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15 February 2022

The left needs to learn from Boris Johnson’s sense of fun

From Corbynite purity to Starmerite self-flagellation, the left is based on a denial of its own humanity – of fun.

By Keith Kahn-Harris

One recurring theme on the British left is incredulity about the 2019 election: how is it that we ended up with a prime minister as fundamentally despicable as Boris Johnson, when we could have had one as fundamentally good as Jeremy Corbyn? We see the same question play out with Johnson vs Keir Starmer: the assumption that a good choice will beat a bad choice still prevails.

Regardless of where on the liberal-left spectrum one stands, it would be wise to resist those gut feelings that good necessarily overcomes bad. We cannot assume that, should Johnson survive his current travails, his recent drop in popularity in the polls will be permanent. Not only does he retain an appeal in some quarters, but he has already left his mark on politics, culture and the country as a whole. Lessons must be learned.

The whole spectrum of left-of-centre politics, from centrism to communism, needs, as a matter of urgency, to reckon with the fact that those we consider to be bad people – the Trumps, Farages, Johnsons and Bolsonaros – may be a more tempting choice than anything the left can offer. Even if revulsion at Johnson is now widespread and his political survival is in doubt, the issues raised by his election in the first place need to be addressed.

I am not talking about bad politics here, but bad character. It was and is perfectly possible to have voted for Johnson as he offered the best chance of Brexit, or to vote for Donald Trump as he offered the best chance of building a wall between the US and Mexico, while finding them distasteful as people. Yet the evident enthusiasm for right-wing populists in some quarters goes way beyond holding one’s nose and voting; a significant cohort finds in reprehensible leaders such as Johnson and Trump something that is attractive and enthralling.

What might that something be? My suggestion is that right-wing politics has been increasingly successful in practicing transgression. By that I don’t mean law-breaking (although it can sometimes mean that) but the kind of practice that anthropologists have identified as a fundamental human need: to explore boundaries and to cross them, to revel in desire, to invert hierarchies of acceptability. There is something primal about right-wing populism. Its practitioners break stuff, they threaten to turn the world upside down. Such nihilism isn’t about “nothing”, it’s about affirming a dark human desire. And it may feel like freedom.

Against this, the left often seems to aspire to be better: more competent, purer, decent, caring and so on. The problem is that the left never looks like it’s having much fun. Whether it is New Labour discipline, Corbynite purity, Milibandish “hell yeah, I’m tough”, or Starmerite self-flagellation, the left seems to be based on a denial of its own humanity. While left-wing policies may offer change, the demeanour of its advocates seems to suggest a constant struggle to suppress the beast within.

It is vital to take seriously the attractions of transgression and to find ways to incorporate it into political practice. We cannot assume that the pendulum is swinging back and the transgressive right will fall out of favour as the catastrophic impact of Brexit and the appalling reality of Johnson becomes clear.

The difficulty is how to do that without also transgressing core values. Recently, I indulged in my own transgression: I snapped and insulted someone on Twitter in a very crude way. This made me feel horrible as I had always tried to maintain high online standards. When the left transgresses, it is hypocrisy; when the populist right does, it is putting their values into action.

While 2018’s Labour Live event ended up being a disaster, the idea of creating festive spaces for the left was a step in the right direction. Part of the problem in that particular event was the contradiction between the carnivalesque festivity that it required, and the heavy investment in Corbyn as a figure of purity. But there are other traditions and histories on the left that are less susceptible to this: in the 1980s, the Red Wedge collective of musicians managed to inspire radical enthusiasm without being held hostage to idealisation of the Labour leadership; long-running events such as the Durham Miners’ Gala also embedded festivity on the left (and arguably worked much better before the boosterism of the Corbyn years). More generally, conferences and party meetings on the left have always involved boozing, laughter and letting off steam. Politics can involve transgressive sociability without the naked contempt for the public that the Downing Street lockdown parties displayed. 

Those on the left who seek to harness the power and potential of transgression need to decouple the desire to display one’s humanity in all its ugly glory from the project of causing destruction to others. The transgression that the populist right offers isn’t, in fact, transgressive enough – it leaves power and privilege untransgressed. In fact, as I have argued elsewhere, transgressive degeneracy has become a way of demonstrating privilege. But a transgressive left could offer something even more tempting: an acknowledgement of our mutual fallibility, a space to be human without causing harm to other humans.

Imagine, then, a left whose message would be: “Join us, fellow fleshy, fallible humans on a journey in which we build a world in which we will all be imperfect desiring beings together – with no one left behind.”

[See also: How Labour can win back Tory voters without insulting them]

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