Long Read

An exotic rot: How Boris Johnson’s success story changes the UK’s political rules of engagement forever

Boris Johnson’s giant Conservative win connects a chain of social, technology and media failings that changes the landscape of British democracy and political conduct permanently

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When I was a student, I inherited an old, Victorian-style wardrobe. One day when I opened the door to get dressed, I noticed a small, angry patch of rot and mould in its top-left corner. I didn’t know what to do about it, or initially care, so I just grabbed a clean cloth and some anti-bacterial spray, scooped out some of the most obvious damage, and wiped the inside clean and dry as best I could.

But, you see, there’s a problem with rot. Once it’s in, it’s hardy as hell. It sits inside the wood, and every time you think it’s gone — it comes back again — and then again, and then again. If you can already see it, it’s usually too late. What I didn’t know, was that it’s quite easy to get rid of. But you need to find it early, get all of it gone and create a new environment — one it can’t thrive in again.

I didn’t do any of those things though. And when it started ruining my clothes, I realised that I had a choice to make.

1) Throw out the entire wardrobe and replace it with a new one.
2) Cut out and patch over the rotten piece, and hope it didn’t come back.
3) Or finally, address the difficult, but actual issue in my room — the damp — and then carefully remove and replace the back panel.

First option was out. It was too heavy, I couldn’t afford a new one, and anyway, it was mostly pretty good — ornate, roomy and solid. The second option was awkward. Even if I had the tools to delicately cut it out and patch the gap, I didn’t really have the skills I’d need to do it properly. I might even ruin it trying. Which only left me with one option — I needed to treat the cause, and refit a whole new back panel. It was loud, a pain in the arse, and it took most of a day. I cleaned out the mould, ventilated my room properly, bled and put on my radiator to dry out the damp, and removed and replaced the rotting panel. My bedroom was tiny, too, which made the practice more difficult than the theory. But it worked. It didn’t come back and my clothes stopped smelling like dirty feet immediately afterwards.

The Western political system is publicly decaying. This week, a slow rot took an inevitable, and final hold. Like all political systems, it has experienced hundreds of different grades of novel decay in the last 70 years, in different corners of its metaphorical wardrobe. Through time, some were removed and patched properly and became stronger. Other parts were wiped clean as a short-term fix. And some parts were ignored, because they were too difficult to get to and too foreign to properly treat. But we’ve ended up with something startling — a rich, capable, insidious decay that is now impossible to repair.

Boris Johnson’s Conservative success story is the public manifestation of a number of originally separate, but now deeply interwoven social, technological and economic problems. Despite rumours to the contrary, I don’t believe that conservative governments, by nature, are bad governments. I think diverse societies are permanently in flux — which means that there are times when taking a progressive knife to the way things work is crucial — particularly in the interest of public safety, and personal autonomy. But it is equally important that this is counterbalanced with the ability to conserve the standards, expectations and stabilities that stop our wider social fabric from coming apart. The obvious challenge is affording both progressive and conservative agendas the space and tools to create impactful compromise. It is dishonest to suggest that either system should be left to operate with impunity, for reasons that totalitarian regimes have proven for hundreds of years.

In the shadow of Boris Johnson’s historic win, the UK’s political system and expectations of How Politics Is Done™ is now permanently reconfigured, and as such, so is Western political conduct. After a 3-year beta test in the USA’s post-Obama wild-west, vocal conservative momentum has now gained a thorough chokehold on what has evolved into a weak, easy-to-compromise, permeable, spongey Western psyche in a way that is equal parts horrific and profound. The last 35 years of media-driven ‘us and them’ narrative has been the most impressive, insidious execution of domestic psy-ops that the world may have ever seen — part accident, part incident and in large part, intention. Combined with dramatic rises in living costs, no meaningful rise in wages outside of leadership or ownership, socioeconomic problems caused by immigration policies insensitive to working-class communities, an ageing, technology illiterate population and a runaway train of a capitalist system that booms, busts, stagnates and treats the people that actually do its work with absolute disregard, it’s no wonder that a vocal majority are looking for a promise of something — anything — to release the pressure. This is not the system in failure. There is no kernel panic. It is in perfect condition and working as it was always designed. As we say in technology, RTFM.

