Feuding and Feudalism: Notes on the Class Politics of “Inflammatory Language”

Boris Johnson’s reputation as our Poundshop Trump feels like it has been set in stone these past few days, with the argument around MPs’ use of “inflammatory language” dominating the news over the last week following Johnson’s foiled attempt to prorogue parliament.

Johnson has called accusations that he continues to stir up the far-right with his language of traitors and surrender as “humbug” and many others on the right of parliament have gone a step further to call the left “hypocrites” who also use “extreme” language when calling Conservative MPs fascists or whatever else.

Such responses contain clear echoes of Trump’s comments following the Charlottesville protests in 2017 about there being bad people “on both sides”, despite the right being the only ones to have clocked up a body count.

This is true of the UK as well. I don’t see Conservative MPs expressing any sort of fear for their lives. No Conservative MPs have been killed. No right-wing pundits have been assaulted — and let’s not compare getting milkshaked whilst on never-ending propaganda tours, purposefully spreading certain kinds of rhetoric on the streets, to getting kicked and punched on a night out with friends.

The disparity here isn’t just one of political disagreement, though. It feels like it is explicitly grounded in our country’s class politics.

I’ve been wrestling with how to talk about these sorts of arguments recently as I revisit my recent essay on friendship, which will appear in adapted form in my forthcoming book, Egress. I’m left feeling a similar way about it as I did my old essay on the right-wing bastardisation of accelerationism — discussed here.

Any anxiety I have around that essay is its potential for being misread as some sort of centrist clap back decrying the outright rejection of certain discourses. The last thing it was meant to express was an impartiality against hate speech, for instance — all the more relevant right now as another argument about political language also unfurls itself across the UK press, with many talking about how the BBC’s policy of impartiality should contend with reporting racism. It is clear that there are some topics to which an “impartial” response is always an apologist one.

The aspects of “friendship” as a concept that I find interesting, in this context, and specifically related to its deficiency on the left, ties into these problems quite closely. How is it that internal accusations of fascism break apart subsections of the left with ease whilst the right can let similar accusations roll off their backs without a second thought? With a “Bah, humbug”?

Community is the most important underlying concept here, and this is something I’ve found presented with clarity when researching the political trajectory of Maurice Blanchot, whose turn from the neo-monarchist right to the communist left I would put down to his acknowledgement, in the 1930s, that right-wing communities are closed and reactive whilst the political left’s historical writings on community have always been — and, I think, should again be — turned towards a speculative people-to-come rather than a doubling-down on pre-establishment categories of identity (a sort of “taking sides” which Bataille refers to explicitly, in his Unfinished System of Nonknowledge, as a preoccupation with the past — side with the future rather than identities that fly passed and appear only in the rearview mirror, which is to say, in more paradoxical terms: side with becoming.)

The implicit issue with this is that right-wing (or perhaps, more broadly, neoliberal) conceptions of community poison left-wing attempts to come together, with community only understood in economic terms of competition and work-space politics rather than in other non-capitalist terms.

To explain what I mean by this, I was hoping to find a tweet I saw this morning that has now unfortunately been lost to the site’s constant flow of updates. It spoke about this problematic in relation to another hot political topic in the UK this week: the Labour Party’s plans to abolish private schools.

The gist of the tweet was summarising a study that argued something along the lines of: private schools produce a certain kind of ideological resilience in their alumni due to the intensity of their in-crowd understanding of themselves. My reading of this was that the frequent arrogance of the privately educated is such that it razes such opportunities for consciousness raising for the less privileged. Those on the inside see nothing but benefits. Those on the outside have to deal with the delusions of grandeur that the rich and mediocre are constantly in possession of. The rich have confidence whereas the dispossessed, arguably by definition, do not.

It is this banding together — this sense of community — that the rich and the right acquire with ease. The challenge is for the left to be able to construct a similar sense of itself, for itself, without adhering to their example.

The Telegraph responded to Labour’s calls for private school abolition predictably but tellingly, with Martin Stephen trotting out the tired line that “Labour’s war on private schools is an attack on aspiration“. But an aspiration towards what? The aspiration to be more like “them”?

As another tweet — first seen yesterday — made clear, any rejection of that in-crowd sensibility is often smacked down with classist hostility.

Aspiration in the UK means aspiration to be upper class rather than an aspiration for any other form of solidarity.

