Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

Winning as Ideologeme: One Year On

[Dec 2021] A year ago I posted, to another blog, a short essay on ‘winning as ideologeme’. This meditation (calling it a ‘meditation’ over-dignifies it, I know, but there we are) contained, amongst its various political observations, some predictions for how things would go. I decided to revisit this old post, and add an update as per the end of this year, to see how the argument held up, and if I still agreed with my older self.

[Dec 2020] I’m interested in the aetiology and current ideological function of “winning” as a political shibboleth. It strikes me as the key to a lot of current politics in a way that is, maybe, obscured by some of the older, more functional political ‘aims and objectives’ gubbins that still loiter in the discourse — you know the kind of thing I mean: that the point of elections is to determine the people’s preferences, that politicians exist to achieve specific strategic goals to make our lives more fulfilling, equitable, sustainable and secure. But I suspect that gubbins is all ghost-gubbins nowadays.

Take Trump. It’s true that his 2016 electoral campaign promised he would do certain specific things if elected — build the wall, bring back coal and so on (none of which he actually did). But his main promise was not functional. It was purely discursive. He would ‘make America great again’. Under him America and Americans would win; would indeed win so much they would get tired of winning. Such a manifesto has advantages over concrete political promises, because it is wholly performative. Is America ‘great’ again now? Trump says so, and by saying so makes it true, because greatness is not a material category to be measured against (let’s say) increased well-being, access to medical care, housing, security from disease or anything like that. ‘Greatness’ is a state of mind enjoyed by certain Americans who believe they enjoy it. It is flawless in its circularity, and insofar Trump has persuaded many millions of his followers that it is both real and that it flows from him, their loyalty to and admiration of him is guaranteed.

Of course such a manifesto also has plenty of downsides, in terms of practical politics. One thing that seems clear to me is that Trump believed he had delivered on his campaign’s ‘winning’ promise by winning the election — against the odds, in the teeth of the pundits who predicted his loss and so on — not by actually doing anything subsequent to that win. That he saw winning the election as an end in itself. He did not, as generations of previous politicians have done, see it as a necessary first step to facilitate this or that practical programme of governance; he saw it as the final step in the process. As far as he was concerned, all that remained, during his actual term as POTUS, was to cash-in his winnings, to bask in his winner-dom, accepting plaudits, enjoying the perks and celebrity and so on — not do anything so onerous and difficult as actually running the country. The compact he offered was: this election win proves I’m a winner; support me and a little bit of my godlike winningness will rub off on you. And conversely: oppose me and you’re a loser, the worst thing Trump’s microscopic imagination can comprehend. A lot of his outraged whining in the four years that followed was motivated, I think, by a kind of astonishment that people were too obtuse to see he already won, that he was a winner, and therefore deserved to be treated the way winners should be treated, with adulation and envy and so on. That’s also why it is simply inconceivable to him that he lost the 2020 election. That would make him a loser, and that cannot be.

Well, none of that is very controversial, I think. I despise and repudiate Trump’s hamstrung ethos of winning-is-all (especially since ‘winning’ has for him such chokingly narrow, materialist and alpha-male-dominance parameters) and pity him for having had his own life bent so cruelly out of shape by it. But, as commentators often note, Trump is a symptom, not a cause. And one thing he symptomizes is this new, free-floating, purely performative and discursive political category of ‘winning’.

Which brings me to Brexit. I voted remain in the referendum, considering — as I still do — Brexit a terrible mistake that will have profoundly damaging consequences for my country. What the referendum showed that that the country was, pretty much, split down the middle: half wanted Brexit and half wanted Remain, with a tiny majority for the former on the day the vote was held. I believe sincerely in democracy, but as a means (necessarily crude but better than not having it) of divining what the governed want their government to do, not as a boxing match with a winner and a KO’d loser. If a referendum is held and 90% vote for Proposition A, then the government should deliver Proposition A. If 52% vote for Proposition A and 48% vote against it, the government should deliver Proposition A in a way that acknowledges that half the country doesn’t want it — via a process of consultation and compromise (in this specific case, as a soft Brexit). That’s not, of course, what happened. The slight unbalance in this 50/50 divide was taken as an immutable ‘will of the people.’ Anyone who opposed a stiletto-hard and eviscerating Brexit was attacked as an ‘enemy of the people’, a traitor, a ‘Remoaner’ and so on. This has been awful in and of itself, never mind the damage Brexit itself is going to wreak and is already wreaking. It was not the vote itself, so much as the way this split was handled — the way the ‘winning’ side was encouraged towards triumphalism, the way any and every attempt at dialogue from the ‘losing’ side was treated with contumely and, worse, fed back to the ‘winning’ side so as to stoke their ressentiment and outrage — that has broken my country, split as it now is into two mutually hostile tribes. This is a terrible, terrible thing, and I don’t see how it is going to be healed in the near or even the medium term.

