[Marxism] Fear and Fumbling: Brexit, Trump and the Nationalist Surge

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Dec 19 09:50:47 MST 2019

On 12/19/19 11:43 AM, Louis Proyect via Marxism wrote:

> The Politics of Pain: Postwar England and the Rise of Nationalism
> By Fintan O’Toole
> 232 pages. Liveright Publishing. $27.95.

More from Fintan O'Toole:

NY Review of Books
The Ham of Fate
Fintan O’Toole

In his only novel, Seventy-Two Virgins, published in 2004, Boris Johnson 
uses a strange word. The hero, like Johnson himself at the time, is a 
backbench Conservative member of the House of Commons. Roger Barlow is, 
indeed, a somewhat unflattering self-portrait—he bicycles to 
Westminster, he is unfaithful to his wife, he is flippantly racist and 
politically opportunistic, and he is famously disheveled:

		In the fond imagination of one Commons secretary who crossed his path 
he had the air of a man who had just burst through a hedge after running 
through a garden having climbed down a drainpipe on being surprised in 
the wrong marital bed.1

Barlow, throughout the novel, is in constant fear that his political 
career is about to be ended by a tabloid scandal. In a moment of 
introspection, he reflects on this anxiety:

There was something prurient about the way he wanted to read about his 
own destruction, just as there was something weird about the way he had 
been impelled down the course he had followed. Maybe he wasn’t a genuine 
akratic. Maybe it would be more accurate to say he had a thanatos urge. 
[Emphases added]

The novel is a mass-market comic thriller about a terrorist plot to 
capture the US president while he is addressing Parliament in London. 
The Greek terms stand out. In part, they function as signifiers of 
social class within a long-established code of linguistic manners: a 
sprinkling of classical phrases marks one out as a product of an elite 
private school (in Johnson’s case, Eton) and therefore a proper toff. 
(Asked in June during the contest to replace Theresa May as Tory leader 
to name his political hero, Johnson chose Pericles of Athens.) The 
choice of thanatos is interesting, and the thought that he might have a 
death wish will ring bells for those who have followed the breathtaking 
recklessness of Johnson’s career. But it is akratic that intrigues.

The Leave campaign that Johnson led to a stunning victory in the Brexit 
referendum of June 2016 owed much of its success to its carefully 
calibrated slogan “Take Back Control.” Akrasia, which is discussed in 
depth by Socrates, Plato, and especially Aristotle in the Nicomachean 
Ethics, is the contrary of control. It means literally “not being in 
command of oneself” and is translated variously as “weakness of will,” 
“incontinence,” and “loss of self-control.” To Aristotle, an akratic is 
a person who knows the right thing to do but can’t help doing the 
opposite. This is not just, as he himself seems to have intuited, Boris 
Johnson to a tee. It is also the reason why he embodies more than anyone 
else a Brexit project in which the very people who promised to take back 
control are utterly incapable of exercising it, even over themselves. 
“Oh God, oh Gawd,” asks Barlow in a question that now echoes through 
much of the British establishment, “why had he done it? Why had he put 
himself in this ludicrous position?”

To grasp how Johnson’s akratic character has brought his country to a 
state approaching anarchy, it is necessary to return to the days 
immediately before February 21, 2016, when he announced to an expectant 
throng of journalists that he would support the Leave campaign. This was 
a crucial moment—polls have since shown that, in what turned out to be a 
very close-run referendum, Boris, as the mayor of London had branded 
himself,2 had a greater influence on voters than anyone else. “Character 
is destiny, said the Greeks, and I agree,” writes Johnson in The 
Churchill Factor, his 2014 book about Winston Churchill, which carries 
the telling subtitle “How One Man Made History.”3 While the book shows 
Johnson to be a true believer in the Great Man theory of history, his 
own moment of destiny plays it out as farce, the fate of a nation 
turning not on Churchillian resolution but on Johnsonian indecision. For 
Johnson was, in his own words, “veering all over the place like a 
shopping trolley.” On Saturday, February 20, he texted Prime Minister 
David Cameron to say he was going to advocate for Brexit. A few hours 
later, he texted again to say that he might change his mind and back Remain.

