Theorizing #partygate: a Husserl-Lukács-Badiou take on Johnson’s downfall and what it means

Both the unexpected polls and the unexpected boos seem to confirm that the end for Johnson is coming quickly now or, if he survives by way of the Tories’ bizarre system and his own desperation to cling on, that the end is coming for the Tories as and when the general election comes. Substantively, it doesn’t really matter which of these happens [1].

Historians of the late 21st century mayspend long days in the archives trying to identify what the exact turning point was for Johnson: what made people with no particular interest in politics who had previously said “well, at least he’s funny” move in such great numbers, so quickly, to the conviction that not only wasn’t he funny anymore, but that he was a terrible person they couldn’t be shot iof what quickly enough, and what made even true blue Royalists suddenly decide his time should be up.

But from the vantage point of a fairly normal Lancashire town (and the occasional pub and street conversation here), the turning point, or perhaps final straw, looks to have been around the time the Metropolitan Police chose to issue the last of its Fixed Penalty Notices for the №10 gatherings but without issuing any further such notice to Johnson himself, even though there was little doubt he had been in attendance; as a result, it was broadly assumed, there were dozens of people in relatively lowly positions in №10 getting fines for events they may have been expected to be at, while the person who had done most to foster the culture of law-breaking got off scot-free.

There was, though more to it than that. What I heard was broad agreement around [2] the idea that what made this particular turn of event so peculiar, and so enraging, was that Johnson was, by virtue of his status, being entitled to his own version of reality; for others, the gathering was either lawful or unlawful, depending on whether it was “necessary for work purposes”, and why they were there was immaterial, but for Johnson it was a question of whether he had conceived of the gathering as being for work purpose or not.

This distinction, it seemed, really did make it “one rule for them, and one for the rest of us’. And this really, really pissed people off, more than anything Johnson had got up to before.

There is an important legal principle at stake here, of course. If everyone actually were equal before the law, it would be hard to understand how the police could decide that one small group pf people could have their ‘intentions’ taken into account, while another should be held strictly accountable because the rules at the time related to the nature of the gathering, which could only be lawful or unlawful, with their own ‘consciousness’; of that gathering irrelevant.

But there’s also a more specifically phenomenological reading of the socially structured situation in which the Met Police decision makers found themselves, which I suggest my account, at least in part for its importance, both for Johnson and (I hope)for his wider political class.

By phenomenological reading, I refer to the basic Husserlian claim (contra Kant) that there is no such thing as an object or situation-in itself, but that objects or situations exists in consciousness. Every act of consciousness is structured by social forces and by related expectation of what happens next in similar situation, and so in Johnson’s case it might be said that the gathering existed in his consciousness as a situation he had met before.

That is, it was a situation, just as in his Bullingdon Club days for, which existed in his head as something he could walk away from unscathed, whatever the material damage (in this case to other people’s wallets). And for the police decision-makers, their own act of consciousness in relation to their situation, and structured by the history of the rich getting of scot-free, this was an acceptable defence.

So far, so normal, because in fact a good deal of this country’s criminal code, actually reflects the concept of Husserlian intentionality. The idea of strict liability, where a defendant’s consiousnesses in relation to a situation is deemed irrelevant, is actually relatively infrequent in statute, at least formally [3].

The big difference here, and the thing people have noticed, (while not necessarily expressing it in Husserlian terms) is that the rules that were quickly drafted for the pandemic largely excluded the notion of intentionality, or by extension consequence (because intentionality depends on prior knowledge of what consequence is possible). Despite there being some level of exemption where ‘reasonable excuse’ applied, the concept of strict liability was write large into the text, and enforcement was heavily geared towards it.

People have noticed that the rules related to the situation or event, and not to person, but they also understand why that was the case for the public health good. And that’s why the disjuncture, between the way people generally were expected to endure the strictures of strict liability and Johnson’s own expectation that he be treated differently, has made people so much more angry than they have previously got about his self-serving antics.

But I also think this may go a lot further than Johnson, because I think this moment of anger, now enduring in a way which has taken Tory strategists’ breath away, is also about a moment of class consciousness, a moment when people who might not otherwise do so become conscious of where real interests lie.

It’s useful, I’d argue, to analyze these event through the lens of Georg Lukács’ History of Class Consciousness, perhaps the greatest theorization of how the proletariat might gain a consciousness of itself as a class in itself and for itself.

As Richard Westerman has set out (pdf), Lukács’ key argument is deeply rooted in the phenomonology of Husserl. Simplifying hugely, Lukács argues that working class consciousness emerges from an growing awareness of the contradiction that capitalism imposes upon the worker, whereby s/he is expected simultaneously to be appear to the world as both abstract labour time and as isolated, individual vendor of labour.

