Mediocrity and Managed Decline

Boris Johnson, Political Theatre, and Magical Thinking

✎  WAYNE K. SPEAR | JULY 28, 2019 • Current Events

BORIS JOHNSON’S first Parliamentary appearance as Prime Minister was a performance, but you needn’t have been told. Again in the Anglo-American world a celebrity made-for-television brand has sailed into office and it happens that you can step into the same river twice. Britain’s age of mediocrity and managed decline is over, said Mr. Johnson, adding other doses of self-help therapy and positive thinking. On the world’s stage Johnson has played the Etonian twit, provocateur and prevaricating flâneur, but in his new self-styled role—of Churchill—he now cajoles the British to Stay Calm and Carry On and to weather a storm that he himself created.

We live in an age of theatre and magical thinking, but the Boris Johnsons of our world are symptoms rather than diseases, and as such not to be held responsible. Given an opportunity the people will doubtless anoint him, as elsewhere idiots are receiving the village mandate. A no-deal exit is the path of least skill and effort to the maximum of chaos, reflecting the character of its perpetrators. It’s hard to imagine Johnson failing so long as success is defined in subjective sentiments rather than as objective units of achievement. It will do for this Prime Minister that the tribe is forever angry and anxious for a scapegoat. Johnson is a student of the classics and knows what an ostrakon is. He has learned from Herodotus that historia (ἱστορία) is found where power and drama meet, and he will be certain to whip the Hellespont.

Meanwhile as we are laughing at the spectacle he will govern in the manner of every iconoclast and populist—as a generic kleptocrat. His administration will starve the treasury of corporate revenues and put the makers of red tape out of business, thereby rewarding the special interests who fund his campaigns, and the foregone taxes will be balanced against diminished government services and enlarged deficits. His social and economic class will receive their comfort in the form of hard currency while the people get soft sawder. Carrie Symonds will keep at the business of making it harder to comment upon the buffonish cut of Johnson’s jib, but she will not conquer his love of rocking the ship. As in the past Johnson will claim that up is down and that the weaker is the stronger, and his policy on cake will continue to be “pro having it and pro eating it.” Apart from this the Prime Minister’s policies and principles remain a matter of divination, and best of luck. All we can know as certain is that Prime Minister Johnson will persist at the throwing of dead cats on dining-room tables and that it will take a Delian Diver to get to the bottom of his appetite for attention.

As I have said Johnson and his kind are a symptom and not the disease. The disease is credulity, and you will find it in large measure among his enablers. In the weeks and months ahead we will be informed that Mr. Johnson is not the tosser apprehended by our feeble human senses but a player of multi-dimensional chess. Somewhere Britain’s Ben Garrison will appear, to materialize the delusion of Johnson as a Saviour-King—one might as well start with this Quillette passage, by Toby Young:

With his huge mop of blond hair, his tie askew and his shirt escaping from his trousers, he looked like an overgrown schoolboy. Yet with his imposing physical build, his thick neck and his broad, Germanic forehead, there was also something of Nietzsche’s Übermensch about him. You could imagine him in lederhosen, wandering through the Black Forest with an axe over his shoulder, looking for ogres to kill. This same combination—a state of advanced dishevelment and a sense of coiled strength, of an almost tangible will to power—was even more pronounced in his way of speaking.

There is something Nietzschean going on here, or perhaps it’s pseudo-Nietzschean, and I’ve noticed it among the supporters of populism. It’s not the will to power so much as the will to believe. They understand perfectly that politicians are corrupt and incorrigible, that the system is against them, that corporations are getting away with murder, and that the populace is fed on a diet of lies. They believe no one and trust nothing—with one exception, a man (it is always a man) for whom they will suspend all disbelief. This man, these otherwise jaded cynics conclude, is different: he is doing this for me, and not for power or theatre. And once again they step into that river. ⌾