Wealth inequality has always existed, and pervades in even the flattest political hierarchies. It’s never been fair and we need to stop acting like it needs to be fair — but in a world where a CEO can earn 300 times the amount that a janitor in the same business does, it needs to be fairer, and I don’t think that’s controversial. Unfortunately, since the industrial revolution, wealth inequality and trickle-down philosophy has been a sort of core fuel of social productivity. For better or for worse, citizens living paycheck-to-paycheck, aspiring to become their own masters has created a highly mobile international trade system propped up by businesses and networks that has broadly been a net good — represented in meaningful improvements in quality of life metrics all over the west. But let’s be absolutely clear — we are using old tools to take measurements of the old world. We have wandered into the most prosperous period of scalable wealth creation and consolidation in history, in large part, thanks to a dangerously intoxicating but delicious cocktail of the Internet, cheap global labour, and the miracle of a completely fabricated consumer credit system — all of which compounds to create an almost infinite capacity to create huge amounts of unprecedented new value. But we’re bound passionately to our old gods. Despite our titanic achievements in communication and automation, it’s widely regarded that robots doing human work is A Bad Thing™. Think carefully about how we have so successfully fetishised work and productivity for that idea to go unchallenged. Robots, doing jobs, instead of humans, will make our poorest humans poorer. Old tools, old gods and no plan — we are heading, at speed, towards a historically large and violent social revolution.

It’s been said that the Internet is the greatest ever experiment in organisational anarchy. In the last 25 years, it has evolved faster and with greater impact than any other industrial revolution in history. As well as holding up a huge amount of our infrastructure, the Internet has created a dazzling, technicolour performance art piece of our social, political and cultural circles. In the same 60 seconds, I can see my bank balance, any angle of local, national or international news and political comment, conversation on any topic, corporate and brand advertising, encyclopaedic knowledge on any subject, reality TV stars, my friends, ‘influencers’ — an infinitely complex planet, refracted through a billion iPhone shaped prisms. The modern digital experience is a chaotically curated hyper-reality — a storm of mainstream and minority culture, half-truths and whole-lies. It’s a series of parallel idealisms that are jacked up to ear-splitting volume and eye-watering brightness — much of which, doesn’t really exist. The last bastions of truth online fell apologetically behind impermeable news-site paywalls that we can’t convince anyone to pay for. But the right wing press, better resourced, more popular and with clearer aims than the left, didn’t adopt that model very widely. Now, surface-level searches for truth online turn out reductive, right-wing soundbites. We watch the malleable form of The Culture warp like wet clay in the hands of a journeyman potter. I call this Information Anarchy, because I don’t know how else to describe it.

The obvious problem we sleepily wander into when everything is half-fiction, is that by definition, nothing is ever completely true — even things that need to be, to hold up our human rights and civic responsibilities. The truth becomes either an optional bonus, or an inconvenient narrative violation. Our completely unperturbed adjustment to this terrible, terrible new equilibrium is the thin end of a ten-tonne wedge. Our disintegrated expectations of communication and integrity means that we don’t mind being lied to — as long as we’re entertained — because we hold our politicians, policy makers and business leaders to the same standards that we do our social media influencers. We expect to be lied to in exchange for some trivial validation that we turned up already volunteering to buy. Make no mistake — this act of total deference has been a critical component in the blisteringly rapid erosion of democratic accountability in the United Kingdom. The days of politicians quitting in disgrace in the UK — those are over. Survive the first scandal, survive them all. A distracted, squeezed electorate medicated and sedated by information of any style or quality is the greatest gift that a newly forming authoritarian regime has ever been granted. Imagine what could be achieved by throwing new party-line propaganda down those new pipes and flanking it with the old-world power of print and television.

