Disfigured by class

The very fact that Boris Johnson could appear to be a plausible candidate for Mayor of London shows

Boris Johnson is a dishonest, incompetent clown, whose life has been a story of contemptuous, self-serving privilege. The fact that he may on 1 May be elected Mayor of London tells us something very unsavoury about the ways in which Britain continues to be disfigured by social class.

The facts about Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson are well-known, and should be more than sufficient to stop him being a plausible candidate for any kind of elected office in a mature democracy. He is a man who has lost a number of jobs for lying: he was sacked from The Times for making up a quotation from his godfather, the Oxford historian Colin Lucas, and lost his front-bench role, under Michael Howard, for lying about his four-year extra-marital affair with his fellow toff journalist, Petronella Wyatt. (For men like Johnson, with friends in high places, serial sackings are no bar to advancement.)

As well as being a famous liar, Johnson has skirted the borders of criminality when it has suited his interests or those of his foul, larcenous and over-privileged friends. In 1990 he agreed to give the home address of journalist Stuart Collier to Darius Guppy, a narcissistic Old Etonian convicted fraudster, who wanted to have Collier beaten up in revenge for some perceived slight. On being asked how badly Collier would be beaten up, Guppy informed Johnson that it would involve “a couple of black eyes, a cracked rib … or something like that”.

It is beyond satire that the man campaigning for the mayoralty of London by stoking up fear of violent crime should once himself have been involved in the attempted commission of an instance of GBH. Despite his new found enthusiasm for the Metropolitan police, did he alert the authorities to Guppy’s intentions? No doubt he takes the view that police attention should just be “for the little people”, and not for his odious chums from Eton.

But this is only the beginning of the charge-sheet against Johnson. Although he is campaigning to run London, he admits to complete administrative incompetence: he left a job as a trainee management consultant complaining that he could not “stay conscious” when confronted with financial information. We should not be surprised, in that case, if he is unable to master the fine details of running one of the world’s most complex cities.

Boris Johnson is not only shady, dishonest and incompetent. He is also a particularly offensive kind of clown, as is evidenced by his absurd litany of gaffes and insults. The people of Papua New Guinea are, according to Johnson, “cannibals,” while Portsmouth is “full of drugs, obesity, underachievement and Labour MPs”.

Worst of all is Johnson’s casual racism, although it is perhaps not wholly surprising from someone of his class and background. It takes a particular kind of bad judgement, as despicable as it is revealing, to think that there could be anything funny about describing the participants in the Congolese civil war as having “watermelon smiles” or talking of “crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies” (with conscious echoes of Enoch Powell?), yet both phrases appeared in a Daily Telegraph article by Johnson as recently as 2002. Such a man simply does not belong in modern, multicultural London.

Johnson’s casual racism is all of a part with his elitism in every other sphere of life. At Oxford, he was a member – alongside David Cameron – of the Bullingdon Club, a dining club restricted to public schoolboys, with a £1,200 uniform and a habit of smashing up restaurants. This is the world in which Boris Johnson belongs and feels at home, as almost every pronouncement of his makes clear.

For a while, at least from Ted Heath to John Major, the Conservatives paid lip-service to meritocracy and the idea of a classless society. But the grammar school boys have been supplanted by old-fashioned class warriors like Cameron and Johnson. They come from privilege and, when one looks at the policies behind their public personas, one finds them concerned above all to protect the social and economic privileges of their kind. When Johnson revealed his team of advisers, it included Bob Diamond, head of Barclays Capital and the FTSE 100’s highest paid boss; Sir Trevor Chinn, who works for private equity outfit CVC Capital Partners; and Goldman Sachs banker Richard Sharp. Johnson does not make much effort to hide his plan of government by the privileged, for the privileged.

In any sane society, Boris Johnson would not be a plausible candidate for Mayor, even within the Conservative party. Yet he is odds-on favourite to win the mayoralty. The key to understanding the strange popularity of Boris Johnson is to think about public perceptions of another gaffe-prone politician, the former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. Working class Prescott was viewed with utter contempt by large swathes of public opinion, whilst Johnson’s far more serious gaffes and indiscretions are met with smiling indulgence. As a society, we seem for some reason to suspend our critical faculties when it comes to men like Johnson.

It is hard to understand the sources of the remaining thread of class deference in our society, but it is undeniably still with us. Perhaps it is born of nostalgia; or perhaps it stems from a certain anxiety about the future. It is very hard to make any sense of it.

One of the terrible things about ingrained distinctions of social class is that they can mould the ways in which we react to others at something like a sub-conscious level. Johnson gets away with his mendacity, offensiveness and incompetence because, as a society, we seem still to be prepared to judge the posh by different standards. The real scandal is not so much that shambling reactionary fools like Johnson still exist, but that we still live in a society that feels social contempt for men like Prescott, whilst enduring and indulging Johnson’s own incessantly displayed contempt for ordinary people.

Whatever one thinks of Ken Livingstone, his commitment to an egalitarian society, and his respect for London’s various minority communities, is surely beyond doubt. The very fact that Boris Johnson could appear to be a plausible candidate for Mayor of London shows us that our society is still disfigured by problems of social class, and that Livingstone’s progressive politics are needed now more than ever.

Martin O’Neill is a political philosopher, based at the Centre for Political Theory in the Department of Politics at the University of Manchester. He has previously taught at Cambridge and Harvard, and is writing a book on Corporations and Social Justice.
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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood