On Nemesis

On September 12th, 2015, Anna and I drove for lunch to the home of some good friends. The journey took about an hour, and on the way we tuned in the radio; the winner of that year’s Labour leadership election was about to be announced.

By the time we arrived at our destination, our friends were genuinely excited; during Jeremy Corbyn’s remarkable campaign throughout that summer, they had attended one of his many rallies and been both surprised and inspired by the sense of energy and enthusiasm he had been evoking everywhere he spoke. More or less their first words to us as we crossed their threshold were, “Isn’t it great?!” I felt like a terrible Eeyore when I replied, in what I imagine to have been something of a whine, “Is it, though?”

Corbyn was re-elected leader in 2016, of course; in 2017, he led the party to a dead-heat with Theresa May’s Conservatives, in what was widely seen not just among the party faithful as something of a personal triumph. His defeat to Boris Johnson in the 2019 General Election, however, was perhaps not the moment of his ultimate humiliation; that came on the day before Halloween 2020, when he was suspended from the party he had just months before led for questioning the findings of the EHRC’s report into Labour anti-semitism during his tenure.

I have spent much of the last five years suspended in precisely the uncomfortable position in which I found myself on that day in September 2015: not wishing to pour cold water on the phenomenon of Corbyn’s revitalisation of the left, and yet entirely unconvinced that its – geddit? – centre could hold. I wrote a little about this right here back in 2016. But the truth is that I have also spent more of the last five years than I might have imagined during that drive through the Oxfordshire countryside on trying to persuade people that anti-semitism not only exists, but does so in plain sight – and often dwells deeply in their own thinking. I could in fact link now to multiply recursive Facebook threads; but I won’t. Thank me later.

In Julia Neuberger’s useful formulation, “What marks out antisemitism from other forms of racism … [is] that Jews are to blame for everything, and are simultaneously useless and too powerful” (Antisemitism, p. 27). I’ve seen this time and again during Corbyn’s tenure (and will no doubt continue to do so); anti-semitism is so difficult precisely because it is so supple, so internally inconsistent. Similarly, the manner in which it came to be the principle objection to his leadership among Corbynism’s enemies on Labour’s right simultaneously emphasised it as a racism so toxic that the left would aggressively denounce it – but also rendered it a totemic dispute on which his supporters could not allow themselves to act. That Corbyn himself adopted this position – unable to act on antisemitism because he saw accusations of it not as an attack on antisemites but upon himself – was one of the defining tragedies of his leadership. Corbyn was perhaps the least ready for leadership of all the Campaign Group MPs who might otherwise have stood in 2015, had they not already done so in prior contests. But it would still have been so easy for him to act against antisemitism; yet still he would not.

Corbyn’s leadership was in this sense a Greek Tragedy, undone by its own weaknesses, its own peculiar forms of arrogance. In the original Greek, the name of the goddess of retribution, Nemesis, translates as “to give what is due”. When the greek poet Mesomedes wrote – in a hymn to the goddess composed during the second century AD – that she was the “winged balancer of life, dark-faced goddess, daughter of Justice”, I think he hit upon the essential unfairness of many of her retributions: she is of Justice, but at one remove from her; she is dark-faced, not bathed in the calm light of blind equity. Corbyn’s fate – and that of Corbynism – isn’t necessarily a just dessert for his actions (or, more appropriately, his inaction) on antisemitism; but it was almost crushingly predictable in a way that Aesychlus would have surely recognised, and it seems odd to me that so few of his supporters seem to have seen it coming – much less prepared themselves for it.

The followers of Q, too, are currently dumbfounded by the fates. In the Daily Beast last week, we read that, “Aside from perhaps Donald Trump himself, no one is struggling more with the president’s re-election defeat than QAnon conspiracy theorists.” If Trump was the leader of a uniquely just quest to bring to justice baby-eating Democrats and the Satanic Deep State, if The Storm was inevitable and every step towards it safely in Trump’s quasi-Arthurian hands, then how to parse defeat? The likelihood, of course, is schism and fragmentation – even in the face of Trump’s continuing insistence on questioning the results of the election and pretending as if he is will still be the legitimate Commander-in-Chief after January 20th. But the faithful must each make their own way through the wreckage.