Sometime between then and the following day, he wrote at least two 
different columns for the Daily Telegraph—his deadline was looming, so 
he wrote one passionately arguing for Leave and one arguing that the 
cost of Brexit would be too high. (Asked once if he had any convictions, 
Johnson replied, “Only one—for speeding…”) Then, early on Sunday 
evening, he texted Cameron to say that he was about to announce 
irrevocably that he was backing Leave. But, as Cameron told his 
communications director, Craig Oliver, at the time, Johnson added two 
remarkable things. One was that “he doesn’t expect to win, believing 
Brexit will be ‘crushed.’” The other was staggering: “‘He actually said 
he thought we could leave and still have a seat on the European 
Council—still making decisions.’”4

The expectation—perhaps the hope—of defeat is telling. Johnson’s anti-EU 
rhetoric was always a Punch and Judy show, and without the EU to play 
Judy, the show would be over. But the belief that Britain would keep its 
seat on the European Council (which consists of the leaders of each 
member state and makes most of the EU’s big political decisions), even 
if it left the EU, is mind-melting. Not only was Johnson unconvinced 
that he was taking the right side on one of the most important questions 
his country has faced since World War II, but he was unaware of the most 
basic consequence of Brexit. Britain had joined the Common Market, as it 
was then called, in 1973 precisely because it was being profoundly 
affected by decisions made in Brussels and was therefore better off 
having an equal say in those decisions. Johnson’s belief that Britain 
would continue to have a seat at the European table after Brexit 
suggested a profound ignorance not just of his country’s future but of 
its entire postwar past.

This ignorance is not stupidity—Johnson is genuinely clever and, as his 
fictional alter ego Barlow shows, quite self-aware. It is the studied 
carelessness affected by a large part of the English upper class whose 
manners and attitudes Johnson—in reality the product of a rather 
bohemian bourgeois background—thoroughly absorbed. Consequences are for 
the little people, seriousness for those who are paid to clean up the 
mess. In Seventy-Two Virgins, Barlow is anatomized by his sober-minded 
intern. (It is typical of Johnson’s incestuously chummy rivalry with his 
fellow Old Etonian and rising Tory star that this lowly assistant is 
named Cameron.) She watches him in action at a constituency meeting: 
“Barlow had given an intelligent answer…and then thrown it all away with 
some flip aside…. Didn’t he understand that these guys cared about this 
question?” Caring about the question is not Barlow’s, or Johnson’s, 
thing. Everything Johnson says is really a flip aside. As Cameron (the 
intern, but presumably also the prime minister) concludes, “he is 
characterised by his political evasiveness, his moral evasiveness, and 
indeed, dammit, his sheer physical evasiveness.”

“Evasiveness” can be a polite term for lying, and it is impossible to 
understand Johnson without recalling that he has quite literally made a 
career of mendacity. At the end of that fateful weekend in February 
2016, the Telegraph, which pays him £275,000 a year for a weekly column, 
dutifully spiked his sincere plea to Remain and published his anti-EU 
column. It cited as the main reason for Brexit that “the more the EU 
does, the less room there is for national decision-making. Sometimes 
these EU rules sound simply ludicrous, like the rule that you can’t 
recycle a teabag, or that children under eight cannot blow up balloons.” 
The truth is that some local councils in Britain itself had introduced 
rules against recycling teabags, which have nothing to do with the EU. 
As for children under eight not being allowed to blow up balloons, EU 
safety rules simply say that packets of balloons should carry the words 
“Warning: children under eight can choke or suffocate.”

But Johnson has always understood that a vivid lie is much more 
memorable than a dull truth. He is a product of the tight little world 
of English class privilege in which the same people move from elite 
schools to elite universities to (often interchangeable) careers in 
politics and the media. (Johnson’s contemporaries at Oxford included 
David Cameron, a fellow member of the aggressively elitist Bullingdon 
Club; his own main rivals for the Tory leadership, Jeremy Hunt and 
Michael Gove; and the political editors of the BBC and Channel 4 who now 
report on him.) From Oxford he soon sailed into a position as a graduate 
trainee at The Times. It was there that he learned a valuable lesson: it 
pays to fabricate stories. The Times had to fire him because he sexed up 
a dull story by inventing lurid quotes and attributing them to a real 
Oxford historian (who happened to be his own godfather). Instead of 
ending his journalistic career, this was the seed from which it 
blossomed. Almost immediately he was hired by The Daily Telegraph, which 
then employed him as its Brussels correspondent between 1989 and 1994.

