The UK’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been mismanaged from day one – not least because “day one” was marked much later than it should have been. It has led many in the media to biopsy Johnson’s character and his suitability for the job, just as they had done when he was foreign secretary and, prior to that, mayor of London. What they found came as no surprise. As with Trump during his presidency, the media loves to boil Johnson’s character flaws down to his narcissism. Columnist John Crace, writing for the Guardian last year, went so far as to describe Johnson as a “narcissists’ narcissist”, because he thinks he can do whatever he pleases both at home and in government. Crace’s colleague Nick Cohen used his own column in the same newspaper to report that even Johnson’s fellow Conservatives talk about him “with a venom few socialists can match”, describing him as “a pathetically insecure narcissist who turns on you if you don’t feed his craving for applause.” More articles followed suit on other news websites and political blogs. Collating them all, a notable pattern emerges – armchair diagnoses of narcissism are an acutely liberal pastime.
Though it is easy to be cynical about the rhetorical habits of liberal pundits, this is not to deny the veracity of their observations – at least to an extent. Johnson certainly has a maladjusted and overinflated ego, but he is hardly the sole narcissist in government or even in the media. As the pandemic has entered its second year, more and more information regarding the government’s misconduct throughout the early stages of the pandemic has come to light, just as more and more journalists have been accused of a dangerous sycophancy in facilitating their political games. It is now for members of the political and media classes to be subject to accusations of “playing politics” – that is, not simply doing their jobs as politicians and journalists, serving the general public, but making political and/or journalistic decisions based on what best serves their own interests.
This self-interest has frequently made headlines, particularly recently, when Keir Starmer sought to question Tory MPs’ personal conduct and the motives behind certain governmental decisions, highlighting them as evidence of “the return of Tory sleaze” – a catchphrase that was popular for about a week but ultimately failed to “cut through” to the general public.
Starmer’s Labour Party made a great deal of fuss about messaging that could “cut through” the noise and stick in the minds of the public in this way, seemingly oblivious to the media’s overall bias in favour of establishment interests. In truth, contemporary liberals no doubt feel like they are caught between a rock and a hard place. They are reliant on the press whilst being aware that the press has no interest in their success. Rather than challenge this status quo, most politicians attempt to half-heartedly appease the media, mirroring its hostile lack of political imagination. But the Labour Party’s attempts to adapt to a hostile media have been blatant and have only affected ratings negatively. As a result, no matter how incompetent Johnson was made to look, Starmer slumped in the polls to levels worse than the supposedly unelectable Jeremy Corbyn. Those much further to the left argued that, yes, whilst Johnson bumbled through life making terribly poor decisions, at least decisions were made. Starmer avoided making any decisions whatsoever. As journalist Moya Lothian McLean argued, in a now-infamous article entitled “Keir Starmer is a Wet Wipe”, Starmer “does not lead proactively; he reacts, passively.”
Does this not make Starmer a “narcissist” too? Not a reckless and self-aggrandising narcissist like Boris, of course, but a narcissist who lurks at the more depressive end of the spectrum. So concerned is he for his own position and likeability, and especially concerned about how he is perceived, Starmer experiences a depleted ego as he walls himself “off against the unrealistic claims of an archaic grandiose self”, as Heinz Kohut writes in his classic text of narcissistic personality disorders, describing how a narcissist often responds to psychoanalysis. The “archaic grandiose self” nicely describes your typical Tory, but Starmer also walled himself off “against the intense hunger for a powerful external supplier of self-esteem”, which we might argue, in this instance, refers to pollsters and the wider electorate. But for columnists like Crace and Cohen, this makes Starmer’s lack of popularity a good thing, actually – at least for him personally. It means he is devoid of harmful narcissistic personality traits like a desire for success or any political ambition whatsoever.
Facetious jibes aside, we see once again how accusations of narcissism are seldom effective, becoming ever blunter the more frequently they are used. Particularly when thrown around by the media, such armchair diagnoses restrict our understanding of political leaders to their mediated personality traits, distancing us from an opportunity for material – rather than flawed psychological – analysis.
Consider how the American psychologist Mary J. Trump writes about the media’s understanding of her uncle in her best-selling exposé on the then-president and his upbringing. She explains how, throughout Trump’s presidency, she witnessed “countless pundits, armchair psychologists, and journalists [repeatedly] missing the mark, using phrases such as ‘malignant narcissism’ and ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ in an attempt to make sense of Donald’s often bizarre and self-defeating behavior”. The same can be said of the British media’s analyses of Boris Johnson. But the intention here is not to suggest that such labelling is inaccurate. “I have no problem calling Donald a narcissist”, she continues – “he meets all nine criteria as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) – but the label gets us only so far.” This is not only because Trump’s observable pathologies are, in her opinion, “so complex and his behaviors so often inexplicable that coming up with an accurate and comprehensive diagnosis would require a full battery of psychological and neuropsychological tests that he’ll never sit for.” More to the point, it is precisely because he is a member of a social elite that such generic pathologizing is useless. It reduces Trump’s – and, by extension, Johnson’s – decision-making and egotism to circumstantial gossip, which utilises psychological nomenclature to sound intelligent but which is ultimately devoid of any actual substance. We need only consider how other psychologists hedge their bets when discussing the psychological make-up of world leaders.
In the Independent, Chantal Gautier writes that, “aS a PsYcHoLoGisT” — emphasis added — “I look at Boris Johnson and worry for Britain.” Gautier explains that she works in the field of “business psychology”, and introduces “trait theory” as a way that business psychologists understand what makes a good leader. It is a theory essentially concerned with subjective characteristics and perceptions of personality. Gautier argues, for instance, that “the key to successful leadership is grounded in integrity.” But what is “integrity” exactly? And how are we supposed to measure it clinically, outside the court of public opinion? It is not long before “trait theory” appears to be focus group fodder rather than a genuine diagnostic tool. In fact, it shares many issues with theories of personality in general. On the one hand, it seems like Gautier is steering away from making any wild claims but diagnosing public figures with psychological disorders in public newspapers — even if they are shit — doesn’t look good. On the other hand, I’m unconvinced this thin veil of professionalism is actually covering over any measure of actual substance.
It is worthy of note that many psychologists today are increasingly unlikely to diagnose patients with personality disorders – be they “narcissistic”, “paranoid”, “schizoid”, “borderline”, “obsessive compulsive”, etc. The mental health charity Mind explains on its website that such disorders are controversial because they are difficult to understand, often generate stigma and, most importantly of all, they don’t take social context into account. “People are complicated. There are many social factors that can affect our capacity to cope, to relate to others and to respond to stress”, the charity explains. These factors include childhood trauma, experiences of poverty and deprivation, as well as experiences of discrimination or abuse. But it is not only socially negative contexts that we need to take into account.
Mary Trump’s appraisal of her uncle explores Trump’s upbringing almost exclusively. Not only does she steer away from personality disorders as a result, she also suggests that Donald (and Boris) can’t really be considered using the diagnostic tools we use to understand other people within everyday society. Because Trump and Johnson have never lived in everyday society. Whilst he was still in office, Mary argued that “we can’t evaluate [Trump’s] day-to-day functioning because he is, in the West Wing, essentially institutionalized.” But this is nothing new. Just as the UK collectively suffers under “the curse of the public schoolboy” (as Douglas Murphy puts it in Nincompoopolis), with our leaders often raised in the privileged enclaves that are private boarding schools, so America suffers under the curse of the dynastic prodigal sons of business magnates. Shielded from real life by extreme wealth, “Donald has been institutionalized for most of his adult life”, Mary argues, and “so there is no way to know how he would thrive, or even survive, on his own in the real world.” A question re-emerges: is this kind of posh zoochosis we call “narcissism” just a way to pointlessly pathologize the otherwise familiar over-confidence of the ruling classes? And in attempting to understand the personality traits of our leaders psychologically, do we not deny ourselves the opportunity to see the personal – and, indeed, the psychological – as political?