The nemesis of the QAnon faithful was – as for the Corbynistas – brute reality. Trump supporters of all stripes had convinced themselves that their man was headed for a landslide victory. This was always unlikely – as indeed was the converse, with Democrats hoping to turn Texas blue (though doing the same in Georgia also remained beyond the hopes of self-appointed realists and yet has come to pass). Trump’s downfall was not that he lost huge numbers of votes – in fact, he gained them. American politics is today a close-run thing, a matter of a few percentage points here and there. In this sense, and beyond any fundamental objection to his politics, Trump’s strategy was poorly considered. He bet the farm on anger in an election which ultimately seems to have hinged on safety. During a global pandemic, this might have seemed an obvious direction in which the wind might blow; but Trump still made the wrong call, and his presidency is now all over bar the crying.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a unique check on Trump’s capacity to shape the world of those whose votes he wished to win. A would-be strongman who has inhabited, almost instinctively, the Surkovian style could not possibly flood the zone with enough shit to distract from the impact of a novel pathogen to which no one in the world has immunity. My unpopular opinion about the US election is that coronavirus enhanced Trump’s performance rather than stymied it: despite his inability to control it, he nevertheless adopted it as a wedge issue with which he could energise and revitalise the cultural divisions on which his 2016 candidacy thrived. Without that clear cultural marker of the facemask, it isn’t clear to me what similarly evocative purchase Trump might have had on his tribe’s imagination. In the final analysis, however, the pull of calm in a period of such turmoil was always going to be an unequal but opposite reaction to any culture-war strategy, and so it has proven.

Perhaps Trump felt he had no choice in the face of a pandemic that moved faster than his capacity to shift and pervert the media narrative, the Overton window of not just US but global politics. He may have missed a trick: he could at least have tried to sitting behind a cheap desk in a rose garde, lying shamefacedly to all-comers about a trip he’d made to a resort town in County Durham. This was certainly the option taken by Dominic Cummings, the senior advisor to “Britain Trump” Boris Johnson, when in the summer it was found he had broken his own government’s lockdown rules: he was checking his eyesight, his children needed the toilet, he had a right to interpret the guidelines. In an approach that has defined his entire career, the story he created to reach the goal he had adopted simply did not stack up, but he stuck by it regardless – and a supine PM supported him, at significant cost both to his political capital and the public health of the whole country.

Cummings, too, however, has now left the stage – preceded by a cardboard box. He is perhaps more guilty even than Trump of the crime of hubris, that unforgivable infraction which classically must be punished by Nemesis. At least Trump won an election under his own name; Cummings has never had the boldness to do the same, and yet has acted since the Tory victory that saw Jeremy Corbyn finally ejected from the Labour hotseat as if he, in fact, was PM. I’ve written before about the darkness of Cummings’ wry arrogance – the manner in which his fundamentally flawed analysis of that which ails us leads inexorably to deeply troubling, if also superficially trolling, solutions. It does not take a genius, as Chaminda Jaynetti has just now been pointing out on Twitter, to create, play to and then profit from public misconceptions. More or less anyone can tell lies and then leverage their effects. Cummings’ reputation was built on his willingness to act unethically, and to do so with rare relish for combat. But this approach, like Corbyn and Trump’s strategies before it, has a shelf-life, cannot survive the rubber hitting the road. As the deadline for a Brexit deal approaches, Cummings’ formula seems – for now at least – to have reached its particular use-by date.

Where politics is left at the end of November – especially in the light of news about the apparent efficacy of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine that is more positive than many had allowed themselves to hope – could not have been imagined at the start of October. After a period in which the Western democracies felt first shocked, then stunned into stillness by first the march of national populism and then the onset of a once-in-a-generation crisis, what Mesomedes called “the frivolous insolences of mortals” seem at least briefly checked, as if a splash of cold water has been applied to the face of the body politic. The wheel turns, and Nemesis sharpens her sword.