Imagine, if, for example, we were to create a series of common cultural enemies that would create majority public consent to install brand-new, razor-sharp authoritarian edges to political parties with little left to offer, because they’ve rolled over like happy dogs in submission to the belly-rubbing hand of global corporations. Specifically — imagine if we incriminated a billion Muslims, by associating them with their psychopathic radicalist splinter groups. Imagine if we made out that the entire banking and media class was Jewish, they’re against you, and they control everything. Imagine if we spent a couple of decades explaining that the European Union had sent a million Polish immigrants to the UK, and that the EU controls all British laws. Imagine if immigrants were, in parallel, taking our jobs and stealing our state welfare benefits. Imagine if we explained that LGBT communities were trying to install ‘the gay agenda’ in schools. Imagine if simply, we explained that Jeremy Corbyn was an antisemitic terrorist communist that was trying to steal your tax money and give it to benefits cheats, in the little time he spent away from his allotment. Imagine a world where all of those warring, contradictory stories could be true. I’m trying, too — but it seems a bit far fetched, doesn’t it?

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The greatest achievement of Information Anarchy is the most visible. Socialite, businessman, cartoon personality and widely discredited reality-TV star Donald Trump rose through the fog of American economic exploitation and liberal Internet media to quite literally become the President of the United States of America. With no political experience — and a resume limited to zeitgeist visibility, a questionable mammoth bank balance, some powerful personal connections facilitated by his father’s shameful legacy and a rebellious attitude. The ultimate small-government, libertarian candidate to represent a justifiably pissed off, mostly poor, white electorate that pines for a style of freedom promised to them by the American dream — which can never and will never be realised. The problem with libertarianism, outside of it being a sort of selfish manure fire, is that almost nobody can can actually afford to be one. Globalisation is here. Those lost, blue-collar jobs — they aren’t coming back — because those economies simply do not exist anymore. Over a space of 40 years, they were shipped to the coasts, and then shipped abroad — an incisive, highly effective exercise in profit margin optimisation architected and executed by people like Donald Trump that are now passionately elected by the people they decimated to rescue them. The fact that immigrants showed up in their towns and competed for the little work that was left isn’t the fault of the immigrants. The wasteland of savaged local economies were hunting grounds for incumbent American business winners — creating a race to the bottom that wrings dry the worn, bloody rag of the personal responsibility narrative.

Don’t blame the Mexicans in the States, or the Polish in the UK, man. They’re as poor as you are and they’ve got less power. Donald Trump arrived at your rally in a helicopter, from a skyscraper with his name written on it.

Donald Trump’s campaign dishonesty was rewarded with the most powerful office on the planet, and he went on to lie 13,000 times in his first 1000 days in office. He is now at the centre of one of the most complex impeachment proceedings in US history, centering around collusion with foreign power. His presidency has been a long series of complicated racial, sexual and commercial controversies, held up by a Conservative party that choose to wage a war of attrition on their country’s own constitution and refuse to respond truthfully to criticism for it. It set the scene perfectly for Boris Johnson and his jolly gang to come crashing through a fake wall in a digger that has ‘Get Brexit Done’ written on the side of it. I am not making this up.

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So, how does this connect the Conservative party to a permanent change in British democratic practice? In a few, simple ways.