The job of a Brussels correspondent is an odd one. It almost entirely 
consists of covering the EU, and therefore it carries a degree of 
prestige. But most of the time, the EU is immensely dull. Johnson thus 
had a plum job but one with little public profile. His genius was to 
turn page 20 stories into page 1 stories by seizing on relatively 
inconsequential EU market regulations and inflating them into attacks by 
demented foreigners on the British way of life. He claimed the EU had 
considered “plans for a maximum condom width of fifty-four millimetres,” 
which would of course restrict the better-endowed Englishman. He spotted 
a regulation limiting harmful additives in packets of potato chips 
(called “crisps” in Britain) and made it a question of national 
sovereignty. As he confessed in 2002, “Some of my most joyous hours have 
been spent in a state of semi-incoherence, composing foam-flecked hymns 
of hate to the latest Euro-infamy: the ban on the prawn cocktail flavour 

The stories were fabulous bubbles of outrage (prawn-cocktail flavored 
crisps were never banned), but the foam-flecked hymns of hate were real. 
Sonia Purnell, who was his deputy in the Telegraph’s Brussels office in 
the early 1990s, describes in her excellent biography, Just Boris: A 
Tale of Blond Ambition, how far he went to transform himself

	from Bumbling Boris to Bilious Boris before penning yet another 
explosive tract. Most days, just before copy deadline, he would do this 
by a tried-and-tested method known as the “four o’clock rant.”… After 
locking his door, he would then work himself up into a frenzy by hurling 
repeated four-letter abuse at a ragged yucca plant near his desk.

Johnson’s anti-EU journalistic performances were a kind of method 
acting—and they required from his editors and his readers a willing 
suspension of disbelief.

This raises the two central questions about Johnson—does he believe any 
of his own claims, and do his followers in turn believe him? In both 
cases, the answer is yes, but only in the highly qualified way that an 
actor inhabits his role and an audience knowingly accepts the pretense. 
Johnson’s appeal lies precisely in the creation of a comic persona that 
evades the distinction between reality and performance.

The Greek philosophers found akrasia mysterious—why would people 
knowingly do the wrong thing? But Johnson knows the answer: they do so, 
in England at least, because knowingness is essential to being included. 
You have to be “in on the joke”—and Johnson has shown just how far some 
English people will go in order not to look like they are not getting 
it. The anthropologist Kate Fox, in her classic study Watching the 
English, suggested that a crucial rule of the national discourse is what 
she called The Importance of Not Being Earnest: “At the most basic 
level, an underlying rule in all English conversation is the 
proscription of ‘earnestness.’” Johnson has played on this to 
perfection—he knows that millions of his compatriots would rather go 
along with his outrageous fabrications than be accused of the ultimate 
sin of taking things too seriously.

“Boris being Boris” (the phrase that has long been used to excuse him) 
is an act, a turn, a traveling show. Johnson’s father, Stanley, was 
fired from his job at the World Bank in 1968 when he submitted a satiric 
proposal for a $100 million loan to Egypt to build three new pyramids 
and a sphinx. But the son cultivated in England an audience more 
receptive to the half-comic, half-convincing notion that the EU might be 
just such an absurdist enterprise.

What he honed in his Brussels years is the practice of political 
journalism (and then of politics itself) as Monty Python sketch. He 
invented a version of the EU as a gigantic Ministry of Silly Walks, in 
which crazed bureaucrats with huge budgets develop ever more pointlessly 
complicated gaits. (In the original sketch, the British bureaucrats are 
trying to keep up with “Le Marché Commun,” the Common Market.) Johnson’s 
Brussels is a warren of bureaucratic redoubts in which lurk a Ministry 
of Dangerous Balloons, a Ministry of Tiny Condoms, and a Ministry of 
Flavorless Crisps. In this theater of the absurd, it never matters 
whether the stories are true; what matters is that they are ludicrous 
enough to fly under the radar of credibility and hit the sweet spot 
where preexisting prejudices are confirmed.