This is to say that social mobility in this country is only understood vertically, and even then only when it goes upwards. There’s no such thing as a horizontal class mobility — whatever that means. We might define it as a movement across working sectors or communities or living conditions through which solidarity is retained for others as people move around.

It is in this sense that the leftist in-fighting that still haunts us is acutely pathological, in the sense that it is a mindset installed at a young age due to our immersion in an uneven educational system, which produces what Mark called the “bourgeois-liberal perversion” of classically leftist politics of consciousness raising.

This is to say that any politics of community is implicitly defined by the culture of those born at the top. We learn lessons of consciousness from the privileged who, in turn, work hard to deflate any consciousness that is not their own. And these tactics are evidently more economic than they are explicitly political.

I liked a quote about this from an interview with Chris Morris I read on my commute this morning: “It’s a sort of privileged position [occupied by white liberals] whereby your conscience is allowed to operate in a particular way, without fracturing your worldview. Then they go and have a bracing latte.”

This is something true of the middle classes on either side of the divide, and in my view, in the UK at least, it is the middle and upper classes who continue to define the debate — and the Brexit debate most specifically, which is the source of this week’s political tangents, we should remember (but, of course, how could anyone forget…)

Here my dejection over Brexit emerges again. I voted Remain, personally, although I’m also a Eurosceptic. (The sort of Eurosceptic who likes Jeremy Corbyn and thinks his supposedly under-defined position on Brexit is just fine.)

As far as I am concerned — and this is a line I’ve trotted out on this blog many times before — Brexit is a war between neoliberalism at home and neoliberalism abroad. But I suppose things are actually a bit more complicated than that, at least when considering the situation at home. Perhaps its not quite neoliberalism as we know it that we’re fighting over. The Conservative political establishment — specifically that lot who are richer than everyone else but somehow think they’re not part of the establishment at all, in a similar sense to Trump and of whom Johnson is the de facto leader — are in fact members of an older order compared to much of modern Britain. It is an older order that sees itself as maligned due to the deep, archaic roots of its conservatism and who view the neoliberal cabal of contemporary European leaders as their mortal enemy. (Is this N(ice)Rx? Or something else? I’m not sure.) To me, all it looks like is a war between new and old money — that is, the new money of Europe of post-Berlin Wall neoliberalism versus the old money of England’s landed gentry.

When I hear right-wing populists declare themselves the representatives of the people and the working classes most specifically, all I hear is a call back to that old relationship — the fantasy of a productive feudalism where this country’s rich had more control over the livelihoods of their poorer publics. “Remember the good ol’ days”, I hear, “when you paid us rent and we kept you somewhat fed.” When the Conservatives demand we “take back control”, that’s the sort of control I imagine — the return to an imagined stability where economies were more closed off and local and were not over-affected by outside forces. (Patchwork is a similar position, but again, one split between a striving from a new feudalism and the other for a postcapitalism.)

By contrast, much of the neoliberal pro-Remain left is beholden to a new stasis, of a decisively capitalist Europe where alternatives are nonetheless viciously squashed and struggling nations are left to languish on the outside until they submit to their restrictions. (Personally, I won’t forget Greece anytime soon.)

When we talk about inflammatory language, and political feuds, I think that’s something we should remember — the affection that Johnson and Rees-Mogg and others no doubt unconsciously feel towards feudal relations. This is what so many of our private schools represent and even our political system as a whole — parliament is still full of landlords, after all.

Johnson’s language is inflammatory and dismissive but precisely because of this. I can’t help but feel like if the Labour Party were better attuned to and vocal about the historic forces that our present crisis represents the reemergence of, they might have a better chance of changing minds, but it feels like the whole system is too entrenched in its own outdated sense of itself to even comprehend the nature of its most recent changes.

If there’s a new philosophical sense of friendship to be build, it has a lot to contend with — not only the capitalist present but the feudalist baggage that we continue to carry with us. (“Capitalism is the failed escape from feudalism”, as Mark Fisher said.) And there is a sense in which this is a national consciousness unshared by anywhere else in the West — at least in my experience, no one in the US or the rest of Europe seems to understand the depths that the roots of our national class consciousness reach as a country — which only makes the uphill climb that much steeper.

We have to become more aware of this for ourselves because no other country is in any position to help us.

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