In this Everyday Analysis review essay, J.A. Smith reflects on a book that keeps getting more relevant the stupider politics becomes. Authentocrats: Culture, Politics and the New Seriousness was published by Repeater Books last year.
There’s a kind of left-wing book that finds itself in the odd position of making demands which, by the time the book is published, are already in the process of being met. The early chapters on ‘folk politics’ in Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s 2015 Inventing the Future were devastating in their analysis of a left retreated into isolated protests, Occupy-type experiments in horizontal organising, and timid indifference to hegemony-making institutions. Yet this monumental work was published months after the left it criticised had pulled itself together enough to take over leadership of one of the UK’s two main parties of government. In 2017 Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies raised hell when it accused progressives of having enabled the return of neo-Nazism, by neglecting economic critiques in favour of a thin-skinned and censorious ‘identity politics’. Insofar as this was exactly fair, it hardly described an American left newly vindicated in its socialism by Clinton’s spectacular failure, sound-tracked by the irreverent Chapo Traphouse, and about to deliver the glorious grassroots coup d’état of the nomination of the socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the New York Congressional primaries.
Joe Kennedy’s Authentocrats is a book of a different kind, in that the phenomenon he seeks to expose just keeps undertaking new permutations, such that the book could already weather a sequel if anybody could bear to write it. As Kennedy says in the introduction, ‘several rewrites have been necessary to tone down the material’, simply because the phenomena it deals with are so irritating. ‘Anger motivates, annoyance enervates’, Kennedy has remarked elsewhere. This isn’t a book about the left’s big ideological opponents, about ‘consciousness raising’, or socialist strategy. It’s about people in positions of cultural influence in Britain who, bewildered by the re-emergence of left-wing politics across the west in recent years, have resorted to some of the most soul-sappingly dumb critiques imaginable. As the US Democratic primaries get into gear with Bernie Sanders a front-runner, America can get ready for a taste of the same.
Populism by Other Means
Kennedy’s neologism, ‘authentocracy’ deserves to be accepted by scholars of populism as a crucial ‘other side’ of the more familiar concept. Since the political upsets of 2016, the claims of populist politicians to speak for the will of the good and ‘real’ people, has of course met its mirror image in the growing misanthropy among liberals towards those gullible parochial racists who have wrecked everything by voting for Brexit and Trump. But what, Kennedy asks, of the liberal commentators and politicians who have not taken the rise of populism in the spirit of misanthropic anger at the mob, but who have instead remodelled themselves as the privileged spokespeople for such people’s ‘concerns’?
In Britain, such ‘authentocrats’ within the liberal press and the Labour Party’s anti-Jeremy Corbyn ‘moderate’ wing,shake their heads penitently on behalf of a wewho have not listenedto the neglected and angry of the struggling towns of Stoke, Portsmouth, and South Shields, in a mea (or more usually, you-a) culpa which ‘tends to amount to the circulation of a one-dimensional portrait of “provincials” grounded in a simplistic, badly modelled opposition between them and the “elites of Islington”.What the liberal authentocrat tells us these ‘real’ provincials want is strikingly similar to what the illiberalpopulists tell us they want: tighter controls on immigration, less political correctness, more nuclear weapons, greater rigour in the enforcement of poppy-wearing on Remembrance Sunday, and fewer metropolitan lefties poncing around. The provincials periodically tracked down to assert these demands in vox pops, Guardian features, and BBC Question Time audiences are invariably white (if occasionally, Kennedy remarks, ‘irately puce’ when the topic of Corbyn is raised). And their non-South East accents mark them automatically as cyphers for the ‘real people’, whatever income bracket they actually happen to be in. Never mind that ethnic minorities, left-wing, and queer people can be working class too, or that some of the UK’s poorest people even have the temerity to live in Islington. Never mind either that the body of reactionary opinion being projected onto the ‘real’ working class is suspiciously similar to that of the average well-heeled subscriber to the genteel Spectator or Daily Telegraph.