On Being Bothered

Be careful what you wish for. For more than two decades, British voters lamented the similarity they perceived between the two major parties that jockeyed for government positions within their First Past The Post electoral system. From the rise of Tony Blair in 1994 until the Brexit vote in 2016, the “neoliberal consensus” dictated and defined the terms of political debate; the choice between the two options felt sterile and marginal. Conservatives felt cheated, their leaders championing gay marriage or wearing baseball caps at theme parks; the Labour faithful bemoaned PFI and City-friendly deregulation. If only – if only! – they said, there was a choice to be made.

The choice for many is now, it would seem, far too stark for comfort.

The 2019 General Election campaign has been a contest between a right-wing, sotto voce  nativist Tory party and a socialist, redistributionist Labour Party; between on the one hand Jeremy Corbyn, a champion of the left for decades and an anti-imperialist peacenik, and on the other Boris Johnson, the true heir to Churchill in his bullish British chauvinism. Where Labour seeks to radically alter the capitalist model under which it perceives voters to toil arduously and to little benefit, the Tories seek Shanghai-on-Thames, a free-trading buccaneer nation of carefully stratified worker-citizens. The Conservative Party has reoriented as the party of a certain part of a rump-England, ruddy and anti-metropolitan; the Labour Party as a fierce opponent of privilege and inequality of all kinds.

Or at least this is the narrative, the dividing lines that appear to have been drawn over a country far more confused and conditional than any of this. One writes country where in truth one means a set of countries, a collection of nations that breaks down with far more granularity than merely “England-n-Scotland”. By this I mean not the non-existent geographical divides of Brexit (to leave behind a further false narrative of a north-south or even class-based oppositionality as regards the EU issue), but rather the competing interests of regions voting more separately and disparately than they have perhaps ever before: the north-east sticking with Labour, the north-west flirting with Brexit, the Midlands with Conservatism. The centre cannot hold – but not in the way you think.

We live at a time of crisis; I am convinced radical shifts are necessary. But Labour’s manifesto is no more or less Leninist than a standard Scandinavian settlement; and Norwegians or Swedes are rarely characterised as firebrands. Likewise, so insipid is the Conservative manifesto that is difficult to brand the party as particular pro-active, or even especially right-wing at all. On either side, each says the other is hiding their true intentions; this may be so, but Michael Heseltine depicted Tony Blair with demon eyes and now both flirt with the Liberal Democrats. Sometimes political parties simply believe what they say they do. Johnson’s Conservative party likely will be confused on a policy level – nativist in some areas, authoritarian in others, emollient elsewhere; Corbyn’s Labour may put up taxes a bit and return utilities to public ownership, but is not going to abolish the army or destroy capitalism. The extremes have not, in fact, yet been reached. Only the limits of the mainstream have been stretched; that this comes as such a shock is evidence more of the withering of the British political consciousness than it is of any especially radical moment.

Nevertheless, what is different about this campaign is its tenor, its tone. The Conservative party, a study has found, has lied in 88% of its online ads; Labour not at all. That the country seems to be considering rewarding this sort of approach to political discourse – of a piece with its figurehead’s approach to truth throughout his journalistic career, but unprecedentedly corrosive of public trust, and in an echo of the Surkovian approach perhaps designed to be just that – really is a bad sign for our politics. The decades of having no choice has appeared to cheapen the idea of having one at all; that everyone is “just the same” has offered carte blanche to voters who simply wish to vote for whomever makes them feel better, regardless of the context. Punch-drunk from degradation, we go giggling into the sea.

The principle objection to any anti-Johnsonian attack is Jeremy Corbyn: he is a threat to our national way of life, to our security; a terrorist sympathiser, an anti-semite. Many of these accusations have more to do with his difficulty in guiding the electorate closer to  his policy perspectives than anything inherently wrong with his actual positions; but the last of these accusations has exercised me a good deal during the campaign and before it. Is it to ignore racism and accusations of it to argue that Jeremy Corbyn might still be the nation’s only hope in the face of a Prime Minister who cares little for what he does with power as long as he has it? Johnson is a figure who will say or sanction anything – avoid all scrutiny or blanket the airwaves with untruths as proves profitable – in order to hold on to an office which, as his own manifesto suggests, he and his party have little idea how to utilise. In this context, is it reasonable to hand-wave accusations of anti-semitism, or to dismiss them, or to accept them but hold them in balance with other considerations? Are any of those approaches defensible? Which is worst?