I might add that my personal Brexit journey has seen me change my views. Not that I think Brexit will be good for the UK (clearly it won’t), but that I have had to concede that the democratic dynamic has altered. The Tory win in the December 2019 election depressed me, but it certainly marked a much stronger democratic mandate actually to deliver Brexit. My sense — this is my gut, and may be incorrect — is that Johnson’s election majority came from some people who were still Brexit true-believers, and from a larger group of people who just wanted Brexit to go away, who were sick of it dominating the news cycle, sick of anticipating it, and yearned to see the back of it. Either way, it took the wind from my Remainer-y sails. And now here we are: trapped in a BNP-flavour Brexit that is having and will continue to have a great many negative consequences for many people. A Brexit that will deliver on none of the specific promises made during the referendum campaign — easiest deal in history, us enjoying all the advantages of the EU and none of the disadvantages, £350 million a week more for the NHS etc — and whose ‘upsides’ are (to return to my original theme) purely discursive. It delivers ‘sovereignty’ (what was called in the referendum control) as a hermetically sealed ideologeme, something about which supporters can feel good, rather than a thing that delivers any beneficial material advantages to the man and woman in the street.

I don’t think I understood until relatively recently (a sign I daresay of my political myopia) how largely Brexit itself is now just this hermetic ideologeme, defined in terms of winning. The narrative here is seductive and toxic: you, simple Brexiteer, are the ordinary man or woman. Against you were stacked the tyrannical forces of government, the media, the liberal and metropolitan elites, foreign powers, embedded privilege, corruption — and yet you picked up your rusty sword and battered shield, took on the many-headed dragon and won. Brexit is that victory, not anything else — not improvements in material prosperity, not a better funded NHS, not saving the UK fishing industry, but just that ideologeme. Here’s Kelvin MacKenzie, a man with an imagination almost as impoverished as Donald Trump’s:

I suppose it doesn’t surprise me that MacKenzie segues directly from triumphalism over ‘winning’ Brexit to a call for the return of the death penalty. What better rebus of winning could there be, in this sense, than gloating over the corpse of your enemy? Of course MacKenzie wants that.

So what do we do? I suggest we remember that discourse increasingly floats free of actuality. My prediction is that Trump will fade away during 2021, and that he won’t run again in 2024, because Trumpism is so entirely predicated upon him as a winner that, having lost first the election and then re-lost it, via his various keystone-cops attempts to overturn the vote, he is irremediably tainted with loser-ness. Brexit will be more complicated. Those who oppose it need to be consistent in presenting it not just as a terrible outcome but as a loss, a defeat, a failure. I think we can do so, and not only because I think it actually is those things; but also because once it is behind us many of the people who voted Johnson in to ‘get it done’ will be angry at the effect it has on their lives in a way that won’t be assuaged by telling them what winners they are.

[Dec 2021] So, the predictions, in the last paragraph there, don’t look good, at the end of this year. For one thing, Trump hasn’t ‘faded away’ during 2021, and it looks increasingly likely he’ll run again. In a sense this even follows from my guess here, and perhaps I should have anticipated it. A different, more politically-intelligent operator wouldn’t stand himself in 2024 — he’s too old, he’s much too divisive, he could pull-off another 2016 upset but he’s just as likely to alienate enough voters to lose yet again, perhaps very badly. A more politically-intelligent operator would select a younger, more electorally-appealing Trump-disciple to stand, endorse him/her, and then exercise power from behind the throne. But Trump doesn’t want to be an éminence grise. He doesn’t want to exercise power from behind the throne because he doesn’t really want to exercise power at all: he has no real agenda, no plan, no vision for America beyond ‘Trump wins!’ — and, for Trump, winning is a public performance, a rally, a cheering crowd, all the media focused on him. So I think he will run again.