These demands are all a bit more right-wing than anything the liberal authentocrat themselves would admit to wanting (‘it’s rarely the commentator themselves that wants less immigration’). But when asked about their credentials for performing this ventriloquism act, the authentocrat commentator will suddenly themselves come over like something out Monty Python’s ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch (put to brilliant use by Kenendy), impressing you with how much humbler their background was than that of their Oxbridge contemporaries, while affecting never to have heard of a cappuccino. In her speech announcing her resignation from the Labour Party to join TiG (‘The Independent Group’) in February, Angela Smith MP sublimated a parliamentary career dedicated primarily to protecting the interests of private water companies into a reflection of the allegedly working class belief of her parents that ‘there was nothing wrong in getting on in life’; adding that ‘people do not want to be patronised by left-wing intellectuals’.
Culture Over Politics
International readers might well put some of this down to the perennial English pastime of attributing minute class differences to consumer tastes and social attitudes. And indeed, the stress of the liberal authentocrat, Kennedy says, is always on culturalconcerns projected onto the parochial subject, not on their material interests. This is never more the case than when the opportunity is there for chiding politicians – Smith’s ‘left-wing intellectuals’ – who aspire to offer material change. Policies that could materially reverse the fortunes of those struggling in Michigan or Middlesbrough are dismissed precisely as the kind of out-of-touch socialism that won’t go down well in Michigan or Middlesbrough. The way to avoid future Brexits and Trumps in this analysis, is not to reassess the centrist ‘Third Way’ economic consensus that created so much inequality and resentment. Instead, liberals must sacrifice their own stated cultural values of pluralism, tolerance and multiculturalism (while making incoherent denouncements of their own consumer habits) in order to preserve that consensus. In this way, Kennedy shows, authentocracy might be seen as the last incoherent lunge of a zombie centrism, ‘instrumentalizing’ struggling communities ‘in defence of the very Third Way ideology which let them down in the first place’.
On the face of it, liberals making a show of liking gravy on their chips and calling for fewer immigrants seems a long journey from the kettle-drum multiculturalism of New Labour, or from Tony Blair’s right hand man, Peter Mandelson, breezily mistaking mushy peas for guacamole. (It is less of a jump, of course, from New Labour’s less-spoken of indulgence of populist anti-immigrant feeling in those years, which at its worst would have made plenty of members of the Brexit Leave campaign blush). Yet the realisation one leaves Kennedy’s book with is that today’s authentocracy and yesterday’s Blairism are two sides of the same coin.
Authentocracy’s downgrading of the material basis of class antagonism in favour of an impressionistic notion of ‘culture’ is precisely Blairite: it is just the markers of culture in question that have changed. Whatever the rights and wrongs of its individual policy measures, New Labour was definitionally ‘neoliberal’ in that its tendency was to diminish the parts of politics that were up for debate or subject to democratic oversight. This stretched from Gordon Brown’s inaugural gesture of granting independence to the Bank of England (so substantially insulating the running of the economy from the influence of political parties – the main democratically accountable unit in British society); to Blair’s habit of referring to New Labour not as one party among others, but as ‘the political wing of the British people’. With economics and even political parties themselves imagined as having been removed from the sphere of political argument in this way, culture and – a much-used New Labour word – ‘community’ were conjured as the space where the real battles would now be fought. The true confrontation, as Blair had it, was between ‘forces of conservatism’ (inchoate enough to include the Conservative Party, trade unionism, and – after 2001 – fundamentalist Islam more or interchangeably), and the brash if shallow cultural modernity allegedly embodied by New Labour itself.
Decades on, Blair’s dwindling but well-platformed admirers in the British commentariat and in parliament are operating within the same imaginary, even if their feelings about aspects of the ‘forces of conservatism’ are something they’ve reassessed. They are appalled at the idea of responding to the disenfranchisement much of ‘Brexit Britain’ quite reasonably feels with any new political, material, or economic offer. Not for them Corbyn’s plans for workplace democracy, devolution of Britain’s unusually centralised economy, or new infrastructure spending. Instead, the authentocrat imagination of late Blairism only stretches as far as the ‘cultural’, the consumer tastes and – especially – the cultural prejudices Britain’s ‘real’ people are imagined to hold.