In phenomenological terms, because there is strictly speaking no subject before it is generated within consciousness, the contradictory structures of consciousness, imposed by capitalism, structure the subject such that it becomes self-concious about those very contradictions.

Lukács, of course, writes in economist terms, but it is possible to see a parallel of lived experience (structuring consciousness) between the abstract labour/individual labour vendor and the new contradiction, imposed by the ‘structures’ erected to defend capitalism in the pandemic [4], between our lives as, on the one hand, abstract legal objects denied the right to consciousness of acts, and on the other as individual paragons on civic virtue.

This has, in turn, created a heightened perspicacity amongst the working class, perhaps most obviously reflected in the surge in the ‘one rule for us’ phraseology generally, but now brought to a sudden head with #partygate.

So where does such brief theorization of the current moment leave us? I offer these final thoughts.

First, while much recent left commentary has tended to express disappointment that the pandemic did not lead to greater structural change e.g. the NHS is under greater threat than ever, in hindsight it may come to be regarded as a Badouisian event (pdf), where an ontological ‘excess’ is made apparent to the world at a wholly unexpected time, in a ay which creates a great rupture with the structures that went before.

Badiou, himself influenced by Husserl’s phenomonology, seems to lean towards a Husserlian reading of Lukacs, especially in respect of the way the ‘vanguard’ can organize what he call ‘procedures of fidelity’ to the unexpected event, but not itself create consciousness.

In less abstract terms, what this may mean is that the kind of localized rupture we are now seeing with #partygate, where firm belief in Johnson’s appeal to the working class is shattered overnight in a way that standard commentators find hard to fathom, offers real opportunities for a left able build on a new emerging class consciousness, if it can articulate better than it does now th contradictions imposed by the form of capitalism now endured.

This will fly in the face of much sensible liberal commentary. David Baddiel, just as one example, describes the to and fro about how much booiing Johnson received at the Jubilee events as evidence of “panto”, and presumably hopes for a return to normal ‘grown up’ politics post-Johnson.

But I prefer to see #boogate as evidence of a Johnson-dependent elite absolutely panicked at what is happening before there very eyes, and I think that is the message that leftwing journalists and commentators should be promoting as part of a wider effort to promote the new in what is new.

But it’s about more than leftwing messaging about the contradictions of capitalism.

Probably the best section of Jon Alexander’s recent Citizens (of which I owe a fuller review) is about how the Taiwanese government’s successfulresponse to the pandemic drew not on the principles of legal enforcement, but on the power of democratically and digitally enabled citizens to agree on the measures needed to keep the country safe.

While Jon deliberately (and I think damagingly for his overall project) escews analysis of capitalism, a way to read this section in the book is as an effort by a modern state to allow its citizens room to move beyond the lived experience of capitalist contradiction, but at a time when the Badouisian event was creating a whole new playing field for the test of us. So Jon may well be right that they set a good example for a new kind of citizenry, but that new citizenry is likely to be achieved only in these parts by a coalition of intelligent anti-capitalist messaging and post-capitalism directed innovation

Notes

[1] In terms of seat numbers, a heavier defeat at the next general election for the Tories, by virtue of Johnson staying on and dragging them down further, then of course there may be a substantive difference in that it will take them longer to recover seats lost, but equally a new leader like Trss may be so laughable that the Tories do even worse at the next general election than they might have done with Johnson as leader.

[2] I acknowledge that some of this agreement may well have been around the points I was making in my role as member of the vanguard of the revolution, but on the other hand I was in (well-oiled) conversation with people who would not normally go down such a route.

[3] I say “at least formally” because the way in which criminal law is actually enacted depends on who you are. The day before Johnson was excused, ten young men in Greater Manchester were convicted of ‘conspiracy to murder. A Husserlian defence might have been (and indeed probably was) that the Telegram messages by which conspiracy was proven were very different things for very different young people, but reporting from the trial suggests strongly that the idiea of individual acts of consciousness, socially structured, were set to one side in favour of the easier, more racist notion, of ‘gang mentality and therefore the concept of ‘joint enterprise’.

It feels embarrassing in itself to relegate all this to a footnote, when it is so mnay young lives needless wrecked by a racist justice system, but I do so precisely because the racial injustice, whereby the idea of individual consciousness is purged in favour of ‘gang mentality’, built into the current legal system does not get widespread attention, precisely because it does not affect the majority in the way that the Covid rules did.

[4] What I mean by the structures imposed to protect capitalism in the pandemic is that work is quite simply that it was continued capital-labour relations that were most heavily safeguarded both by public health measures and by the nature of the furlough scheme.

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

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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.