No one’s ethical choices are pure in the midst of what has been a dismal campaign. Labour’s failure to handle anti-semitism is certainly a sign of institutional incompetence; it may also be a sinister expression of something rotten at its head or heart. That this question is still be resolved to the satisfaction of many in the Jewish community and beyond is a serious issue for Corbynism, which struggles – in the face of daily attacks – to accept any criticism. But voting for Boris Johnson seems to guarantee not the Brexit for which many of his supporters seem myopic in their enthusiasm – that moment of national coming-together – but the speeding-up of a cultural turn in the country which insists on uniformity, on vapid conformity to a set of fictions we all know are lies but which we parrot either because they suit us or because not to do so is to court opprobrium. Perhaps defending Corbyn on anti-semitism is part of this movement; but the level of scrutiny to which Labour has rightly been subjected on the issue stands in stark contrast to the lack of interrogation that is permitted by Johnson’s Conservatives.

Few could describe the current Labour approach to anything – much less the establishment of pogroms – as ruthlessly strategic, and in fact in many ways they emerge from this campaign as a band of dogged pragmatists, of make-do-and-menders. In her recent book on anti-semitism, even Julia Neuberger – not one to compromise with prejudice and an eloquent critic of Labour’s reaction to antisemitism in its ranks – wrote, “there is antisemitism, but it is not like the 1930s.” She exhorts”people who are not Jewish [to] call out … shadowy views”; I have tried to do this in daily life, and, while other anti-Tories won’t face what they might find to be a Hobson’s choice, yet will vote Labour tomorrow.

The compatibility of these positions may be in question; but Boris Johnson has consistently acted with much greater cynical dissonance, elevating hypocrisy to the level of philosophy. Corbyn may oversee a creaking system reluctant to admit fault; Johnson speaks of letter boxes and “piccaninnies,” of hook noses and shadowy conspirators. Here is a man who at one point makes the queasily eugenicist argument that IQ quotas somehow tell us something about who in our society deserves reward; and at another presents himself as the champion of the working class against the marauding foreigner. Here is a man who says there will be no barriers for Northern Ireland, all the while working on a new Sykes-Picot line that will divide Ulster from Great Britain more surely than any border poll.

This Janus-faced strategy contrasts with Corbyn’s attempt to hold together the fractured coalition of Remain and Leave which constitutes not just his party but our whole polity. To reward it is to endorse cynicism. It is to beg for it to continue, to express a preference for the erosion of any semblance of communal feeling or understanding in favour of ever more segmented divisions. Johnson cannot say different things to different audiences unless he splits them apart from one another. To vote for this fragmentation is to say that any effort to unite us is doomed to failure; better to accept our divisions and leverage them. Many of those who may vote Tory tomorrow are not Johnson partisans; they will be making a choice, though one informed more by exhaustion than enthusiasm. We are tired as a nation; to build something new feels like hard work. To play in the ruins at least offers a barren kind of lenience, granted for time served. “Get Brexit done” offers a holiday from politics.

The Conservative anti-political offer, then, is a complete package: knowing fictions, impotent despair of ambition, derogation of duties. Hand it all over to Johnson, let him deal with it while he tells us another joke. The campaign hasn’t so much replaced a lack of choice with a stark one; it has offered the opportunity not to choose, to accept the inevitable, give in – as we did not in 2017 – to the Tory right to rule. If the country makes that choice, it will have confirmed the neoliberal consensus as not so much challenged -either by populist nationalism or resurgent leftism – as in place. There will have been seen to be no alternative, even to lies.

Johnson’s increasingly haggard face looks at you, and asks: can you really be bothered anymore? Behind him, the deckchairs are arranged for you. The loudspeakers burble about another meaningless story, a fiction that will pass. The ship is slowly sinking. It’s been a long time like this. Can you really be bothered anymore?

Can you?

On The Prorogation of Parliament

He knew.

What is Brexit? It is, primarily, a blame game.