All politicians, ambiguously, are liars, because that is what short-term election cycles require. But Boris Johnson is a proven liar that has, in fact, been removed from more than one professional post for lying. He lied in 2016 about the benefits of leaving the EU, which he was taken to court privately for (somehow found innocent of, though because apparently lying about statistics is not lying). He then backed into lying consistently until his mind-boggling ‘disappearance / reappearance as Prime Minister’ magic trick. He then launched into some of the greatest work of his career — by lying prolifically through his electoral campaign to the press, and when challenged, repeated the same lies until they were accepted and regurgitated unchallenged. Members of Boris Johnson’s cabinet, at one stage, tried to redefine how maths works (yeah, that’s the Wikipedia page for mathematics, just to make sure I’m clear), in saying that 50,000 promised nurses, numerically, was the same as 30,000 actual nurses. He did not attend the Leaders debate for policy examination with the other party leaders — instead sending Michael Gove — a dangerously intelligent man so manipulative that he then publicly pretended he didn’t understand the difference between the idea of being ‘a leader of’ and ‘the leader of’ the Conservative party. Boris Johnson didn’t speak to Andrew Neil. Boris Johnson, on camera, hid inside an industrial fridge to avoid a difficult live TV interview. Boris Johnson’s Conservative party published a fake Labour manifesto online, and then rebranded their own Twitter account to appear to be an impartial fact-checking organisation, so they could define what was true during a political exchange Boris Johnson did not attend. Boris Johnson confiscated a reporter’s phone, when shown a picture of a sick child sleeping on the floor of an NHS ward that his government has been responsible for for nine years. They then tried to distract from this by lying about a Tory minister being punched by a Labour supporter, and when forced to climb down from that lie, did not challenge false claims that the photo of the sick child was a fake. Boris Johnson’s Dad insulted the intelligence of the entire British public by explaining that they couldn’t spell Pinocchio. Boris Johnson was gifted a pass for all of his current and historic transgressions by a UK press that was so busy attempting to hammer flat the last of 4 entire years of Corbyn-assigned coffin nails that they forgot that a democratic election was happening in the United Kingdom and that it might be a good idea to do some fucking journalism.

This is a comment piece, so I’ll say it — it’s biased, undemocratic, and it’s disgraceful. But more than that, it’s dangerous. Boris Johnson was rewarded handsomely for abusing the intentional failings of a free press that is so free that it now doesn’t even need to be truthful. Our new social tastemakers are brand storytellers and myth-makers, packing out our communiques with propaganda — and like the half-fictional characters in their stories, are never held to account for the things they say. His name is Jack Williment-Barr, by the way, and he was four-years-old (4) when he was photographed sleeping on the floor in a government-owned hospital ward in the fifth richest country in the world.

Should we be surprised? All things considered, no. But, Boris Johnson didn’t just lie. The American billionaire who owns Facebook, the most sophisticated, capable, laser-focused, hybrid mech-suit of manipulation, groupthink and exploitation in history, allowed the Conservative party to pay to spread those lies at national scale, in the same way he allowed the Leave campaign to spread the same flavour of lies in 2016 — a scandal that went on to become the most public misinformation investigation in history. These tools are now firmly strapped into the grip of men who have experienced their raw, surgical, dark, unmatched power first-hand — and as the dazzling technology outpaced the law, it also scooped out the rich core of the British democratic institution. 88% of total Conservative Facebook adverts (there were 5000 of them) were found to contain falsehoods, compared to none of Labour’s. Sorry, yeah, once more with feeling — that was zero percent of Labour’s.

Jeremy Corbyn failed in a number of ways — but his greatest failing was simple: Corbyn’s Labour is not an insidious, creative or sinister enough machine to match its conscience-free Conservative counterpart. Corbyn competed by appealing to people’s need for integrity, collectivism, and safety from capitalist exploitation — in a competition where there was only one prize left — and it was for self-interest, media-run fear-mongering and the desperate desire to finally win something — to win anything — that might suggest control over a life that has been reversed over repeatedly by the juggernaut of neoliberalism.

And what did the left say about people who voted to leave the EU? Ah, that’s easy, they’re old, or they’re thick, so we called them racists on Twitter and were done with it. And, you know what — some of them are. But we don’t ever trace the reasons up the chain, do we? Just scream ‘you’re a racist’ at someone whose despicable views have been forged in a pressure cooker of lies, fear and poverty. Call someone dumb who spent their entire lives trusting their despicable government and press, because that is what was required to reform the ashes of the United Kingdom after very narrowly winning the world’s most brutal war against the world’s most brutal fascists.