This running joke made Johnson not just highly popular as a comic 
anti-politician but, for many of his compatriots, the embodiment of that 
patriotic treasure, the English eccentric. There is a long tradition of 
embracing the eccentric (though in reality only the upper-class male 
eccentric) as proof of the English love of liberty and individualism in 
contrast to the supposed slavishness of the European continentals. No 
less a figure than John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty (1859) that 
“precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make 
eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that 
tyranny, that people should be eccentric.” Mill associated eccentricity 
with “strength of character,” but Johnson has been able to turn it 
upside down—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.

Here we must bear in mind that Johnson really did learn a great deal 
from his boyhood hero Churchill. What he emulated was not any kind of 
steadfastness or ability to lead but a self-conscious political 
theatricality. “He was,” writes Johnson in The Churchill Factor, 
“eccentric, over the top, camp, with his own special trademark clothes.” 
Johnson’s use of “camp” is an astute insight—he understands very well 
the strain of louchely histrionic Toryism that runs from Benjamin 
Disraeli through Churchill to the intellectual father of Brexit, Enoch 
Powell. Johnson, too, has “his own special trademark clothes,” albeit 
that he is the anti-dandy whose slovenly dishevelment is carefully 
cultivated as a sartorial brand.

Johnson, moreover, uses Churchill to lend his own cynicism and mendacity 
a paradoxical kind of gravity. In his book, he argues that the great 
wartime leader

wasn’t what people thought of as a man of principle; he was a 
glory-chasing goal-mouth-hanging opportunist…. As for his political 
career—my word, what a feast of bungling!… His enemies detected in him a 
titanic egotism, a desire to find whatever wave or wavelet he could, and 
surf it long after it had dissolved into spume on the beach…. Throughout 
his early career he was not just held to be untrustworthy—he was thought 
to be congenitally untrustworthy.

This is not just Boris in drag as Winston. It is intended to suggest a 
crazed logic. Churchill was an unprincipled opportunist, a serial 
bungler, and a congenitally untrustworthy egotist; therefore, only 
someone who has all of these qualities in abundance can become the new 
Churchill that conservative England craves. It is a mark of how far 
Britain has fallen that, in what may indeed be its biggest crisis since 
1940, so many Tories are willing to suspend disbelief in Johnson’s 
pantomime caricature of the man who gave it the courage to “stand alone” 
in that dark hour. So what if he has the V for Victory sign the wrong 
way around?

What, though, might a Johnson premiership actually look like? Donald 
Trump is the obvious point of reference. Johnson told a closed meeting 
in June 2018 that he was “increasingly admiring” of Trump and suggested 
that the US president would be the ideal negotiator for Britain with the 
EU: “He’d go in bloody hard…there’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all 
sorts of chaos…. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually, you 
might get somewhere.” Trump, for his part, openly endorsed Johnson a 
week before his recent state visit to Britain: “I think Boris would do a 
very good job. I think he would be excellent.”

Both men see themselves, with good reason, as creatures who thrive on 
chaos. Johnson also shares with Trump a puerile fascination with 
gigantic and illusory infrastructure projects. As mayor of London, he 
left the city with large bills for an unbuilt airport on a fantasy 
island (known to his fans in the press as “Boris Island”) and a “garden 
bridge” across the Thames for which the abandoned plans cost £46 
million. He proposed, shortly after leading the campaign to take Britain 
out of the EU, to deal with the threat of isolation from the continent 
by somehow erasing the English Channel and thus undoing “the physical 
separation that took place at the end of the Ice Age.” He has proposed 
to deal with Brexit’s threat to Northern Ireland’s place in the UK by 
building a vast (and impossible) bridge linking it to Scotland.

Both he and Trump are racists, though Johnson’s variety is much more 
arch and knowing. When he wrote in 2002 of Queen Elizabeth, on her 
visits to Commonwealth countries, being greeted by “flag-waving 
piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles,” he was (surely consciously) 
echoing Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” diatribe, delivered 
thirty-five years earlier, which used the same curiously coy Christy’s 
Minstrels term of racist abuse. Powell had spoken of the plight of 
another elderly English lady: “When she goes to the shops, she is 
followed by children, charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies.” The word 
itself configures racism as an archaic, old-world, baroque notion, as if 
the racist epithet is being uttered not by a contemporary English 
politician but by a Southern belle in an old plantation novel.

