The predictability of Truss

Predicting Truss

Eight long years ago, I famously [1] predicted that Liz Truss would become Prime Minister by styling herself as a new Margaret Thatcher

In fact, while this is the famous [2] tweet, the use of the word “still” is a reference back to an essay I’d written two years earlier in 2012, when I had singled out Truss from the 2010 intake, in the context of the then new Britannia Unchained publication, as one of the people most likely to be a key convert to and leading light in a new, darker political world [3]:

And the leading light amongst these young fascist wannabees, Liz Truss, has not only been snapped us by Gove for his department, perhaps because she already displays — as her recent ‘research’ on childcare affordability shows — a notable ability to tell bare-faced lies for the greater cause. This group, and others within the 2010 [intake], will become willing and easy converts to the Gove cause, in the absence of continued Thatcherite leadership within the party.

Of course, I didn’t get all the details right. Back in 2012, before Miliband and Balls had caved in on a social democratic economic programme that could have been Corbynism before Corbyn, in favour of a retreat to fiscal ‘prudence’ and immigration mugs, I thought that Labour would win the 2015 election, and that the rise of the far right within the Tory party would be a reaction to that defeat. As it happened, Cameron won in 2015 and the far right gained ascendancy via the Brexit referendum rather than by a more direct takeover of the party, and this in turn meant that Truss had to wait her turn, as Johnson turned out to be the more useful stooge. Nevertheless, the overall shift has been in the same direction, with Gove and then Cummings proving the strategic direction for the new populism.

So, given that I anticipated pretty accurately the rise of post-truth politics and the rise of Truss, I feel entitled, a decade on, to explore why I saw what would happen, when mainstream commentators didn’t and, more importantly, what my might now collectively try to do about the fast approaching social and climate darkness.

The political lie and the decadence narrative

The bulk of my 2012 essay about emergent fascism [4] was actually a depiction of the then relatively recent appearance of a dual strategy within a Conservatism keen to learn from fascism: the narrative of decadence [5] and the embrace of the political lie. Indeed, within the Department of Education into which Truss had been drawn by Gove and Cummings, there was a clear strategy to use the political lie as a means to drive home the narrative of a decadent school system (the term ‘woke’ has not come into common use, and ‘blob’ was the preferred term.

This capacity to lie for the new cause (and the fact that I understand both early years provision and schools) was what really brought Truss to my attention, and made me think she had what it took to rise to the top of a new kind of politics. Of course, her joint authorship of Britannia Unchained, and the now famous decadence narrative-oriented reference to “feckless” British workers, also made her hard to miss, at least if you were first attuned to the broad direction of travel towards a more rampant populism.

This direction of travel was facilitated by a return within Cameronism towards a pre-Thatcher operational code of high politics-low politics distinction, of the type described by Conservative historiographer James Bulpitt (1986), under which code which the elite were largely happy to leave the dirty work of departmental governance-by-lie to the next rung down in the Tory social order {6]. Few mainstream journalists or commentators noticed what was going on, because politics had become social media showbiz by then, and personality-based coverage were what earned them fame. Only people who did detail realized what was happening, but nobody was interested in what we had to say [7].

The structure of Truss

But while it was Truss’s obvious personal ability to lie, and to invoke the decadence narrative which marked her out as a lead actor within this far right movement that emerged within and courtesy of Cameronism in the early part of the decade, it’s also important to assess at a more structural level why exactly this movement emerged at all, and why it has come so quickly to replace previous forms of Conservatism. And concomitantly, the same question arises: why did people like me spot what was going on, while the journalist (and ‘polsci’) brigades actually paid to spot such stuff, weren’t able to.

The short answer to both questions is actually pretty straightforward: those who’d read and tried to understand Marx stood a much better chance of predicting the rise of Truss & co than people who hadn’t.

Let’s keep it brief, because the story is well known.

In 2008, the contradiction inherent to post-1971 financialized capitalism became too great for capitalism, and the great crash happened. For a short time, it looked as though there might be radical change in favour of the working class, but we weren’t ready, and by 2010 what Bob Jessop calls a ‘spatio-temporal fix’ to capitalism was in place. Indeed Jessop, writing in 2002, predicted what would happen pretty pithily, if abstractly:

Such spatio-temporal fixes delimit the main spatial and temporal boundaries within which structural coherence is secured, and externalize certain costs of securing this coherence beyond these boundaries. Even within these boundaries some classes, class fractions, social categories or other social forces located inside these spatio-temporal boundaries are marginalized, excluded, or oppressed. Thus, spatio-temporal fixes also facilitate the institutionalized compromises on which accumulation regimes and modes of regulation depend, and subsequently come to embody them. This can involve super-exploitation of internal or external spaces outside the compromise, super-exploitation of nature or inherited social resources, deferral of problems into an indefinite future and, of course, the exploitation and/or oppression of specific classes, strata or other social categories (The Future of the Capitalist State, p.49).

Less abstractly, the need to fix capitalist accumulation for another while required further oppression, and further ignoring of the climate crisis, and that is what we got [8].

And while it might seem a long way between the 2008 crash and the specifics of a Truss premiership, the emergence of the political lie provides the essential link. The great lie in 2010 was, of course, that Labour had bankrupted the country. It worked, and the tone was set. An emergency budget became, in the hands of Gove & co, a wider emergency of public morality, and a single election-winning lie became a way of lying life for the Tory party. In 2015, it worked again, with the Coalition of Chaos strapline, and then — spinning beyond complacent Cameron’s control, came Take Back Control.

The lie, always packed in three-worders and always packing a punch downwards at the decadents and the outsiders, became the norm, and now we’re here: my 2012 essay about the coming of fascism no longer seems quite so absurd, because Paul Mason’s now written a book about how to stop it, and well, Liz Truss might well become the prime minister.

Beyond the political lie

So what might be learn collectively from my immense and Marxian powers of prediction, beyond the fairly narrow (though not unimportant) fact that the British journalistic establishment does not have enough Marxian journalists, because there remains a lack of Marxian media outlets.

The obvious place to turn [9], when it comes to the political lie, is with Hannah Arendt and her famous Truth and Politics essay (1967):

Only where a community has embarked upon organized lying on principle, and not only with respect to particulars, can truthfulness as such, unsupported by the distorting forces of power and interest, become a political factor of the first order. Where everybody lies about everything of importance, the truthteller, whether he knows it or not, has begun to act; he, too, has engaged himself in political business, for, in the unlikely event that he survives, he has made a start toward changing the world.

We are not quite at this point yet, at least in this country; the political lie is still largely contained within the more formal political sphere, and the need to lie to oneself and others in order to get on with everyday life is not ever present. Nevertheless, Arendt’s advice that truthfulness is an act of political resistance is one we should not just take to heart, but seek to structure as an alternative the political lie, in recognition that the political lie is itself a product of the structure of (spatio-temporally fixed) capitalism, while also a conduit to a much darker place beyond even the kleptocratic state rentier capitalism that Truss is likely to want to foster in her Thatcher-but-not Thatcher role.

How to structure such a truthfulness of resistance is, of course, something I’ve written many pages on over the last few years, and forms — for what it is worth — my main political project, encompassing the concept of decolonized lifeworld in which discourse becomes ethical precisely because it is validated for truthfulness, and conversely where a failure to tell the truth is a route to exclusion from the public sphere [10].

Of course, strong state action to mitigate what Jessop called the tendency within spatio-temporal fixes towards “deferral of problems into an indefinite future” will be needed if we are not to head straight for a definite apocalypse, but most of the hard graft of recovering the values and practices of truth and truthfulness can only be done from bottom up, precisely because of the decline of state truthfulness.

I won’t repeat myself here on the details of how all that can work. I’d just encourage you to go and read it all because, after all, I’m one of the few who, a decade, saw Liz Truss coming, and understood why.

Notes

[1] When I say famously predicted, I actually mean nobody noticed at all, but I’m trying to make it famous now.

[2] See [1]

[3] Famously (on which see [1] and [2]), that essay - about the likely rise of fascist politics over the coming decade and only in part about who would become Prime Minister — was ridiculed as an absurd idea by political pundit John Rentoul, so it is faintly satisfying to be writing this piece about predicting Liz Truss as Prime Minister a decade ago on the day the same Rentoul praises ex-Tory David Gauke for predicting Liz Truss for Prime Minister a few months ago.

[4] I do not think it is a coincidence that Roger Griffin founded the Journal of Contemporary Fascist Studies in the same year (2012), or that his very first article in the new journal warned of a likely resurgence of fascism.

[5 In his new essay for LRB, Will Davies rightly refers to the “seductive” narrative of declinism’ as a key danger.

