Fuck Business: Johnsonism, Hegemony and the Popular Classes

EDITION: Bad New Times.

No election can be won without significant support from within the popular classes. Johnsonism represents the hegemony of the most reactionary fractions of capital because of their capacity to command this support.

This piece is part of our What Is ‘Johnsonism’? series.

My argument is that Johnsonism is a rather desperate strategy whereby the hegemony of certain, quite surprising, fractions of capital over others (an internal hegemonic process) is determined by the ability of these fractions to command the support of electorally decisive fractions of the popular classes (and external hegemonic process). This thesis is what I’d like to unpack, though necessarily in a schematic and in some ways a deliberately provocative way – sticks are certainly bent at certain points, but I think, in generative directions.

To begin with, “Johnsonism” needs some defence as a concept, and it’s worth addressing criticisms of the usefulness of “Thatcherism” to explore these. One line of criticism, advanced by Tony Benn most clearly, argued that “Thatcherism” individualised the problem for the left: “if Thatcher was, in truth, the real problem the Brighton bombers might have solved it for us” (so, equally, if Johnson was, in truth, the real problem, Corona might have solved it for us). For Benn, the term “Thatcherism” obfuscates “deep-seated” questions around the strategies of “a decaying British capitalism”. Another view was advanced in slightly different ways—and not entirely rejecting the concept of “Thatcherism”—by Bob Jessop and others in their debate with Stuart Hall (a debate we should return to), and by Raymond Williams. This view argued that “Thatcherism” imposed a false unity, constituted by “ideologism”, claiming it as a successful and unique hegemonic project, flattening its contradictions in a “block diagnosis” and missing, as Williams puts it, aspects of a “social situation which was always more diverse, more volatile and more temporary.”

Ideologism remains a substantial danger in the analysis of Johnsonism, which risks obscuring material factors, especially around race, particularly in terms of how we might explain the drawing-in of support from fractions of the popular classes. As Jessop and others argue, “ideologism” risks treating the support of the popular classes for a right-wing project as in some senses irrational—Jessop and others argue that the ideologism of the authoritarian populism thesis neglects

the structural underpinnings of Thatcherism in the economic and state systems and its specific economic and political bases of support among both people and the power bloc.

Strikingly for certain left analyses of Johnson, Jessop and the others also stress that this approach leads to an overemphasis on the dissembling role of the mass media. I want to argue that there is a deep and troubling rationality to the support of parts of the popular classes for Johnsonism, and that this cannot be explained through ideology—especially not through ideology understood as media-led disinformation. A common position held today on Johnson is the argument that what binds parts of the working class to a right-wing project is an ideological creation of scapegoats to obscure the real sources of social problems which is often held to be “elites” or “the establishment”, both of which are limiting concepts in their own right. It should be clear that racism is indeed a significant foundation of Johnsonism, but it is a mistake to conceptualise racism as merely ideological. Whiteness is not just an ideological mystification; it has real material bases.

I want to argue that the conception of “Johnsonism” can, perhaps more effectively (and this is a paradox as Thatcher was obviously a more substantial individual) than “Thatcherism” conceptualise a quite bizarre strategy of the capitalist state. “Boris” is the form that gives the contradictions space to move whilst also cohering them. Thinking through the way in which Johnsonism coheres an extremely fragile coalition (I want to write bloc, but this would perhaps give it too much unity) can help us grasp exactly what is diverse, volatile and temporary in the situation. The task in part, then, is to attempt to follow Marx, who in his 1869 preface to The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, described how

the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part.

The contrast Marx makes with Victor Hugo in this preface is clarifying too, on the one hand then we have a contrast to Benn for whom any personalisation risks obscuring structural factors, and, on the other, a contrast with the liberal lampooning of Johnson (or Cummings). For Marx, Hugo (like contemporary liberal commentators):

confines himself to bitter and witty invective against the responsible producer of the coup d’etat. The event itself appears in his work like a bolt from the blue. He sees in it only the violent act of a single individual. He does not notice that he makes this individual great instead of little by ascribing to him a personal power of initiative unparalleled in world history.

Marx’s analysis here is of a specific social formation and political process and, therefore, operates in a distinct way from the analysis of the capitalist mode of production. What this means is that rather than the worker/capitalist binary appropriate to the analysis of a mode of production and its object of investigation, we encounter a variety of classes and class fractions, defined in part through struggle, whose political effects are relatively indeterminate. It is in class relations and problems of political articulation that the source of the grotesque mediocrity’s playing the hero’s part can be found whether that grotesque mediocrity is Louis Napoleon or Boris Johnson.

There is a suggestive analysis of the class fractions behind “No Deal” and Johnson’s winning of the Tory leadership by Will Davies. Davies argues that the basis for what we’re calling Johnsonism is a particularly English “rentier alliance”. Davies is right to try to get behind the political-cultural identities represented in Johnsonism towards exploring what economic formation is at work. Davies is also correct to argue that what we’re calling “Johnsonism” is not hegemonic in the sense of the rentier alliance being “a particular interest that comes to appear like a general interest” (at least if the question of hegemony is about appearance and a general interest of the whole of society). However, I think, for all the usefulness of Davies’s account as a starting-point, there are three inter-related problems with it. Firstly, the stick is bent too far and Davies’s account becomes economistic, meaning it overlooks the impotance of particular moments of political articulation. Secondly, hegemony is understood in a limited way. Thirdly, the commonalities of interest and class positions of the “rentier alliance” are underthought. This means that Davies is unable to think Johnsonism as being, in part, the effect of a fraction of the popular classes on the power bloc. In this way Davies’s economism essentially ignores the question (even if that question is answered wrongly) at the heart of “ideologism”: ideologism asks: what is it that makes the popular classes support a right-wing over a left-wing project? On the question of the popular classes, ideologism treats them largely as passive dupes, part of the coalition, but without any ability to have effects. Economism, however, ignores the question entirely. Thus, Davies’s economism tends towards treating the vast majority of Johnsonism’s support as coming from his posited “rentier alliance” rather than having, to a politically significant extent, a a popular base.

The question Davies does not pose is why the quite bizarre fractions of capital – essentially the “fuck business” fractions of capital - or as he puts it, “maverick entrepreneurs (bosses of JCB and Wetherspoons), private equity barons and hedge fund managers. This is decentralised, disruptive, disorganised, private capital, that looks at the likes of Johnson and Farage as kindred spirits in the project of injecting a bit of chaos into the liberal economic system” - are in the driving seat politically. The question here, then, is not of an appearance of the general interest of capital (let alone society as a whole), but of the actual functioning of these interests as the general interest of capital, cemented in the state and incarnated rhetorically and through policy (most notably no deal Brexit). Why do (or did) the fractions of capital institutionalised in “conventional business lobbies, who care about international supply chains, regulatory stability, skills and support for innovation” accept the leadership of these fractions?

The theory of the capitalist state is not a theory of a state which is insulated from non-capitalist classes. Quite the opposite: it is, to a major extent, a theory of how hegemony is maintained and reproduced through the state, how a fragile equilibrium of compromises is secured, and how the state is affected by the popular classes. Social democracy represents the clearest way in which popular classes have affected the capitalist state without a revolutionary rupture – as Poulantzas argues — but it is not the only mode of these effects; “Johnsonism” also represents a particular way by which the popular classes can have non-revolutionary effects on the state.

Davies’s “rentier alliance” is ultimately drawn both too widely and too narrowly. This is a function of him not being to work through the political construction of a cross-class alliance. Davies was writing before the 2019 election, so the crucial role of the so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats is understated. Moreover, in the post-Brexit arguments, there were good reasons to aim to de-emphasise Northern ‘post-industrial’ voters and stress the role of the other crucial component in the rentier alliance, the “comfortable Telegraph-reading retiree in Hampshire”. However, now, when it seems clear that the votes in the ‘Red Wall’, seats of class fractions in many cases less comfortably off than the Hampshire retiree, are electorally decisive those corrections are analytically and strategically unhelpful. In the notion of the rentier alliance then the coalition is too narrow, there are simply not enough voters in here to win an election. Since the expansion of the franchise in the 19th century, it has never been possible to win an election without significant support from the popular classes. Indeed, what was Disraeli’s political innovation but the early and imaginative grasping of this?

On the other hand, the “rentier” category is drawn too widely. As a social basis it makes little sense; a problem which is half-acknowledged by Davies when he writes:

we can therefore look at the new conservative coalition as an alliance of rentiers…[but] not classic rentiers, in the form of monopolists or exploiters of unproductive capital. However, they are at a point in life where they have paid off their mortgages, and are living off the assets held by pension funds. They are worth something, independently of what they do.

At this point, are we really talking about enough shared interests between Tim Martin or a hedge fund and our Hampshire retiree to constitute a class fraction? There is a work of political articulation even within this coalition that cannot be derived directly from economic unity. Here, then, Davies’s economism overlaps with ideologism—both tendencies have no place for the relative indeterminacy of political articulation, and so both treat Johnsonism or Thatcherism as being more coherent than they actually are. Johnsonism and Thatcherism’s coherence is not given by economics, not even by ideology, but by the state’s stabalising of the fragile equilibrium of forces.

To talk about contradictory political articulations, particularly around Brexit, without talking about race is to miss almost all the point. We know that ‘Red Wall’ voters—particularly older, male, and most decisively white voters — were decisive in 2019. For reasons of space, I want to sidestep the fraught question of whether these ‘Red Wall’ voters are, strictly speaking, working class—but I think it’s important to assert, at a minimum, that they are part of the popular classes. Any election-winning alliance needs the support of parts of the popular classes, and the election was won precisely because the chaotic, “Fuck Business” fractions of capital were able to command enough popular support. The fractions described by Davies—reliant on international supply chains, regulatory stability, skills, and support for innovation—could not bring in the decisive fractions of the popular classes. The general interest of capital is not economic (what would secure growth or profits across the economy) but political (what secures the persistence of capital’s power as a precondition for accumulation). Hence a Brexit outcome detrimental (economically) to most but not all of capital. Hegemony here names both an internal relation, one based on non-antagonistic contradictions between the various fractions of capital, and the leadership of some over the others, and the external relation which determines it, securing the consent of enough of the popular classes. The unity of capital constituted in and through the state in how that power bloc is cohered and able to act is political much more than ideological.

Any election-winning alliance needs the support of parts of the popular classes, and the election was won precisely because the chaotic, “Fuck Business” fractions of capital were able to command enough popular support.

Of course, a decisive limit on the strategies of the hegemonised parts of capital was Corbyn. Those fractions were pushed into accepting subordination to the “Fuck Business” fractions because they felt they had nowhere else to go. The host of weird and embarrassing efforts we saw throughout 2019 — from Change UK, to demands for a national government, to attempted bureaucratic efforts to shift Corbyn, to Rory Stewart, to the talking up of the Lib Dems as an alternative government or possible coalition partner for the Conservatives — were all attempts to find somewhere else to go, to find a means of contesting who was the hegemonic fraction of capital through the party and Parliamentary system. In the end, unsurprisingly, all of these failed, and so they were left with the choice of Corbyn or acquiescence to the power of the Tim Martin and Anthony Bamford fractions of capital, who were able to command significant fractions of the popular classes. There is a question here of the coherence of this power bloc if Keir Starmer’s leadership gives capital its B-Team back. Johnsonism is not particularly what much of capital would have wanted—but it didn’t have many other options.

For our consideration of the popular classes and their materially-inscribed political interests, it is worth returning to two astonishingly pertinent observations made by Marx in the 18th Brumaire. The first, almost perfectly anticipating the role of “Boris” in the “People versus Parliament” antagonism, and thereby the organisation of the political polarisation, is Marx’s argument that

while each separate representative of the people represents only this or that party, this or that town, this or that bridgehead, or even only the mere necessity of electing someone as the seven hundred and fiftieth, without examining too closely either the cause or the man, he is the elect of the nation and the act of his election is the trump that the sovereign people plays once every four years. The elected National Assembly stands in a metaphysical relation, but the elected President in a personal relation, to the nation. The National Assembly, indeed, exhibits in its individual representatives the manifold aspects of the national spirit, but in the President this national spirit finds its incarnation. As against the Assembly, he possesses a sort of divine right; he is President by the grace of the people.

Nominally, of course, the UK does not have a directly elected President, but the increased Presidentialism of the governmental system—a tendency that, under Thatcher, Blair and “Boris” has stabilised a potential crisis—offers precisely this personal relation, against representative democracy and its resolution, a personalised standing above antagonism. This includes the conventional ways in which interests are represented—as Johnson’s “Fuck Business” line expresses, the Conservatives no longer (for now, at least) represent business in the conventional way.