During the 2016 referendum campaign, those supporting Brexit laid the blame for an endless list of apparent humiliations squarely and often solely on the EU. The decline of industry in the UK, the neoliberal consensus, the left-wing hegemony, unacceptable levels of immigration, the changing shape of bananas, the relative poverty of fish stocks, the lack of funding for public services – no ill from any angle was not by someone at some time linked with our membership of the European Union.

Since then – since the morning after the referendum, when a pallid Boris Johnson attempted at a Vote Leave lectern desperately to hide his own terror at what he had wrought – the blame game has shifted: now, it is about why Brexit is or isn’t happening. For Remainers, Leavers lie; for Leavers, Remainers obstruct. Those who championed Brexit, like the current PM, cannot admit the challenges they now face in enacting it; those who opposed it cannot acknowledge the deep difficulties of obstructing it. This is why both sides are keen to place the blame for Brexit’s failure – for on its own terms it has already failed, having proven harder and trickier, and more damaging to British prestige abroad, than anyone save the most mocked Cassandras argued in 2016 – on the other. Too extreme, they shout at their opponents. Not I, they respond in unison. Deliberation is lost in the noise – more or less as the hard right’s most committed vandals might have hoped.

For what is politics? It is, ultimately, a conversation.

This dialogue is never-ending and irresolvable. Politics is not, fundamentally, about getting things done; it is about deciding on what to do (meanwhile, mere administration gets things done – until such time as politics changes its mind). Politics breaks down when talking turns to shouting. What Brexit has achieved is the rare – and dangerous – trick of crowding out all other topics of discussion, all other purposes of exchange, all pretence at courtesy. In part because the EU was made a lightning rod for every ill we face, Brexit has become the fierce focus of our political conversation, and in this way it has come to seem to many that it is the conversation that is the problem. Just get it done. Whatever “it” is, just do it.

Thus we arrive at today’s prorogation of Parliament, which achieves the cessation of troublesome chat. Oliver Cromwell’s pendulum-like reputation has swung again towards national hero: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately … Depart, I say; and let us have done with you.” On dissolving the Rump Parliament, Cromwell ruled as a dictator until his death. The problem, of course, is that politics is by its nature procedural rather than instrumental; to do away with dialogue is to do away with politics – and replace it with fiat. This in turn stores up further tumult, as Cromwell’s predecessor in extra-parliamentary rule, Charles I, found to his cost.

Parliament isn’t the only place where British politics happens, of course; but it is, like it or not, where the conversation has teeth. Without the House of Commons, all the talk is mere ineffectual noise. The last week is evidence enough of why Johnson’s government has been tempted to prorogue: in the Commons, politics happens – and it has effects. In just a few days of sitting, Parliament has ensured that the government has the legal nightmare of the Benn Bill to deal with – itself an expression of the majority in the country who are against leaving the EU without a deal (a goal for which I’m not convinced Johnson – as distinct from Dominic Cumings – truly aims). Tonight’s extraordinary votes in the Commons – which seek to extract private correspondence from government employees and rather pyrrhically demand it adhere to the law – may in some ways be unwise; but they are responses in turn to an unwise stimulus. This sort of spiral is how states unravel.

The UK has no inalienable right to exist; Scotland comes closer to independence each day; there are riots in Glasgow in favour a unified Ireland. It is not hyperbole, then, to say that the country as it is currently constituted may indeed unravel. But the potential consequences of switching from deliberative to demotic governance are wider than these simple statements of current fact, and do indeed veer into the realms of what might a year ago have been panicked speculation. The electorate were told a decision was simple; it has proven far more difficult than that. The state now strains to contain the consequences.

What is, after all, a state? It is an imagined community.

That definition of Benedict Anderson’s rightly rests on human ingenuity. Countries, states, systems, conventions, rules, constitutions, policies and parliaments only exist because we agree to pretend they do. We agree to work together to ensure they exist. What, at this moment, do the inhabitants of this community imagine together? We hear much today about the will of the people, and of course the result of the referendum must be reckoned with. But the current blame game, the current silencing of the conversation around it, does not seek to reckon with anything – it seeks to gloss over the deep questions asked by Brexit and pretends to provide a simple answer. In one way or another, this will not hold.