When the personal and the political do come into contact in the mainstream media, it is often to highlight their disconnection. Returning to John Crace, for instance, in reference to Johnson’s often poor rhetorical performances in the House of Commons, he quips that, whilst “Boris can dump wives, mistresses, ministers and friends … he just can’t get rid of Keir Starmer.” Though his narcissism might get him what he wants at home, it isn’t necessary met without resistance in office. Crace argues that, for “the first time in his life, Johnson has come up against an immovable object.” His political life differs significantly from his personal life. But again, the analysis is meaningless, because Starmer hasn’t been able to dump Boris either. Their face-offs at weekly sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) are institutionally orchestrated. They’re not battles to the death where one side can oust the other from political life. Instead, the narcissist’s narcissist has spent the pandemic locked into a protracted stalemate with the liberal’s liberal, and it is telling that most commentators cannot see the reciprocity between the two. Indeed, just as Narcissus himself is captivated by his own image, these two leaders, jousting across the dispatch box in the House of Commons, constitute a narcissistic relation in themselves. They represent two parties tormented by the mirror image of themselves, but rather than transform they embrace their impotence in all its perfect, immovable harmony.
But there is plenty of friction here, as demonstrated by Matt Hancock’s mess of a personal and political life this past week, when it was revealed he was having an affair with a senior aide, Gina Colangelo. Hancock resigned as a result. Although texts from Boris Johnson to Dominic Cummings, calling Hancock “totally fucking useless” were leaked just a few weeks prior, Johnson feigned disappointment in Hancock’s decision, suggesting that his political conduct and his personal conduct are wholly unrelated and he should not feel the need to resign over gaffs related to the latter — never mind the thousands of death causes by “gaffs” related to the former. Whilst the rest of the country asks questions about corruption, whether Colangelo was given preferential treatment (professionally speaking…), and whether this was another example of government minister giving contracts to friends and booty calls (just as Johnson had done with Jennifer Arcuri).
If all of this seems like a confusing mess, with no-one entirely sure how to talk about it, perhaps it is because our attempts to connect or disconnect the personal and the political are wholly outdated. That once-ubiquitous phrase, “the personal is political”, started its life as an empowering mantra for raising feminist consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s, connecting personal experience to broader social structures. It allowed a generation of liberated women to drag the hidden politics of domesticity, for example, into the public arena of patriarchy. Since then, however, the phrase has become an albatross around the neck of modern subjectivity. We have realised that, if the personal is political, then the political is also personal. This may seem like an obvious tautology, but for all the attention we give to the impact of personal experience on contemporary politics, we often fail to appreciate how new forms of personal expression and influence often open up new strategies for electioneering to influence how we see our personal lives in turn. This is a dynamic felt increasingly by all, with social media acting as the kernel around which this personal-political feedback loop franticly revolves, but in the media it is typically made visible through the weathervane fortunes of our political class.
Johnson’s bizarre but nonetheless continuous success in our contemporary political landscape epitomises this. He is not an outlier, whose personal life intrudes upon politics, to be put in place by sensible liberals who are all politics without personality. The ugly truth is that Johnson’s broad appeal, which inexplicably emerges unscathed from his innumerable gaffes, defines our shift away from the dialectic of the personal-political, which has since been transformed into something altogether one-dimensional: the “social”.
This “social” understanding comes very easy to our political class, because whether feminists had to fight for their personal experiences to be taken seriously in the political sphere, the political class has never known any different. Your colleagues in government are likely to be part of a wider social circle you have known your entire life. And so, whilst “the personal is political” works as a way for normal people to understand the complex nature of your everyday experiences, it actually works to simplify and obscure the relationships that come naturally to the establishment. This is how Donald Trump, who was a part of establishment social circles for his entire life, could create a false barrier between himself and “career politicians”, by exacerbating an otherwise negligible gap between his personal life and his political life. What’s more, media and the entertainment industry have been prepping us to respond to this kind of dynamic for decades.