To remove any doubt, I despise racism, and I despise nationalism, and I believe a number of these people are both of those things. I resent them for it, vocally, and despite my best efforts, I cannot even imagine how this must feel for people of colour, and will absolutely not pretend that I have any of the experiences that allow me to be a mouthpiece for that feeling. But I also despise the pig-headed density of the left-wing media blaming the conditioned for their condition — after 30 years of taking highly emotional, targeted propaganda in every orifice. I’m angry too. I feel hateful and frustrated too. It is an atom chain of sophisticated exploitations, generational failings and pressure — and an outrageous success for the power classes that have militarised these people in order to gain political consent for the most awesome money machine humanity has ever known. In a topic that is far too complex and isolated to fully address here, it also visibly drags out the hell-power of what critical race theory refers to as ‘interest divergence’. At it’s essence, that’s when working-class white people choose to politically align with the white power structure, rather than creating class solidarity with POCs with the same economic interests as them. I learnt about that from Janine Francois, on Twitter. It embarrassed me deeply that I am so insulated from this problem that I didn’t realise it had a name.

What I’m trying to say is that Jeremy Corbyn should have lied through his teeth for 8 weeks straight. As the left-wing leader of what is now a right-of-centre party, he had nothing to lose but his chains. He was left with a Labour-party rendered so impotent by Thatcher’s capitalist legacy, Blair’s illegal wars, Cameron’s monolithic political mistake and now Boris Johnson’s irresistible but completely vacuous ‘Get Brexit Done’ sloganeering, that anything close to socialism is now represented by the media as a 1960s American-issued Cuban propaganda film. But Corbyn isn’t a Marxist, he isn’t a communist and in practical terms, Labour are barely even socialist. They’re centrists trying to prise back some modicum of a social state from the grip of banks, gilet-wearing venture capitalists and private shareholders that have their thick, hairy fingers wrist-deep in every single one of our national institutions. I wonder if there’s a balance. I wonder if we can discuss a political system that isn’t reduced to either a 1980s, totalitarian, bread-and-water Soviet block, or McDonalds gleefully writing NHS policy with Ronald McDonald as our single, diabetic ambulance driver. I dream of the day that we are capable of folding some nuance into discussions that are dying for it. A time when we listen more than speak, and then do the hard but crucial work of putting chairs through the windows of this 10-square-mile maze of soundproof rooms, where we can see each other screaming but the air is stale and the silence is deafening.

And for his honesty, a pissed-off, and pissed-on electorate treated this election as a second Brexit referendum. It was a one-issue vote, with voters from all walks voting for Brexit, and against Corbyn — despite there having been no analysis in the last three years that has been able to explain what exactly Brexit is or means for their futures, or for the futures of their families. But what I just described is democracy now. And in a democracy, majorities win. And in this instance, the winners still believe in their government enough to get them out of a mess that they uniquely created — that’s why they voted, and 33% of people did not.

Make no mistake — this electorate do win, in three very important and distinct battles. They win a massive personal, ideological victory over a European Union that didn’t cause their heavy, slow-moving problems of inequality, education and health. They win a massive, years-long assault and humiliation of Jeremy Corbyn — a man who gained the type of momentum that came within a whisper of challenging the newly formed, deeply protected, billionaire-funded power systems that are now closing ranks. And they arm a massive rebellion against a changing world that has ideologically displaced them and has legitimately threatened the safety of their traditions. But critical to remember — always — is that the world they’re rebelling against was designed and optimised by mostly white, mostly conservative, mostly capitalist, mostly globalist personalities. People like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, who are dictatorial champions of establishments that rely on economic oppression, are now elected to make things familiar, safe and predictable again. To take us to an old world of saying what we want, and not having to recycle. To make Britain great again and reverse some of the heavy losses they’ve taken at the hands of long overdue social equality successes. That’s the nature of it, though. Past privilege makes new equality feel like new oppression. This is a political operating system successfully beta-tested in America and now installed successfully over the hardware of Britain. I am no real champion of the European Union, as it stands. I think it is a necessary project, built on a noble idea, in dire need of reform. But almost none of these problems are to do with the European Union. It’s barely the same conversation.