In her Why We Get The Wrong Politicians, Isabel Hardman argues that MPs “want to be popular and on the pulse, but don’t want to do what their constituents have sent them to Westminster to do, which is to make difficult decisions.” This brings us back to the frustration of politics-as-conversation. The original sin of David Cameron’s Brexit referendum was that it attempted to make binary and straight-forward a difficult decision. It had long proven unpopular to argue thus, and so Cameron sought instead to court popularity through simplicity.

Simplism is, though, the natural tenor of demagoguery. Cameron has lived a charmed life, and approached questions of public policy with insouciance. The ferocity of the forces he would unleash were perhaps invisible to him. But this is no excuse. It is a commonplace that demagoguery finds in simplism a scapegoat – a succession of scapegoats – and purses each of them with uncontainable fury. Cameron’s government opened the space in which this vocabulary, and those who have chosen to deploy it, could not just take hold of our politics … but today, at least temporarily, silence it.

On The Triumph of Boris Johnson

In the November of 2007, I spent a few days in the Ladbroke Grove home of some friends. Both worked in the law. One had been state-educated, the other privately; both had been to university; each had just embarked on a career in one of the unimpeachable professions.

We were sitting in a pub of the sort that had just achieved modishness: sleek Victoriana, dark tones, smooth chalkboards displaying carefully printed copperplate specials. The conversation turned to the following year’s mayoral contest: Ken Livingstone was standing for re-election, and Boris Johnson had recently been named the Conservative Party’s candidate.

“I think we’ll vote Boris,” one said. “Yeah,” agreed the other.”He’s funny!”

I lost touch with this pair. But I wonder whether they’re laughing now.

*

In a New York Review of Books piece that has been getting a lot of traction on Twitter in the last few days, Fintan O’Toole pays serious attention to the role that humour has played in the rise of Boris Johnson: “his very weakness of character (the chaos, the fecklessness, the mendacity) provides for his admirers a patriotically heartening proof that the true English spirit has not yet been chewed up in the homogenizing maw of a humorless and excessively organized EU.” In other words, Boris was never “just” funny: the mood of his joking was pregnant with political purpose; he made people laugh because they recognised, in the contrast between his own studied carelessness and the sobriety of the established political codes against which he was even then ranged, a sort of authenticity.

The Johnsonian style is an end-of-the-pier patriotism, an ostentatiously ironic jingoism that appeals both to the sort of alt-right radicals who choose to see through the half-smiles … and the comfortable, middle-class professionals, often younger, who indulge in what the sociologists of contemporary class politics Annick Preur and Mike Savage have called “knowingness.” A facility with codes – he didn’t mean that, even though he said it – has been a breezy hallmark of sophistication for some time now. The joke is a means of distancing oneself from one’s message: if you only say something for a lark, nothing can stick. This is why Walter Benjamin wrote that “the cult de la blague … has become an essential constitutive element in fascist propaganda.” When is a joke not a joke? When it’s a strategy.

What, then, is the goal of the strategy? For Boris Johnson, it has always been power – to square the circle of appealing both to the Tory faithful and the Labour-leaning bourgeoisie, he adopted the role of joker-in-chief. Famously, he failed to win election to the presidency of the Oxford Union on his first attempt; for his second, successful, run, he hid his class privilege and fixed Toryism beneath a blanket of bonhomie. In 2016, this wilful irresponsibility inevitably fused with the similarly reckless cause of Brexit.

*

Fintan O’Toole has also written a book about Brexit. In Heroic Failure, he writes that, “Brexit is about many things, but one of them is the feeling that there is a much larger rot to stop, a natural order of things that is being eroded by feminism, multiculturalism, immigration, globalisation and Islam.” This instinctive sense of loss, this saudade, is not only a British phenomenon – it is, particularly in the developed world, an endemic meme. And in the last decade it has been harnessed, amplified and encouraged by innumerable actors.