As Jodi Dean writes in his 2010 book Blog Theory:
Radio brought leaders’ voices directly into people’s homes, integrating leaders into their intimate spaces. Broadcast television likewise occupied a domestic space as it addressed its audience as personal members of a nation, perhaps imagined like a family (respected newscaster Walter Cronkite was affectionately referred to as “Uncle Walt”).
Despite the social nature of establishment relations, with any hard division between the personal-political being an illusion, some of our most beloved television shows have programmed us to see an entertaining gap between the two, embracing the awkward collision between the personal and the political as a loveable and humanising occupational hazard. To demonstrate this, we need only examine Johnson’s trademark “zaniness”, epitomised by his inability to adapt to whatever government role he finds himself in – be that mayor of London, foreign secretary, or prime minister. The purposes of this are not simply to better understand Boris Johnson, but a culture of narcissism that keeps electing him to high office.
Rather than prefiguring his inevitable demise, Johnson’s zany mannerisms are arguably his most aesthetically attractive (and quintessentially conservative) qualities. Writing in 2012, long before Trump and Johnson rose to such unfathomable prominence, cultural theorist Sianne Ngai argues that “zaniness” is one of the defining aesthetic categories of our postmodern age. She charts its emergence from the 1950s, following capitalism’s desire for its workers to not only possess certain demonstrable skills but certain demonstrable character traits as well. (Hi again, “trait theory”.) This requirement is intuitively understood today. Our success is not only dependent on how good we are at a job, but also how we present ourselves while doing that job. Beyond our generic constitution as shiny happy people, we should be infinitely adaptable, ready to seize every day and meet every challenge capitalism throws at us head-on. The emergence of this kind of post-war work ethic was perfectly suited to Great Britain’s repressive tendencies – the pop-cultural ubiquity of the Blitz mantra, “Keep calm and carry on”, printed on infinite mounds of tourist tat, reminds Londoners of this daily. However, Ngai notes that, as our cultural understanding of this new capitalist ideal emerged, we began to admire the fool more openly – that is, we began to admire those who, try as they might, cannot conform to this image of capitalism’s ideal subject. Instead, both on film and the emergent medium of television, the work ethic “encouraged by the postwar service economy [made] the very concept of ‘character’ seem comically rigid”, inviting people to laugh “at characters incapable of adjusting to new roles and social situations quickly”.
To demonstrate this, Ngai draws on Lucy Ricardo, Lucille Ball’s character in the classic American sitcom I Love Lucy, which pioneered the genre and dominated US living rooms throughout its original run in the 1950s. In the show, Lucy is a housewife to Ricky Ricardo, a singer and bandleader. Desperate to make it in showbiz like her husband, the show comically dramatizes the impossible demands placed on Lucy as a new woman in a new era. In her attempts to shake off the rigid performativity and expectations of a housewife, she bounces between various service jobs as she chases her dream, climbing to the top of the new working world now open to her, acquiring enough capital to comfortably take her shot at stardom. But as Lucy juggles various versions of herself, taking on various odd jobs, she finds the roles she is required to play are far more demanding and ridiculous than those she was previously used to. As Ngai notes, “each of Lucy’s temporary occupations requires her to put on a costume and act like someone else, as if to suggest a new instability in the postindustrial United States”. In losing the singular performative shackle of the “housewife”, she moves onto spinning various sociocultural and/or occupational plates. But these plates are essentially identical. The skills she needs to make it in showbiz are precisely those she needs to manage her domestic responsibilities, and so she cannot achieve one dream without improving in the role she wishes to leave behind. The result is a comic catch-22 that made I Love Lucy the televisual phenomenon of its generation.