Brexit is more complicated, I think; and my suggestion that it could be spun as a loss doesn’t seem to have any real-world political purchase, actually. It is still pure ideologeme, I think: asked in Parliament recently by Putney MP Fleur Anderson why the government has not (as any competent and responsible government would) undertaken region-by-region studies of the impact of Brexit, Rees-Mogg evaded the question with some posh-boy nonsense about Gloria in Excelsis and happy fish. It’s ludicrous, but that’s where we are; and it does speak to a sense that to ask for the concrete economic or social benefits of Brexit is simply to miss the point.

One of Trump’s problems is that nobody in his party loves him. He is seen as a way of mobilising the (large) deplorable vote, tolerated for his base, or say rather not removed for fear of alienating his base. Johnson, in the UK, is in a similar position: he has no acoyltes, no true-believers in his party (the way Thatcher had genuine Thatcherites). He is tolerated insofar as his clown persona and bonhomie are believed to be appealing to voters, and insofar as ‘He Got Brexit Done!’ is seen as an electoral positive. But both these things have now swung back against BoJo. The latter recedes into history — as I argue above, I think the majority of those who voted for Get Brexit Done in 2019 were not enthusiasts for Brexit, but rather people sick to the back teeth of Brexit, people who wanted it to go away. But if it goes away than BoJo can’t ride on the credit for it, and if it doesn’t go away then people will just get sicker and sicker of it.

The really remarkable thing over the last month has been the way Partygate has cut through. Boris’s clown-persona only works, electorally, when people think he is laughing with us. All those parties last year, that dreadful press-conference rehearsal, the drip-drip of revelations, and that switches about: now it looks like all those wealthy, upper-class Tories are laughing at us. That’s the danger of the ‘winning! winning!! winning!!!’ ideologeme: it is conceived entirely in terms of “I win, you lose”. Whilst the ‘you’ was (as it might be) the EU, the Remoaner metropolitan elite, foreigners and so on, it worked. But once the dynamic is perceived to have shifted, and the laughing-we become wealthy Tories flouting the constraints and humiliations of lockdown and economic collapse, awarding themselves and their chums billion£-contracts from the public purse and jollying-it up with cheese and wine, then the laughed-at ‘you’ becomes: you, sir, and you, madam. And that’s bad news for the laughing-we.

What about my broader sense of this post, one year on? On reflection, I think ‘winning’ has more ideological and political purchase in the States than over here (although, not living in the US, and lacking any on-the-ground actual experience of the place, I may be mischaracterising and misunderstanding it). I think a sizeable portion of the original Brexit majority felt themselves to be in some sense ‘losing’ — overlooked, neglected, udermined or affronted by foreignness and immigration and bureacrats — and accordingly felt that Brexit represented them ‘winning’ in some sense. But I’m increasingly convinced the Johnson’s 2019 election victory was the result of a rather larger group of people who didn’t want to ‘win’ so much as to be allowed to get on with their lives. Who wanted all the upheaval and bitterness and tribalism and so on to go away. That’s something other than winning, and it is extremely unfortunate for Boris that Brexit’s aftermath coincides with Lockdown and other disruptions, a necessary (I woud say) but intrusive and oppressive state of affairs in which people are very much not able to just get on with their lives. At the beginning of the Covid emergency there was some frustration expressed by people on the left that the government would, as it were, camoflage the immediate bad effects of Brexit by blaming everything on the lockdown. But, two years into the emergency, I don’t think that’s the main worry now. On the contrary, I think the linking of the two things in the popular mind, Brexit and Covid, has tainted Boris wholly. He will always be that terrible P.M. who presided over a period of misery and fear and government interference in ours lives. His skillsets, the non-stick bluster-and-clownery act, suddenly becomes a massive liability.



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