Last Monday, Angela Smith, the Labour member of Parliament for Penistone & Stockbridge (yes, that is a real constituency and no, as far as I know there’s no broad-based movement to make all the place names in the UK sensible again) joined six other MPs in leaving the party to form a new, half-specified “Independent Group,” a non-party now also joined by a few “moderate” ex-Tories. If the Independent Group has a politics, then it is a politics that the British media very much shares, so in general they’ve received coverage far more fawning than they deserve. But for Smith, at least, it’s fair to say that the announcement didn’t go quite as well as she might have hoped.
The Labour defectors left for a bunch of disparate reasons. All were clearly upset with the leftward direction their former party has taken under its current leader, Jeremy Corbyn — an ideological shift which has denied them opportunities for promotions. But they've also mentioned anti-Semitism; there has been a general feeling that anti-Semitic abuse within Labour has not been handled by the party hierarchy with the seriousness it deserves. Some feel these allegations have been weaponized cynically by the right-wing press — the political right, of course, is also prone to rampant displays of anti-Semitism, which often go comparatively underreported. But that’s not a reason the left shouldn’t feel ashamed about what’s been happening here. It might not seem strategically fair, but fighting for a better world does tend to mean you’ll get held to a higher standard than your opponents, and that need not be a bad thing. The demand should be that we meet that standard.
Smith, however, is a strange figure. Before leaving the party, she was known primarily for her somewhat idiosyncratic enthusiasm for privatizing water, an industry in which both she and her husband (wouldn’t you believe) have financial interest. Although she ostensibly left the Labour party in solidarity with British Jews, she used her departure speech to pour scorn on the old anti-Semitic dogwhistle of “left-wing intellectuals.” This was not without precedent — last year she criticized Corbyn for failing to take anti-Semitism seriously when he attended what was, in her gentile eyes at least, the wrong sort of Passover “seber.”.
Corbyn’s attendance at the Jewdas seber reads as a blatant dismissal of the case made for tackling anti-Semitism in Labour. #EnoughisEnough— Angela Smith MP (@angelasmithmp) April 2, 2018
Only a few hours into the Independent Group’s existence, things got worse. In a conversation about fighting racism on the BBC's Politics Live, Smith stated the issue is “not just about color.” “It's not just about being black,” she said, “or... a funny... kind of tinge... er… different... FROM THE BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) COMMUNITY.” It was like her brain had started to melt, and then some sort of emergency brain had kicked in just a few short agonizing seconds too late.
Self-regarding, openly corruption-adjacent, and clearly perfectly happy to grandstand about issues she is very iffy on herself, Smith is a grotesque: exactly the sort of individual I always assume people are talking about when they say they hate or can't trust politicians any more. It was therefore surprising to see, mere hours after her very public gaffe, a poll which suggested voters see the new Independent Group as more representative of “the people of Britain” than the Labour party under Corbyn.
Is this really what the people of Britain think is good and normal? Is this really who they want to represent them?
This raises a question I’ve been thinking about a lot: what does it mean for a politician to seem normal? I'd always assumed that “being normal” was something that any ambitious politician would aspire to be. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example, at least early on seemed to cultivate the image of a relaxed, loose-tied suburban dad, hip to Britpop and always ready to bust out a few chords on the guitar. His spiritual successor, David Cameron, performed a similar trick — although with the hipness pitched down and the poshness turned up. In both cases, the general idea seemed to be to come across like someone with whom their target voters might work, or who they might chance upon at a family gathering — a colleague who’s mostly OK or an in-law you don’t particularly hate, that sort of vibe.
But nowadays, things seem to have been turned on their heads. Attempts by politicians to seem relatable often come across as cartoonishly clumsy. Consider the evidence of Twitter bios from the likes of “dark-chocolate connoisseur” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, or former Labour MP and “Beatles and curry obsessive” Michael Dugher. In both syntax and general feel, these statements resemble nothing more than the bios of “bacon maven” twitter bots from the early 2010s.
But is even attempting to simulate normality worth it anymore, electorally speaking? If we consider who actually gets elected these days... maybe not. It's certainly hard to look at Donald Trump without coming to the conclusion that yes: this is the strangest man in the whole United States. In winning the Republican nomination, Trump beat a world-historically odd collection of ghouls, including Ted Cruz, a man whose online brand can literally be reduced to “people think that he's the Zodiac Killer” (a meme that his official twitter account now effectively endorses as canon ).
