The UK chose barbarism. Now what?

Labour’s doomed campaign still leaves a passionate network of activists who want more for the country.

The UK chose barbarism. Now what?

Labour’s doomed campaign still leaves a passionate network of activists who want more for the country.

Last week’s election results were a verdict on the people of the UK by the people of the UK. The country was given a choice between Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, running on a transformative manifesto of green investment and social justice, and the ruling Conservatives, who have governed for the best part of a decade now with a consistent record of malice and incompetence, offering only a Loud Part, the slogan “Get Brexit Done,” and a Quiet Part, “so we can roll back civil liberties and privatize the National Health Service.” It was as straight a choice as we are ever likely to be given between socialism and barbarism.

And we chose barbarism. We chose barbarism by a fucking landslide.

It felt like a punch in the stomach — but then again, what election results don’t, these days? In the dawn hours between Thursday and Friday, I lay awake in bed in the house my partner grew up in, which as it happens lies in Sedgefield; former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s old seat, and thus perhaps the most symbolically important of the formerly strong northern Labour seats, devastated by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher following the Miner’s Strike in 1984, which swung this time to blue. Not shocked (from what I had seen during the campaign, I could not be shocked at the result), but angry, and sick with worry — for the people for whom this result will feel like a death sentence; for the people for whom this means they may no longer be able to live and work in the country they have chosen as their home; for my infant son, and what this will mean for his life.

In the wake of what has just happened, there will be people saying that many Tory voters were duped, that they were tricked — perhaps by a media often intensely hostile to the left — into voting against their own interests. But this is on the level of the “it was Russia!” explanation for Brexit or Trump. Misinformation was rife, but what’s important is our perception of it. Our perception of the world is shaped not only by what information we are exposed to, or by what sort of evidence or testimony we have found reliable to the past. Our perception is formed, in part, by our desires.

I am reminded of what the French philosophy duo Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari describe in their 1972 book Anti-Oedipus as the “fundamental question of political philosophy”: “Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation? How can people possibly reach the point of shouting: ‘More taxes! Less bread!’?” They write:

“As [the psychoanalyst Wilhelm] Reich remarks, the astonishing thing is not that some people steal or that others occasionally go out on strike, but rather that all those who are starving do not steal as a regular practice, and all those who are exploited are not continually out on strike: after centuries of exploitation, why do people still tolerate being humiliated and enslaved, to such a point, indeed, that they actually want humiliation and slavery not only for others but for themselves? Reich is at his profoundest as a thinker when he refuses to accept ignorance or illusion on the part of the masses as an explanation of fascism, and demands an explanation that will take their desires into account, an explanation formulated in terms of desire: no, the masses were not innocent dupes; at a certain point, under a certain set of conditions, they wanted fascism, and it is this perversion of the desire of the masses that needs to be accounted for.”

The most revealing event in the general election campaign came a few days before the end, when a shocking photo was published by the Daily Mirror showing a four year-old boy who had been admitted to Leeds General Infirmary with suspected pneumonia wearing an oxygen mask and lying — due to a shortage of beds — on a pile of coats. The photo became major news: not just as an illustration of the damage almost 10 years of Tory rule has done to the NHS, but also because of the Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s almost cartoonishly callous reaction to it. When ITV reporter Jon Pike attempted to show Johnson the photo on his phone, Johnson initially refused to look, before — quite literally — stealing Pike’s phone and putting it in his pocket.

But what was most important about the Leeds hospital photo was not Johnson’s reaction, but rather that of the general public. Obviously, the force of the photo, when the Mirror published it, was supposed to be: “fucking hell, the Tories have let the health care system get really bad. How can anyone in good conscience vote for them?” But online, almost immediately, rumors spread that the photo had been staged by the child’s Labour-supporting mother simply to make the Tories look bad. Don’t worry everyone, the conspiracy around the photo seemed to say, you don’t actually need to care about any of this. Caring is just something they’re trying to trick you into doing to get you to vote for a better world.

In this conspiracy, then, I felt a desire I recognized from talking to people far less enthusiastic about the possibility of a Labour government than me, especially the property-owning middle-aged men who comprise the Tories’ demographically most solid basis of support. A desire that also manifests itself in the belief that climate change is a hoax, or that every homeless person you see begging on the street “really” lives a very comfortable life in an expensive house, or that if your colleague calls in sick they must be bunking off. This desire is, simply, the desire not to care. The desire to be able to explain away all of the horror and suffering in the world as an elaborate sham, created by people more comfortable and less hard-working than you, in order to line their own pockets.

Thatcher famously declared that there was “no such thing as society,” only “individual men and women... and families.” And this is the desire of the sort of individuals her government’s economic reforms helped create: atomized subjects, who share nothing of their neighbour’s joys, who wish the world would simply stop at their own front door. If there is any suffering in the world that ought to matter, than it can only really be yours, and possibly that of your partner and your children. You get on, only ever feeling like you’ve just enough, perhaps less — so why should anyone else feel entitled to demand more?

The present conditions, increasingly common not only in the UK but across the developed world are of the sort that seem apt to inculcate stoicism: the resigned turn inward to the self, as the last vestige of possible goodness in the bad.

The Tories won this election by holding together the electoral coalition which delivered the similarly gut-punching Leave result in the Brexit referendum in 2016. “Brexit” is often assumed to name some sort of coherent political project to Leave the European Union. But in truth, there were all sorts of ways the referendum result could have been interpreted: as a vote for free trade and globalization (to slash EU regulation and turn the UK into a sort of “Singapore-on-Thames”); as a vote against free trade and globalization (to retreat from the EU and, with it, global trade entirely); as a vote against immigration and the free movement of peoples; as a vote, simply, against the then-Prime Minister David Cameron.