In Seventy-Two Virgins, the journalist who is digging into Barlow’s 
scandals is ethnically Asian, and Johnson calls her the “pestilential 
Debbie Gujaratne.” He also gives us a Nigerian traffic warden with a 
comic “black” accent: “De law is de law…. I cannot make de rules.” But 
this is all, unlike Trump’s racism, wrapped in a coquettish, camp 
jokiness. When the Nigerian man is attacked by Serbs, Barlow thinks, “Ah 
yes…a classic scene of our modern vibrant multicultural society, a group 
of asylum seekers in dispute with a Nigerian traffic warden.” Here, as 
always, Johnson claims the privileges of the clown while exercising the 
power of a politician.

Trump and Johnson are both serial philanderers. According to Purnell, 
Johnson once explained to another man that, though married, he had to 
have a lot of affairs because he was “literally bursting with spunk.” 
But—and this is why his sexual life is relevant to his political 
prospects—these affairs were all conquest and no consequence. Johnson 
refused to pay the medical bills when his lover Petronella Wyatt had an 
abortion. The boyfriend of another of his lovers was left to pay the 
medical bills when she gave birth to what was almost certainly Johnson’s 
child. As it is with sex, so with political power—the conquest of 10 
Downing Street is Johnson’s desire; the consequences of what he might do 
there are very much a secondary consideration.

Here, though, two differences between Trump and Johnson are important. 
First, Trump has been able to mobilize a visceral American nationalism. 
Johnson cannot articulate the powerful but inchoate English nationalism 
that has driven Brexit. In part this is because he is not really a 
nationalist—born in New York and raised for some of his childhood in 
Brussels, his fantasy world is much more a reconstituted “global 
Britain” than the Little England imagined by many of his followers. 
(This divide is one of the insoluble contradictions of Brexit: its 
leaders, Johnson included, are globalists, while its followers are 
English nationalists.) In part, too, it is because Johnson cannot 
disentangle himself from the United Kingdom. He insists that the “union 
[of Britain and Northern Ireland] comes first,” even though it is 
abundantly clear that most of those who voted for Brexit and most Tory 
party members are quite happy to see Scotland and Northern Ireland 
depart. There is little sense that Johnson has any idea of how he might 
channel this English nationalism into a reinvented British patriotism or 
unleash it without destroying the UK.

Secondly, Trump sustains his base through the relentless repetition of 
the same slogans. He is brutally consistent. Johnson, especially on the 
all-consuming question of Brexit, is still “veering all over the place 
like a shopping trolley.” He was—as a disastrously incompetent foreign 
secretary—part of the government that negotiated the withdrawal 
agreement with the EU, including the controversial “backstop” provisions 
that would prevent the creation of a hard border between the Irish 
republic and Northern Ireland. He resigned in 2018 and denounced the 
withdrawal agreement claiming that it would make the EU “our colonial 
masters.” In March this year he voted in the House of Commons for the 
withdrawal agreement, backstop, colonial masters, and all. And then he 
ran for the Tory leadership on a promise to tear up the backstop even if 
it means a catastrophic no-deal Brexit.

So while Trump’s anarchism shades into authoritarianism, Johnson’s 
shades into a kind of insouciant nihilism. The joker’s evasiveness that 
has taken him to the brink of power will be no use to him if he crosses 
that threshold and has to make fateful decisions. Brexit is finally 
moving beyond a joke. But what lies ahead for Johnson in those uncharted 
waters? His best joke was not meant to be one. In November 2016 he 
claimed that “Brexit means Brexit and we are going to make a titanic 
success of it.” In this weirdly akratic moment of British history, most 
of those who support Johnson actually know very well that Brexit is the 
Titanic and that his evasive actions will be of no avail. But if the 
ship is going down anyway, why not have some fun with Boris on the upper 
deck? There is a fatalistic end-of-days pleasure in the idea of Boris 
doing his Churchill impressions while the iceberg looms ever closer. 
When things are too serious to be contemplated in sobriety, send in the 

—July 17, 2019

Seventy-Two Virgins (HarperCollins), p. 188. ↩

His first name is actually Alexander, and he is known to family and 
close friends as Al. ↩

Hodder and Stoughton, p. 8. ↩

These details are from the account published by Oliver, Unleashing 
Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit (Hodder and Stoughton, 2016), pp. 
93–100. ↩

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