Our interests divide us: and across this division we can only stare at each other in mutual, blinking, incomprehension.
Back in Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May seemed normal to a lot of people when she first emerged; something about her general demeanor, big harried headmistress energy, caused a certain section of the public to see her as a “safe pair of hands.” But during her term as prime minister it has become painfully apparent not only how incompetent she is but also just how deeply, how bafflingly, weird. This is a woman who attempts to negotiate by sitting everyone down in front of her and reading off a script; whose only memory of ever violating any of the rules imposed on her during childhood involves “running through a field of wheat” without obtaining first obtaining the farmer’s permission.
Perhaps the ultimate Weird Politician is former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who is best-known internationally as someone who ate a raw onion as if it were an apple. In public. And on more than one occasion. Please, watch the video of him doing it: it’s like watching a clip out of a movie in which an alien, having assumed human shape, slips out of its skin by mistake, inadvertently revealing its true form.
Political weirdness tends to be more associated with the right. The more right-wing the party, the more determined it seems to put someone unfathomably strange in high office. But it would be wrong to assume such parties have a total monopoly on weirdness. I've mentioned the Independent Group already (they also count this guy among their numbers). Of the Democratic presidential hopefuls in the U.S., one has already been discovered to have made up a drug dealer named T-Bone, while another has been revealed to be the sort of person who regularly throws office equipment at her employee’s heads and eats salad with a comb. The uncanniness of the former leader of the British Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron, has literally inspired a two-hour rock opera.
So what's going on here? Why does the establishment seem so oddball-friendly? And why do we appear to insist on being ruled by the least human-like human beings on the planet?
In philosophy there is a way of analyzing things, going back to Aristotle, in terms of their purpose, function, or characteristic activity. This analysis allows us to employ a particular grammar of goodness and badness: a good knife is one that cuts well, for example; a good boat is one that floats well. In the case of living things, all creatures are geared in some sense towards survival, in part as individuals but primarily as a species. Different species can be delineated from each other by virtue of the fact that they do different things in order to survive. A good cheetah will need to be fast to catch their prey, but no one would fault a koala for barely being able to move. Because the individuals of any given species are united in the way that they are, they thus share a general species’ interest. There are some things that are “good for the species” — and these things may not always be what is best for individual members of it.
It's common in philosophy seminars to assert that Marx was influenced by Aristotle — or, at any rate, by this Aristotelian way of looking at things. But Marx was no orthodox Aristotelian. In particular, he did not think that human beings shared any sort of genuinely unified interest because the human species has yet to be historically born.
Human individuals exist, of course, but as a species, we are divided by the antagonistic interests of different economic classes. Under capitalism, this means the familiar antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. At the end of Marx’s philosophy of history lurks the possibility of a genuinely unified, genuinely human, Communist society. But at present, appeals to our shared humanity will always seem like a meaningless platitude: because the people in power, in a very real sense, do not function like the rest of us — their interests and ours are fundamentally opposed.
Another incident last week, in which a group of school-age kids petitioned California Sen. Dianne Feinstein to support the Green New Deal only to be told, effectively, that they should shut up and wait until they’re old enough to vote and/or run for office, taught a harsh and, I hope (for those kids at least) valuable lesson: that power is baffling and uncaring, and the powerful inhabit a libidinal and moral order completely opposed to our own.
Our interests separate us from the powerful, and across this division we can only stare at each other in mutual, blinking, incomprehension. The more divided the society, the greater the confusion — hence why pre-financial crash, politicians might have still been able to appeal to a generally agreed-upon ideal of normality, which is something that can no longer exist.
Is there any way that we might cross this divide? Calls for civility are little more than an attempt to paper over it. This applies to the recent buzz-term “anti-billionaire bias”, in which pleas to respect our world’s poor maligned billionaires ignore the idea that no basis for such respect can exist. Even something as serious as climate change, which threatens all life on earth just insofar as it is life, seems unable (witness Feinstein) to provide the basis for a genuinely universal system of interests.
If we believe Marx, the only way to bridge this gap is through violent insurrection. Universal humanity can only be established with the end of capitalism, but the bourgeoisie cannot be expected to give up their rights to the means of production without a fight. Surely, at any rate, this would explain why the rich might see unashamedly left-wing politicians, who often exude a humanity and decency remarkably transcendent of their robotic right-wing counterparts, as almost monstrously threatening. They realize, on some primal level at least, what following through on the logic of their politics would entail.