That process of cultivation has been instrumental in, if not creating, then certainly codifying the so-called populism that currently moves through the liberal democracies. The important question about Brexit in particular, then, isn’t whether it can be done – it can, depending on your tolerance or enthusiasm for the consequences. It isn’t even if it’s a good idea – as a rule, the virtue of ideas in a democracy is less important than their capacity to corral together a majority. The important question is why. Only from there can we proceed productively.

In the summer of 2012, Anna and I attended a child’s birthday party. It was glorious weather, and we sat in a garden on plastic chairs, eating cake and watching a small person play with toys. His grandmother, whom I’d known since I was a child, was chatting to me about nothing: the weather, the roads, the television. Then she said something which struck me as merely wrong at first, but which later I realised was also significant. “I only watch Russia Today for news now,” she told me. “It’s the only place you can go to find out the truth.”

This was before even the channel’s transparent rebrand to the slightly-less-blatant RT. In 2012, here was a channel not so much partial as explicitly polemical. There was in those days no hiding the provenance of the information spat out by the presenters foolish or knavish enough to choose to work for Putin’s personal propagandists. My interlocutor was strongly Christian, but other than the fierceness of those beliefs she was the sort of woman you could meet any day on any street anywhere in Britain. What was it about these twenty-first-century Lord Haw-Haws that appealed to her?

Identity, of course. “A humiliated group seeking restitution of its dignity,” writes Francis Fukuyama in his recent book on this topic, “carries far more emotional weight than people pursuing their economic advantage.” One of the most astute observations made in the course of the 2016 referendum campaign which has – windingly, slowly – brought Boris Johnson to his lifetime goal of 10 Downing Street was, in fact, made by the man with whom Donald Trump hopes Johnson will soon work: Nigel Farage. When daily George Osborne filled the newspapers with the percentage impacts on GDP, on food prices, on inward investment of leaving the EU, Farage simply shrugged. Some things matter more to people, he said on national television. He meant their identity. It is easy to create a humiliated group if they feel their sense of self is in question.

“The idea that states are obsolete and should be superseded by international bodies is flawed,” Fukuyama – a man who in the 1990s believed we had reached a new consensus, a stable status quo – writes in Identity. The false move of the last half-century has been to invest the values of progress and justice exclusively in global institutions, without mirroring these clearly within national boundaries. In a recent Panorama presented by Nick Robinson, each of his interviews with EU officials – Michel Barnier, Martin Selmayr, Frans Timmermans – was decorated with the ephemera of banal nationalism, most notably a cushion with the EU flag on it. In the absence of an underlying enthusiasm for these reminders of European unity, however, EU pens and mugs are experienced by many as an imposition, as essentially alien – as an invasion, whatever the virtue of the message. To the mindset that is willing to believe in Russia Today more readily than they might the BBC, an EU cushion is not a token of trust.

The alternative has been provided. Since its rejection during the presidency of George W Bush, Putin’s Russia has recast itself as the champion of ‘conservative’ values: family, tradition, the nation state. The irony, of course, is that these values, in being held in opposition to the liberal democracies that unwisely refused Russia entry into the structures of global governance, have now been formulated in such a way as to undermine those self-same nation states. Nationalists garland Trumpism or Brexit even as these visions place untold stress on the structures of the states they purport to defend. Today, a certain stripe of conservative views themself as the true radical: I believe Russia Today, they might say, because I see through the lies of a calcified establishment – and I arm myself with the alternative knowledges I need to defeat it. This is the urge at the heart of Brexit. The architect of the Vote Leave victory, and Boris Johnson’s new senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, has quoted Bismarck:“If revolution there is to be, better to undertake it than undergo it.”

*

Around this time last year, I was a passenger in a septuagenarian’s car, driving home from a day-trip to Buxton. Two years earlier, they had assured me that their vote for Brexit had been unselfish: they had voted to leave the European Union because they thought it was not just best for the country … but for me and Anna. They believed that the UK would be more successful outside of the EU, and that this would benefit their younger compatriots directly.