Hence, perhaps, why the UK has spent the last three years unable to agree not only on the terms by which Brexit ought to proceed, but whether it even ought to happen at all. The fact is that “Brexit” never really meant anything in particular — perhaps the most important reason why Leave won was simply that politicians like Cameron, a man who oozed slick, establishment entitlement, very obviously didn’t want people to vote for it. People were sick of being forced, every election, to vote for some politician, standing as a candidate for a political party, who would then only go on to do more politics as a result. Brexit was simply one great Fuck You: a rejection of what the political establishment wanted — and with this, politics itself.

In 2017, the Tories ran as an unambiguously pro-Brexit party, which sought to deliver Brexit as if doing so would be good in-and-of itself: they lost their majority. But in 2019, the Tories won in a landslide by promising to deliver Brexit simply in order to get Brexit done. Previously, the Tories had been the party of Brexit, but they had never quite been the party of the Brexit “Fuck You” (hence, in part, why they were defeated by the “Brexit Party” at the EU elections earlier this year). Now they are: they offer their supporters nothing.

This election has been pitched as era-defining and historically decisive. If you ask me, the bulk of Tory supporters now expect that it will be used to get politics to simply stop. The Tories have already set about this, announcing plans to ban transport workers from going on strike, and to prevent public bodies from taking action in solidarity with Palestine.

But politics will not stop, regardless of how forcefully the Tories eliminate legal methods of resistance. For all this election was won by the Brexit “Fuck You,” it was also defined by a great declaration of wanting more. Labour’s campaign was doomed — but the party still managed to mobilize tens of thousands of activists, tirelessly canvassing every marginal as if to squeeze out each last drop of potential support. This was often hard, grueling work, which one could return from feeling disenchanted and exhausted — in cold, wet weather as the nights drew in, with activists often facing open hostility and even violence. But that’s just part of what makes what Labour activists did in this election a phenomenal achievement — regardless of the result.

There are still a critical mass of people in this country who feel the need for a better world; who long for it in everything they do.

There will now follow a chorus of demands that we extinguish this desire. Corbyn’s party lost badly: now, in almost every op-ed in the broadsheet press (at least with the exception of the ones written by people trying desperately to convince themselves that Johnson might actually be secretly a really good bloke), the death of Corbynism is being declared. How stupid we all were, to think that good things were possible! Opposing Labour factions like the quasi-fascist “Blue Labour” (the motto of which is literally a translation of the one adopted by Vichy France) are using the defeat to try and push the party rightwards; elements of the media are strongly pushing the candidacy of Jess Phillips, a Boris-style “character” politician whose main vision for the Labour party is that it should become a vehicle for getting Jess Phillips on the TV more.

The Labour party now have a huge activist network, deflated but still passionate.

This despairing demand must be resisted. With a victory like this, it is entirely possible that the Tories will be in power for the next 20 years (indeed: they are already setting about gerrymandering constituency boundaries to make this more likely). For people my age, there may never come a point where the nagging dread that the thought of the Tories having power over you produces fades away. By the time it does (if it does) it may already be too late to right their wrongs.

The present conditions, increasingly common not only in the UK but across the developed world — where a populist hard-right government appears to be laying the ground to combat the looming disaster of climate change not by transitioning from a capitalist, fossil fuel-burning economy but rather with the “armed lifeboat” of eco-fascism — are of the sort that seem apt to inculcate stoicism: the resigned turn inward to the self, as the last vestige of possible goodness in the bad. This urge must be resisted. Granted, it may very well be necessary to “let yourself have nice things,” where such things are possible — live, at times, contentedly in the moment (I can’t be the only one who would dearly like to be able to spend Christmas with my mind completely turned off). But to live as if this is all anyone might hope for is to capitulate to the logic of atomization.

I cannot pretend to know what we must do, instead. But here are two thoughts. The first is that even if we can’t hope to live in a good world ourselves — either right now, or ever — that doesn’t mean the good is also going to be impossible for future generations. After last week’s defeat, I have felt profoundly blessed that 2019 was also the year I got to welcome my son: he doesn’t even really know his own name yet, and can gurgle happily and stuff anything he’s able to grab into his mouth regardless of who the prime minister is (of course he can also squirm and scream and shit all the way up his back, but you know). It’s likely to be an uphill battle against what is already a disastrously underfunded schools system (and if that wasn’t bad enough, his father is a Marxist academic, which traditionally results in some very terrible children), but I have a duty to raise him against the grain of a nasty, bullying reality; to make him smart and strong and good enough to stand up to it.

My second thought is that I can help show my son how to do this by participating more directly in activism and community organizing (he has already been out canvassing far more than most four-month olds would usually be expected to have been). This Tory victory means a lot more people are going to need a lot more help: not in five years, when maybe we have a chance of booting them out/reducing their majority, but right now, in the present.

The key failure of the Corbyn movement, especially after the 2017 near-miss, was a sort of electoral Messianism, where it was assumed that we could place all our hopes in a Labour victory — and a solidly left government — next time. This was always a very passive hope, especially given the wretched state of the British public sphere. Now, we know we can’t afford to wait around: post-defeat there has already been a lot of talk about how Labour need to build back from the ground up, stepping in to help people where the state refuses, and using this as an opportunity to provide political education as they do so. We need to find a way to be the better world we want to see.

The task ahead is huge — I barely know where to start (though I’m interested in talking to whoever thinks they might!). But the Labour party now has a huge activist network, deflated but still passionate. For those who still have faith in the possibility of a better world: the work of hope goes on. We cannot afford to waste this moment.

Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.