Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The anti-political compass

Yesterday I made the unoriginal, but probably true, point that Trump probably isn't a true Fascist because he lacks an ethos - when he says something horrible or stupid, it's probably just done to generate publicity for his personal brand, rather than because he has some carefully thought-out set of horrible principles.

Our own Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is much the same. The look and feel of the product is fluffier, cuddlier and features more syllables,* but the output produced by BorisTM also exists purely to promote the BorisTM brand, rather than to promote any coherent political programme.

Maybe, I thought, that is all there is to all the "anti-politics" politicians surfing the wave of public disillusionment with established politics. But lumping them all together would be as much of an over-simplification as the lazy "all politicians are as bad as each other" generalisation that spawned these characters in the first place. I think we can do better than that.

For starters, whatever the Right may say, I don't think that Sanders and Corbyn belong in the "anti-politics" box at all. If they also represented some kind of triumph of style over substance, they'd both have to be a damn sight more stylish and you could hardly accuse either of them of lacking a political programme, or political principles (whether you agree or disagree with said programmes and principles is another matter, but you pretty much know what those guys stand for).

But what about those shameless self-promoters, Trump, BorisTM and Farage? Are they just "all the same?" You can measure conventional political positions in a number of ways, including the well-known "political compass."
The political compass is a multi-axis political model, used by the website of the same name, to label or organise political thought on two rate political ideology on two axes: Economic (Left–Right) and Social (Authoritarian–Libertarian).

I wondered idly whether you could think about anti-politics in the same way. But how would you differentiate the positions of candidates who defy conventional categories?

It's a tough one, because they are pretty much all the same when it comes to relentless self-promotion (although if you had the time and inclination, I suppose you could quantify the amount of self-promotion and how successful it is in terms of bandwidth hogged on social/conventional media).

It's hard to put a fag paper between them when it comes to the last refuge of scoundrels because they're all knee-jerk nationalists (even if they can be ranked in terms how loudly they proclaim their allegiance, with Trump the clear winner in terms of the volume of hot air expended and BorisTM coming a poor third). 

It's also hard to differentiate them in terms of how anti-establishment they are, because most of them are pretty much establishment-friendly. Sure, Trump disrupts the Kochbros' attempts to control the succession to the GOP crown, but that's a mere squabble within the elite, not a meaningful challenge to its authority. If we ever (probably non-existent-supreme being forbid) saw a Trump presidency, it's hard to imagine the elite being too panicked to find that government of the 0.1%, by the 0.1%, for the 0.1%, has not perished from the earth.

Likewise, there are plenty of elite figures and institutions keen to stay in the European Union, but their squabble with Farage and BorisTM is more one of means rather than ends. The Ins and Outs on the Right all want the same thing - a continuation of the low-tax, low-regulation, finance-led, privatised, outsourced, Thatcherite revolution, built on the backs of a workforce as flexible as a boneless limbo dancer. They just disagree about the methods. The Right Trotskyites think they can export the revolution across Europe, using "renegotiation", whilst the Right Stalinist alliance of Ukip and Conservative Eurosceptics believe in securing the revolution at home, through a policy of  Thatcherism in One Country.

But hang on - two different plans for achieving the same ends does start to sound very much like two ideologies (a Libertarian and a Socialist might both want everybody to be happy and prosperous but have very different ideas about how to bring this about). In which case the "protest vote" candidate Farage does have an ideology, unlike BorisTM,who seemingly decided to come out as an Out purely in order to position the BorisTM brand as cheekily anti-establishment and a bit rebellious. Farage is an obsessive political anorak by comparison. So we can probably expel Farage from our triumvirate of anti-politicians on the grounds of having some fixed principles.

Still, if we keep him in for illustrative purposes, he does help to define one possible ("ideologue" to "nihilist") axis, if we imagine that a thing like anti-political ideology isn't a complete contradiction in terms.

As all three of our group of anti-politicians are chiefly defined by style, as opposed to substance, our other axis could reflect their differences in style. In Version 1.0 of the anti-political compass, I've defined the two extremes of the style spectrum as "looks scary" and "looks cuddly". Populate the diagram with our Three Stooges and it looks like this:

But appearances can be deceptive and the relative positions change if we amend the scary-cuddly axis to reflect, not the presentation, but the reality of "ordinary-bloke-down-the-pub" Farage dog-whistling the sort of spite that Trump just booms out loud and the ruthless self-centred operator behind BorisTM's benignly bumbling Bertie Wooster persona (the "nasty piece of work" briefly unmasked by BBC interviewer Eddie Mair). Expressed in terms of the actual scary-cuddly axis, the picture looks more like this:
With Trump what you see is pretty much what you get, in terms of nastiness, but the reality check shifts both Farage and Boris up a few notches on the unpleasantness scale. But they stay pretty much where they were on the ideologue-nihilist axis.

The take out from all this is that although Farage looks more like Trump's Mini-Me, he is, in fact, the outlier in this group, in terms of actually believing the rubbish he comes out with, whilst Trump and BorisTM are far closer in their commitment to pure self-promotion unencumbered by anything so inconvenient as principles. Or, as Walter Sobchak almost said:
 Nihilists! ... F**k me. I mean, say what you want about Ukip, Dude, at least they've got an ethos.

*In this sense, BorisTM reminds me of an unkind remark somebody once made about Stephen Fry - "He's a stupid person's idea of a clever person" (again, not an original observation).