I started by suggesting that authentocracy is a phenomenon that has kept taking new permutations even since Kennedy’s book appeared. Perhaps chief of these is how it has grown from being a habit of Britain’s commentariat and a handful of very minor MPs, to a central dogma of liberalism’s major international voices. In interviews for a major Guardian series reflecting on the ‘rise of populism’ last November, both Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair counselled centrists that they need to clamp down on immigration if populism is to be defeated. The tens of thousands who marched in opposition to Brexit last month no doubt included some of the best-intentioned internationalists in the country. But they are led by people convinced that the way to ‘stop Brexit’ is to throw red meat to Brexiteers by ‘reforming Freedom of Movement’ (a fantasy repeatedly ruled out by the EU itself) or for Britain to apply existing immigration rules more stringently than they have hitherto, and for the violence already routinely performed against refugees at the continent’s borders to be ramped up. To save multicultural liberalism, in other words, we must Build the Wall! For added bathos, a pamphlet by the Blairite former Labour MP, Chuka Ummuna, appends to a series of Third Way-style technocratic proposals for ‘The Independent Group’, an equivalent authentocrat sop to the fantasy right: the reintroduction of national service.
Court Satirists and Cultural Critics
Authentocrats appears with Repeater press, which is emerging as a crucial venue for a ‘new’ New Left taking shape in the UK since the emergence of Corbyn. I am gratified that Kennedy’s inclusion among these thinkers means my discipline of English literature is once again represented in antagonistic and occasional political writing. Of the ‘old’ New Left of the 50s and 60s, Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, and Richard Hoggart were – or began as – literary scholars, while of the historians, E.P. Thompson’s first and last books were on Morris and Blake; Christopher Hill credited T.S. Eliot’s ‘Metaphysical Poets’ essay with bringing him to researching the seventeenth century; and Perry Anderson saw the literary critic, F.R Leavis, as the only non-Left English ‘intellectual’ in the continental mould.
Today, ‘Eng Lit’ has pretty much abdicated such political centrality. But Kennedy’s background manifests in his pursuing the ‘new seriousness’ of authentocracy from the foibles of minor Labour politicians and BBC commissioning editors, to a positively Leavisite evisceration of equivalent poses in contemporary literary fiction, and a wonderful nod to the Birmingham Cultural Studies of Hoggart and Hall in one of the book’s highlights: a granular reconstruction of the pop culture of the ‘poorly remembered and in many ways misunderstood’ pre-New Labour British 1990s, of Gamesmaster, The Crystal Maze, Keeping up Appearances, and The Vicar of Dibley.
I won’t be the only reader of Kennedy’s age (if – ahem– a touch younger) to find sadly final another part of Kennedy’s pre-history of authentocracy: the skewering of my undergraduate heroes, the cult satirists, Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker, famous for their sardonic reflections on the shallowness of their turn-of-the-century moment. Revealed here as loyal organic intellectuals to the ‘anti-politics’ of Blairism, the controversy over these satirists’ work at the time obscured what Kennedy now recognises as ‘an End-of-History trust in an essential morality – put simply, “don’t be a dickhead” – which could be apprehended separately from politics’. Whether their targets were Noel Edmunds or George W. Bush, Shoreditch hipsters or the 7/7 terrorists: all differences were elided by the collective failure of these objects of ridicule to meet this elementary injunction. These targets were dickheads. But for satire to trust that its audience will know a dickhead when it sees one, it also has to believe that there is an essential reasonable normality outside political contention. As Trump and Brexit have shown, our society’s do not have an ‘essential reasonable normality’ at their heart; and electorates do not respond well if we spend too much time pretending that they do.
Perhaps recognising the limits of their kinds of satire to a time when politics is more explicitly polarised, Morris has withdrawn from the public sphere, Brooker beamed up into science fiction. But their ethos lives on in a generation of pundits and minor politicians, for whom any transgression of the bounds of ‘good and normal’ centrist politics – by UKIPper or Corbynista, Trump or Sanders – is a failure of the dickhead test. The anti-political culture of Blairism into which Brass Eye and Nathan Barley were broadcast was superficially homogeneous enough for what not-being-a-dickhead was to go without saying. 2016 – for better or worse – made clear that there is no such consensus, that culture is divided, and that politics, not an abstract and submerged assumption of the normal, is going to be needed if we are to negotiate our way through.
A London borough which, despite having some areas which are as deprived as any in the country, has become a metonym for metropolitan elitism: especially since it happens to contain Corbyn’s own parliamentary constituency.
James A. Smith is a lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London and the author of a new book, Other People’s Politics: Populism to Corbynism. He has previously written for the Independent, Jacobin, Novara Media and other publications.