they offer space in which the author can manoeuvre if necessary. There is a cowardice in expressing oneself like this; but there is also a ruthless efficiency. From Israel to Ireland to the UK, we are not short of warnings that beliefs previously held to be on the extreme right of politics are increasingly mainstream. That even an attempt could be made to appoint Sabisky to Number 10 is perhaps sign enough that these commentators are onto something. Certainly, the adoption by Donald Trump of trolling – of owning the libs – as the primary tenor of his administration underlines the manner in which the “cult of the joke” boasts a powerful magnetism, a schadenfreude built on simplism.

Not only in America has this curiously hollow sort of victory proven so attractive to certain tribes. In last night’s Channel 4 Labour leadership debate, a woman from a mining community in Cannock became tearful when she reflected that her father would have been horrified that she voted Conservative in last year’s General Election. It was, of course, Brexit that led her to abandon every other principle in pursuit not so much of a single – and vague – policy prescription as a “joke’s on you” catharsis: “you lost, get over it.” In Britain, the radical right have in this way offered the Conservative Party a means of building, after decades in the wilderness, a governing coalition: nativism appropriately expressed is sufficient to unglue a section of the English from their actual interests. (This is not to argue that those interests have recently been served by either party; merely to suggest that they will certainly not be served by the panacea now on offer.) One hopes that its current leadership, unlike David Cameron’s – which offered people an EU referendum without any sense of what that might unleash – can control the consequences.

The runes do not read well. Sabisky was hired because his fellow travellers in government have grown used to irony’s inoculation against the attacks of the mainstream culture they deride . This usually reliable defence is afforded by the “cult of the joke” – PJ Masks and all that – but things can become unbalanced rather quickly. The sudden storm over, and rapid resignation of, Sabisky may have demonstrated this to Cummings on perhaps too small a scale for it to register; but in this case, the joke wasn’t funny enough to drown out the boos. Sometimes, though, it avowedly is. Irony – especially in the face of the earnest avatars of liberalism – remains a powerful vector for shifting the Overton window, and Benjamin knew this to his cost. That is, things can become unbalanced in the other direction, too.

The late Clive James, in his essay on Benjamin in Cultural Amnesia, had rather less sympathy with the critic’s work (“voodoo is all it is”) than for the conditions of his life: “[His] Reality was anti-Semitism. […] The better they did in every field of the arts, science, the professions and commerce the more they [the Jews] were resented. The more they fitted in the more they stood out.” Once this process begins, whether it commences in sincerity or not, it is hard to cease its unspooling.

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