Since that blissful dawn, of course, the Brexit negotiations had demonstrated the impossibility of delivering a seamless Brexit. Something would have to give, some compromise would need to be made. The compromise for our companions, it turns out, was us: there would, after all, be some suffering – perhaps years of it. But as long as we achieved something called national sovereignty, that’s what really mattered. Of course, they rejected Theresa May’s deal, at that point still known as “Chequers” – a sneering sobriquet redolent of a contempt for the privilege of the governing class.

Brexit is a consequence of this slow process, by which anti-politics has been expressed in increasingly obstreperous ways, first reform then leave then no-deal. Each successive iteration has for years been met by the supposedly detached ruling class with dialogue and co-option – Theresa May’s ‘Go Home’ trucks, Ed Miliband’s ‘Controls on Immigration’ mugs. Each demand, once met, has given way to a marginally more demanding, subtly more aggressive, form of the same complaint. When, in the noughties, the BBC took to inviting Nick Griffin and Nigel Farage onto programmes such as Question Time, it did so using the defence that to debate issues was to neutralise the most unpleasant. The best disinfectant, the argument went, was rhetorical sunlight. How has that gone?

In his The New Faces of Fascism, Enzo Traverso argues persuasively that “anti-politics is the result of the hollowing-out of politics.” That is, when the public sphere seems to significant numbers of those acting within it atrophied, they will adopt increasingly oppositional positions. It follows, then, that the solution is not to debate those positions, but to revivify the political culture whose withering has led to the proliferation of disaffection.

Influenced by the ructions of the ideological 1970s, the managerialism of the 1990s feared the sort of political culture it urgently needed to nurture. It preferred, in its place, a narrowed space that focused on “efficiency” and “delivery.” In the neoliberal form this new technocracy took following the 1980s, the goals that leaders such as Tony Blair set themselves resulted in the transfer of vast tranches of wealth to an increasingly tiny elite; the austerity of the Cameron years – itself a purely political response to the 2008 banking crisis, which had the sole aim of laying the blame for an international financial collapse on the British Labour Party – only exacerbated this shift. In the US, meanwhile, fewer than 400 families supplied almost half the money raised by presidential candidates up to 2015. This is the hollowing-out of politics in action. The result is a strain of anti-politics ripe for exploitation.

What the anti-political want to be true is that there is a way to – yes – take back control. In the absence of levels to pull or buttons to push, they merely grind away at their masters. Anything, including mere financial well-being, seems worth sacrificing in order to achieve their destruction. One means of asserting control, of course, is to shape reality. This includes identity and politics, both of which are to one extent or another about self-perception. If control is about imposing your understanding of the world upon it, however unwilling the world or ill-fitting your understanding might be, then he who asserts most loudly, most brazenly, will be rewarded – perhaps the more egregious and obvious his absurdity, the more control he is visibly trying to stamp upon the unyielding matter of a reality that has got so far away from us.

In this context, the conservative radicals are through Johnson now taking their turn at the wheel: Dominic Raab at the Foreign Office, Priti Patel as Home Secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg as Leader of the House of Commons. They will say they seek restitution of national sovereignty; their project, of course, is different – to end at last neoliberalism’s managerialist moment (which many of them believe to have been a sort of stealth leftism) … and re-embrace creative destruction. Their failure would open up another space for a different kind of political revivification – one in which we might actively create inclusive identities and sustainable societies that deliver not just efficiency but a new kind of shared pride, one we might take in mutual care. Either way, surely the old order – the political culture at which in the last decade we were encouraged first to laugh, then sneer, and finally lob dynamite – is gone.

And what of our new PM, the man who in a West London pub during the days before Northern Rock was such a figure of no-risk fun? “The British have long held a liking for rapscallions,” Tom Crewe wrote in the LRB back in June. “After all, there’s a sort of authority about a man who lies straight to your face.” Oh, Boris – he’s such a card, such a breath of fresh air. And yet a few months earlier, in April, Crewe’s colleague Jonathan Parry had suggested that, “politics is a matter of the patient and careful handling of awkward issues by means of continuous compromise.” Both of these things can be true at once, in the circumstances we have now reached, after a decade of crisis and mismanagement. But, like hypergolic compounds, they cannot co-exist for long. Boris Johnson isn’t funny; he has become Britain’s ragnarok personified. We’re all revolutionaries now.