There was a time when being rightwing meant being conservative in the truest sense; committed to order, civility and restraint. No longer.
The Reagan/Thatcher years began to change things, as neoliberal economics destabilised societies by slashing and burning the state. And in recent years, this lust for destruction has been accompanied by a gleeful lack of restraint in language and behaviour.
Donald Trump, of course, is responsible for the final triumph of rightwing incivility. His instinctual genius lies in recognising that so many of the defences against naked power and abuse are rooted in unspoken social norms. Trump stared out these defences and they melted away: he revels in being ignorant, abusive and cruel. Where Trump went, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro and other proudly vile politicians have followed.
Alongside the politicians in this vanguard, constantly probing the boundaries of acceptability, are the champions of “anti-wokeness”. Consider Brendan O’Neill, the editor of Spiked – a contrarian so consistent in his contrariness that he is totally predictable. Or consider Piers Morgan’s matey smugness, Laurence Fox’s pretentiousness and Rod Liddle’s sneeriness. Such figures delight in shrugging off the restraints of decency while self-righteously claiming to be victimised by the woke “establishment”. Toby Young’s new Free Speech Union embodies all the shamelessness of this movement: claiming to be oppressed from a position of power, and disguising abuse as self-defence against those who threaten liberty.
The state of the right today would have left George Orwell flabbergasted. In his essay England Your England, Orwell famously argued that the goose-step is “far more terrifying than a dive-bomber”, it is “an affirmation of naked power” expressing the taunt ‘‘Yes, I am ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me’’. The reason why the goose-step is not used in England, Orwell believed, is because “the people in the street would laugh”.
Orwell was implying that the freedom to laugh necessarily acts as a corrective to the powerful and their defenders. He assumed that no one liked to be laughed at. Today, we can no longer make this assumption. One of the defining features of the ongoing backlash against “wokeness” – presidents and columnists alike – is that its champions are often truly laughable characters. And we laugh at them, we mock, we ridicule … yet nothing happens. If anything, it works to their advantage. It helps them come across as ludicrous, concealing the ultimate seriousness of the situation. Because for many of today’s rightwing politicians, the strategy is to utilise the libidinal pleasures of disorder in order to create the conditions for the unrestrained exercise of power.
Defiance in the face of laughter is, in fact, one aspect of this wider “liberation” offered by the right today. Its leaders are free, weightless, impervious to shame. To be a follower of this movement is to vicariously experience the pleasures of this joyousness. To live without restraint, without the complicated obligations of society, without the need to engage with the messy complexities of life: it is a powerful narcotic.
If ridicule doesn’t work when directed against such libidinous beings, what can? It is tempting to make a “counter-offer” of similarly ecstatic pleasures, directed in a righteous direction. Certainly that is the argument of those, like the political theorist Chantal Mouffe, who advocate a “left populism”. But for progressives to harness such forces requires containing them in some way, to prevent things turning abusive – in which case, why would those attracted to populism not choose the full-blooded version? The left has its fair share of laughable abusers claiming victimhood, but they aren’t as much fun as those on the right.
We need to take seriously the allure of the transgressive, the shameless, and the ways in which it might express a human need. The problem is that when those acting out this transgression do so from positions of power and influence, this has real consequences for real human beings.
There should be no place for transgressiveness within those spaces where power resides. But if these desires can be harnessed outside those spaces, it might mean that the transgressiveness of the powerful would become less attractive.
So how can we revel in transgressive fantasies without causing harm to others? Perhaps our pre-modern ancestors have something to teach us here. As the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin argued, pre-modern folk festivities such as carnivals offered a precious space for turning the world upside down, revelling in the messiness of the body, and laughing at authority in ways that were liberating, if only for a time.
Today there are some shared, private spaces in which we can be bad, such as nightclubs and football grounds. However we also need common spaces, rather than contained and limited ones, in which we can be our bad selves. We need to come together then, as a bigger, diverse mass, for the purposes of celebrating our darker yearnings, rather than some tepid vision of harmony. How much more thrilling would the 2012 Olympics have been had there been a place within them for gluttony, revelry and ribaldry?
To be sure, such common spaces of transgression could be co-opted by politicians and those with dangerous agendas. We know from football culture in the UK that keeping the far right from the terraces is a constant struggle. But it is a struggle that has succeeded, at least some of the time. Mass festivities feel small, peevish and parochial when they exclude and abuse; they feel powerful and life-affirming when they celebrate our common human bodiliness.
Embracing our lust for play, debauchery and gluttony promises to do more than just unite us. It can reveal how limited the transgressions offered by the apostles of anti-wokeness really are.
• Keith Kahn-Harris is the author of Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity