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.

“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.