Though seventy years have passed since it first aired, I Love Lucy remains relatable in this regard, and its enduring popularity with American audiences attests to this. But we might also consider how the sitcoms of our present era have further developed this zany archetype, with many examples revolving around the plate-spinning of our political class more specifically. Consider Parks & Recreation, or Armando Iannucci’s trans-Atlantic political sitcoms The Thick of It and Veep. Somewhat predictably, given their American context, both Veep and Parks & Rec follow the I Love Lucy model, revolving around women who are trying to have it all in a “new” world that is reluctant to relinquish all that it promises. But rather than playing with the tension between domesticity and showbiz, these shows more explicitly explore the relationship between the personal and the political.
Veep stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer, Vice President of the United States. Well-meaning and passionate, Meyer wants to have a positive impact on the nation more than anything, but her ambitions often come second to the daily bureaucracy of high-level government. Parks & Rec stars Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope, the Deputy Director of a Parks and Recreation Department based in the fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana. She, too, is well-meaning and passionate, and struggles to rise above the myopia of local government bureaucracy. She idolises – both sincerely and to comedic excess – pioneering liberal women like Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Nancy Pelosi. As she daydreams of writing nationally significant legislation, she is interrupted by zoning codes and the anti-social behaviour of local adolescents.
Despite these obstacles, both are successful and ambitious women (over)reaching for a dream – the same dream, funnily enough, of being President of the United States. One of them is certainly closer to that goal than the other, but both are quintessentially zany, according to Ngai’s definition, in that they flail their way through the conflicting responsibilities often associated with the personal and the political. Though they have risen high above the small-town diner or the factory line, these zany characters nonetheless remain trapped in this dichotomy’s affective paradox, often failing at one job as they daydream about another, just like Lucy Ricardo. They work tirelessly to maintain themselves as stable and reliable “characters” or “personalities”, as their public-facing or otherwise demeaning jobs demand, but both nonetheless reveal themselves, time and again, through their zaniness, to be all too human.
“Zaniness is the only aesthetic category in our contemporary repertoire explicitly about this politically ambiguous intersection of cultural and occupational performance, acting and service, playing and labouring”, Ngai writes. As Poehler and Louis-Dreyfus demonstrate with aplomb, zaniness also has a “stressed-out, even desperate quality that immediately sets it apart from its more lighthearted comedic cousins, the goofy or silly.” (It’s telling, too, that it remains feminine-coded in almost all instances.) As such, it is an aesthetic category that is perfectly at home in twenty-first century political spaces, as “an aesthetic of action pushed to strenuous and even precarious extremes.” With the stakes of contemporary politics being so high – or, as in Parks & Rec’s local government setting, often hilariously low – the political sitcom is a pressure cooker for the zany archetype. There is surely no job more stressful, strenuous or precarious, and we love to watch as those who “selflessly” answer an apparent call of duty, choosing to serve in public office for the betterment of all, have their unavoidable selves revealed to them as constant companions and trip-hazards. This makes the characters that Louis-Dreyfus and Poehler play both relatable and loveable. They embody the ideal work ethic of late capitalism whilst revealing, with both relief and schadenfreude, that maintaining such a work ethic is humanly impossible. It is precisely their wrestling with the familiar impossibilities of neoliberal expectation that humanises them.
However, in the UK, a very different approach to the zany takes precedence. Contrary to the loveable nature of their American cousins, the cast of The Thick of It are notably denied any humanising dimension. Whereas as Knope weathers all manner of public humiliations with a strained smile as she strives to live up to her political ideals, The Thick of It reveals that the personal and the political are much harder to keep apart in contemporary Britain. Indeed, our attempts to do so are partly why our political class appears so grey and dull. But this is not to say that politicians should do more to humanise themselves, revealing more about their personal lives. The pantomime of political discourse in the UK revolves around the fact politicians are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
The Thick of It embraces this political theatre of cruelty. With a quintessentially dark British humour, there is no relatable respite in Iannucci’s Westminster sitcom. It is, instead, pure schadenfreude. Perhaps this is because Britain is more rigidly divided along class lines. The aspirational trajectory that defines the “American Dream”, which drives the I Love Lucy model of zaniness, is not part of our British sensibility — although so much of our media and social expectations are becoming increasingly Americanised. (When did Love Island become a 90-minute advertisement for cosmetic dentistry and American gob-ceramics?) On the contrary, British citizens seldom rise above their station, or experience class mobility as an alienating trauma if they do. Nevertheless, The Thick of It’s cast are no less zany because of their establishment credentials. As Ngai notes, they still give form to what Herbert Marcuse calls the “euphoria of unhappiness”, even if it is only the viewer who experiences the euphoric part of the equation.