The historian David Edgerton has warned against the seductions of national ‘declinism’ on the left, not least because it works symbiotically with the nationalist ‘revivalism’ of the right. The claim that everything has been getting worse for decades is a gift to Thatcherites and Brexiters, who promise a dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of the nation, and would like to banish those who talk down Britain’s prospects.

I prefer the term decadence, because it gives a better sense of the moral failure imputed to the working class (cf. Truss’s own use of “feckless” in Britannia Unchained), but the point made is largely the one I make here: the use of the political lie as a means to defend rentier capitalism by making us look the other way.

It’s also worth noting, though, that the forces behind Johnsonism have not been able to go full throttle on the decadence narrative during his time as Prime Minister, precisely because he is so obviously a moral abomination; he had his uses, but imposing a proto-fascist story of moral failure that needs to be addressed by a upright state was not one of them. Things may be different under Truss, and her relatively clean living, within her (personal) means, becomes a useful tool. The signs of that are already present, as she portrays herself as Thatcher-thrift, and irrespective of her personal use of the public purse.

[6] I covered this aspect of Cameronism in a 2010 essay, Understanding the New Conservatism.

[7] Back then, I still did harbour some thoughts about trying to earn half a living out of journalism, and did do the odd thing for New Statesman and others, including some detail about how a lie was being constructed about educational decadence). My career didn’t go any further in this direction, as I had the temerity to ask to be paid, and the New Statesman found that hard to understand.

[8] It’s not quite right to attribute the rise of the political lie solely to the structural effects of the way capitalism maintains its capacity for accumulation by ever greater exploitation. There is little doubt that the birth of the internet, designed initially as a tool for freedom but now coopted by it as a means of control, has been a parallel force for the growth of the lie. At the same time (2002) as Jessop was writing about the nature of the spatio-temporal fix, Bernard Williams was writing this:

Moreover, the Internet shows signs of creating for the first time what Marshall McLuhan prophesied as a consequence of television, a global village, something that has the disadvantages both of globalization and of a village. Certainly it does offer some reliable sources of information for those who want it and know what they are looking for, but equally it supports that mainstay of all villages, gossip. It constructs proliferating meeting places for the free and unstructured exchange of messages which bear a variety of claims, fancies, and suspicions, entertaining, superstitious, scandalous, or malign. The chances that many of these messages will be true are low, and the probability that the system itself will help anyone to pick out the true ones is even lower. In this respect, post-modern technology may have returned us dialectically to a transmuted version of the pre-modern world, and the chances of acquiring true beliefs by these means, except for those who already have knowledge to guide them, will be much like those in the Middle Ages. At the same time, the global nature of these conversations makes the situation worse than in a village, where at least you might encounter and perhaps be forced to listen to some people who had different opinions and obsessions. As critics concerned for the future of democratic discussion have pointed out, the Internet makes it easy for large numbers of previously isolated extremists to find each other and talk only among themselves (Truth & Truthfulness, p.216)

[9] The Paul Mason book before How to Stop Fascism was called Clear Bright Future (2019. In a chapter called “Reading Arendt Is Not Enough”, he derides those of who “copied and pasted Arendt’s insights into their Facebook pages” (p.104); Arendt, argues Mason, was wrong to claim that truth telling would be enough to conquer fascism, and wrong to use Nietzsche as a source of inspiration, because he was the key inspiration for Nazism. For what it’s worth, I think the first point is trivial- no serious political activist thinks reading Arendt is enough — and quite wrong about Nietzsche who, interpreted correctly,can be a great inspiration to the left, especially when it comes to the power of forgetting.

And the idea that Arendt, the author of The Human Condition, was In some way in league with Nietzsche as an anti-Aristotelian (p.110) is strange.

[10] I think there’s also an important link to be had to Alex May’s interesting normative project for a system of Interconnected Law:

In general, law’s goal should be looking to improve the web of relations we live in to realise whatever is trying to be realised, instead of trying to achieve this via individual rights. When we want to realise freedom, for example, we should be looking to create and cultivate relations that empower people and foster freedom. Freedom should be talked about in terms of conditions and relations of freedom, within which individual people are able to be free, instead of trying to crudely manifest freedom in an individualistic way. In some ways, this is the legal parallel of focusing on public infrastructure instead of private luxuries concentrated in the hands of a minority.

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Paul Cotterill

Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.