But all of us, of all political leanings, take the heaviest loss of the new war. Because this is not Labour versus Tory, and since 2016, it never has been. This is about the bottom and middle versus the top — we just misidentified our enemy — because they invested a global fortune in making sure that happened. This is the fight of our times — and relatively speaking, we’re barely through the first day. The wealthiest 1 (one) percent of the world’s population now owns more than half (50%) of the world’s wealth, and we in-fight in our communities on their banquet floor for the scraps they drop from their gluttonous tables. The richest of those, the 2600 billionaires (0.00003% of the population) — we defend their markets, their media and their freedoms — in case we ever managed to rise like them. You’re not a capitalist, though, mate. You’re capital. Do you know how much a billion pounds is? It is one-thousand-million pounds. Do you remember when the Panama Papers were released and it turned out the entire top 1% of wealth owners have their money locked up through a beautiful, elegant network of international tax protection systems? Do you understand that the minimum wage and your employment rights are enshrined in law, because if they were allowed, they’d pay you less, like they used to? Do you still believe that homelessness, in Great Britain in 2020, is an unsolvable problem?

Boris Johnson met his success with the sort of exuberant triumphalism you might expect from a man who uses erudite yobbery as the central statement of his personal brand book. He is a known populist and experienced liar, so he accepted his win by promising massive NHS investment, a Brexit deal that would do everything required for everybody’s interests, and the instant but broadly untrue adoption of a new mantle — the Conservatives as ‘the party of the people’. He explained a ‘powerful people’s mandate’ for his Brexit deal — despite more of the public voting for non-Tory parties than for the Tories, and 33% of people not voting at all.

Mirroring Trump’s great American success story, Boris Johnson was rewarded handsomely for his dishonesty by a public that don’t give a damn whether they’re lied to, as long as they win. He’ll follow the process you’ll expect now. He’ll move to create a government that has final power over everything, but no final responsibility for any of it. He’ll pull us out of the EU, using his oven-ready deal — and I hope it’s both delicious and nutritious. He’ll gut the cabinet in the new year and replace the old guard with a brand new roster of all-star professional go-getters and career climbers, maybe from London’s business world. He’ll weave corporatism further into government, arguing that the market will regulate itself and that free markets are better for customers, employees and innovation. He’ll say funny things in public press rooms and do despicable things in private war rooms. He’ll do whatever comes next, because that what somebody who consolidates power as an end, rather than a means does. Megalomaniacs cannot help it.

This is the beginning. It sets the scene perfectly for future governments (of any persuasion) and election campaigns, who can now operate with impunity under Boris Johnson’s dark new legacy — because the rules of engagement have been removed and we haven’t done a single thing about it. The systematic, psychopathic abuse of our communication and advertising channels has been trialled, A/B tested and adopted. We have seen nothing yet. This is severe structural damage to a sacred, protected British post-war democracy — one that was used as guiding light and a blueprint for fair political systems around the world. This is an exotic, tropic rot on an old, ornate wardrobe.

But, it’s like I said. That’s the problem with rot, isn’t it. You’ve got limited, difficult options. You can throw out the whole bastard thing, cut and patch it carefully, or carry out major invasive surgery. Unless you go for the fourth option, that I didn’t mention.

You see, in the fourth option, you just do nothing and act like you don’t mind your wardrobe caving in on itself, and all the clothes you wear stinking like a sour burp until it’s a pile of rubble, and then you just blame your neighbour. Because that’s winning too. In a way. In your mind. Probably? Because you chose it. To, you know, take back control.


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Technologist, citizen. On political theory, power, ideology and a more human future. Another world is possible. ✊🏼💻🛠🌏✨

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