In his highly influential 1964 book One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse argues that a “comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization”. This unfreedom represents capitalism’s inability (or, more accurately, reluctance) to provide us with “freedom from want” – what Marcuse calls “the concrete substance of all freedom”. But why is capitalism reluctant to make us truly free from desire? Capitalist society and its globalised trade networks would surely be capable of providing everyone with everything they might possibly need by now. Doesn’t that sound positively utopian? Ours is a world of almost unfathomable abundance. But without want, without lack, we are freed from desire as capitalism’s driving force. As Karl Marx first argued, in allowing us to grasp the dangling carrot of desire, capitalism begins to generate the conditions its own demise. The carrot must be graspable, therefore, but it must always be immediately replaced with something shinier and more attractive. Caught on this treadmill, our economic system nonetheless faces a productive conundrum of its own making.
For Marcuse, the potentials of grasping the carrot once and for all are hard to ignore. “If the individual were no longer compelled to prove himself on the market, as a free economic subject”, he argues, then freedom of enterprise – the freedom of private businesses to operate for profit – would surely disappear. This is an unambiguously positive turn of events. It would be “one of the greatest achievements of civilisation”, he argues – nothing less than the dawning of a post-work society. The potentials of such a transformation are enormous, releasing “individual energy into a yet uncharted realm of freedom beyond necessity.” What’s more, the “very structure of human existence would be altered; the individual would be liberated from the work world’s imposing upon him alien needs and alien possibilities.” But it is precisely through the imposition of these alien needs and possibilities that capitalism, in advanced industrial societies, retains overall control of its subjects. In generating artificial wants, and at the same time sating those wants itself, the system feigns generosity, all the while implementing an artificial scarcity of choice. It is in this way, Marcuse argues, that capitalism is “totalitarian”. The system may not have a single all-powerful ruler, but it is nonetheless ruled by “a specific system of production and distribution”; a false plurality of newspapers and political parties all parroting the same line: there is no alternative. As a result, a central political figurehead is replaced by an ideological apparatus that “precludes the emergence of an effective opposition against the whole.”
Still, these desires for other worlds and alternatives make themselves known to us, Marcuse argues, through our pervasive discontent. No matter how much we buy or consume, we are never truly satisfied. There is always something more to acquire and achieve. This is not a product of humanity’s innate industriousness. It is instead a sign that we are simply deferring the real problems in the world. We satisfy our individual desires as the social world around us does not change. Nevertheless, we take pleasure in our stagnant ability to strive.
As Marcuse puts it, the satisfaction of certain alien needs – “to relax, to have fun, to behave and consume in accordance with the advertisements, to love and hate what others love and hate” – only constitutes relief from the capitalist drudgery that we are otherwise required to undertake in order to acquire those means in the first place. This is not to say that relaxation and fun are unworthy goals but false ones, because the means of relaxation and having fun are sold to us by the very system that undermines them in the first place. Capitalism, then, is a socioeconomic feedback loop – a system that promises to provide relief from the pain and suffering it causes. Still, there is no denying that capitalist relief is relief nonetheless. But the result, Marcuse writes, “is euphoria in unhappiness.” The satisfaction we experience is not our satisfaction but the satisfaction of the system itself. The freedom we experience is not ours but the guiding hand of a controlling society.