The second aspect of how we can see Johnsonism inscribed in the popular classes is the link between this standing above antagonism and representation and the position of the petty bourgeoisie (here the role of members of the popular classes who are not unambiguously working class is decisive and the political meanings of this are relatively indeterminate). Johnson like the democrat in Marx’s account:

represents the petty bourgeoisie, a transitional class in which the interests of two classes meet and become blurred, he imagines he is elevated above class antagonisms generally. The democrats admit that they are confronted with a privileged class, but assert that they, along with all the rest of the nation, form the people.

Moreover, anticipating Johnson’s ability to recover from any embarrassment, and linked to his incarnation of the nation, he

emerges as spotless from the most shameful defeat as he was innocent when he went into it, fresh in his conviction that he must inevitably be victorious, taking the view that conditions must ripen to meet his requirements.

There is a striking political indeterminacy here when applied to 2019, as this representation of the petty bourgeoisie, here overlapping with legal challenges to Brexit and prorogation, simultaneously includes a tedious, ineffectual bleating against the violation of the constitution. Johnson, for the popular classes supporting him, has a particular capacity to represent the nation or people as a whole. This ‘people’ is cohered in the political service of a particular fraction of capital, to secure its hegemony over the rest. This is partially to do with the popular but not fully working class basis of this support, and partially to do with something that is compatible with Marx’s analysis but is absent from it—the question of race and the nation or ‘people’.

The logic of Johnsonism is inscribed in the possible political representations of particular parts of the popular classes. In that sense, their presence and impact is not merely an ideologically determined error. There are also wider material bases for Johnsonism in the interests of ‘Red Wall’ voters which, unlike the rentier alliance posited by Davies, require levels of government spending and intervention. The disorganisation of the popular classes which is the other side of the organisation of the exploiting classes is part of the hegemonic work of the capitalist state, and this disorganisation is often undertaken through material interventions that bring parts of the popular classes — often defined by race and gender —into the nation, further securing their stake in the current state of things. The procession of popular capitalism in widening share ownership, and particularly in the selling-off of council houses, represented an important disorganisation of the popular classes, and one which structures the interests of decisive ‘Red Wall’ voters. Unfortunately, the problem with neoliberal “popular” capitalism is that eventually you run out of collective assets to sell. Moreover, as Adam has argued, the British neoliberal version of the capitalist state may well be completely inadequate to the task of making the material interventions that will cement ‘Red Wall’ support in the longer term.

There remains, however, one final basis of material support for Johnsonism: whiteness. We have already hinted at this in both in the ways in which state interventions disorganise the working class through race and in the ability of certain fractions of the popular classes to be represented as integral to the nation. There is a further aspect, however: one rooted in a longer and more limited set of material interventions. There is a section not only of the popular classes but particularly of the working class proper who have very little to lose but their whiteness. This stake in whiteness is not only a mistake produced by ideology but a real material effect and ultimately amounts to a state project, underpinned by particular imperial and post-colonial histories, where in the absence of any hope for real advance, the meaningful but limited material privileges and cultural power of whiteness are jealously defended, in a alliance with the state. The state can secure the privileges of whiteness, it may not be able to intervene to meet basic needs. An identification with whiteness is part of the struggle over an ever decreasing pie. It is therefore the basis of Johnson’s cross-class coalition. We face the risks of waves of revanchism to secure the capitalist state, a further effect of parts of the popular classes on the power bloc, an alliance between the two cemented through whiteness.

One possible response for Labour as suggested by Starmer’s response to the emergent social movement around Black Lives Matter, is a mixture of heavily-qualified liberalism and indulgence of worries around “law and order”, essentially pandering to embattled whiteness. This risks severely disorganising the left’s base and capacity to act whilst allowing politics to be organised through reactionary themes.

The other strategy is to develop ways of articulating a regional development strategy with socialist principles, to go further to organise the popular classes and potentially disorganise the power bloc. This was attempted to a degree with aspects of the Green New Deal/Green Industrial Revolution, but its articulation as a strategy of regional development, of building different sorts of state capacity (that is resolving a crisis of the state leftwards) and even winning over regional fractions of capital was always underplayed.

  1. This argument draws to an extent on some of what is implied in Michael Denning’s “Impeachment as Social Form”