This situation has morphed and twisted itself over the decades, but the overall social structure remains in tact. After all, this euphoria is often shared. To “love and hate what other love and hate” is to affirm our social connection to others and our similarities. “The personal is political” turned this sense of comradery on its head, as loves and hates were not defined by the system but by the people themselves, raising consciousness around their material conditions, contra ideological projections of the system at large. As a result, the guiding hand was revealed and slapped away, even if only momentarily. But today, our politicians still follow this model and embrace it. They make themselves relatable through their incompetence. As we watch zany characters like Johnson and Trump, we see figures who are struggling through the mire of contemporary society just as they are. This is why Conservatives love a culture war. “Woke” politics is defanged and painted as yet more liberal bureaucracy, yet more pitfalls for the average person to struggle to navigate. Social justice movements call for more freedom — freedom from “toil and fear”, as Marcuse puts it — but neoliberal governments decry the expansion of freedom as the expansion of rules and regulations.
This is the paradox lurking in our understanding of what constitutes “free choice”. Marcuse was already aware of it, of course. He writes:
The criterion for free choice can never be an absolute one, but neither is it entirely relative. Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves. Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear — that is, if they sustain alienation. And the spontaneous reproduction of superimposed needs by the individual does not establish autonomy; it only testifies to the efficacy of the controls.
The Conservatives are aware of this too. What is produced is a double-edged sword that works constantly in their favour, precisely because liberals cannot oppose it at its core. On the contrary, they buy into it. Their “biting” satire and criticism only helps to normalise it. Shows like The Thick of It help with this too, further normalising the idea that our politicians are just like us. They get their kicks where they can and eek pleasure out of an unjust world. Their world — their bubble — is obviously shit. Who’d be a politicians these days? All the more reason why we shouldn’t slut-shame Matt Hancock for any personal dalliances. (The argument that we shouldn’t project our sexual prudishness onto public figures is a very Twitter-level take, it must be said.) Because who hasn’t had an office romance? Who hasn’t done something they shouldn’t at the Christmas party? Who hasn’t had a bit of a mental breakdown under the weight of a piece-of-shit day job? We’re all navigating this stupid world, and so being a bit more forgiving when our politicians cock up allows us to be more forgiving of ourselves. Better that, of course, than actually change it.
That is what is required. But Starmer’s Labour doesn’t get it. They fail to appreciate the extent to which our present understanding of the personal and the political is not inconvenient for Conservative politicians, despite them feigning ignorance and acting all embarrassment when the two things touch. This state of affairs suits them, precisely because they know, at a societal level, it also suits the electorate.
If I might end on one more example of a lib commentator missing this point completely, consider this essay from Paul Mason, published on the New Statesman website at the start of the 2019 general election. He begins:
The French novelist Édouard Louis once wrote that “for the ruling class, in general, politics is a question of aesthetics: a way of seeing themselves, of seeing the world, of constructing a personality. For us it was life or death.” Nothing better illustrates this than the chaos and self-obsession that has characterised the opening days of the Conservative election campaign.
He’s not wrong, of course. But he fails to consider just how much of a stranglehold aesthetics has on society at large. As a result, all his essay boils down to is yet another commentator impotently decrying the Conservative government as a tribe of narcissists. It obfuscates the fact that, yes, whilst government incompetence does have a very real and horrific impact on our lives — the personal is political — it ignores how the entertainment factor of these fuck-ups only helps keep us in line.
Mason goes on to argue that politics, “for Johnson and the entire clan surrounding him, has become a form of showing off. And like all narcissists, they cannot abide an accurate reflection.” In fact, the strange truth is that they can. Not only do they abide it, they curate it — Boris Johnson especially. His zany incompetence is his primary selling point, against an opposition that is all politics without personality. Though we might despise it in principle, commentators like Mason rarely address the fact that even these damningly accurate reflections are also aesthetically instantiated. Their zany exploits help us feel better about ourselves. Their failures serve a purpose — keeping us drunk on the euphoria of unhappiness, the one thing the working class and the political class apparently share.
The euphoria of unhappiness – there’s a future book title.