This is Not Normal: The Collapse of Liberal Britain, by William Davies, Verso, 256 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1839760907
“Receptionists. Caffeine-filled air. Taking a lift. Seeing your second family. Watercooler conversations. Proper bants. The boss’s jokes.” So ran a cringe-inducing litany of what office employees, now working from home due to the global pandemic, supposedly miss about their former lives – the “old normal”. While in fact a recent advertisement embossed on a Tube platform in London’s Euston Station by the cleaning supply provider Dettol, one might easily have mistaken this for another “comms” operation on behalf of Boris Johnson’s Conservative government; its appearance in early September, after all, happened to coincide with the Tories’ propaganda campaign exhorting a more general return to normalcy, the “first wave” of the virus having – apparently – safely subsided. “Boris’s blitz on WFH” (“Work From Home”), trumpeted the Daily Mail.
As William Davies brilliantly articulates in his most recent book, This is Not Normal: The Collapse of Liberal Britain, it’s hard to convincingly advocate for normality, or indeed for norms in general, if you’ve spent years openly trashing the very notion. Since the 2016 Brexit referendum, successive Tory governments, goaded by their allies in the media, have, he writes. essentially rendered “the ideology of liberal norm-keeping incredible”. Perhaps the most egregious example of this was the proroguing of parliament in 2019 (which the UK’s supreme court judged unlawful), although the more recent announcement that her majesty’s government explicitly intend to break international law by abrogating aspects of the withdrawal agreement signed with the European Union is at least as brazen. This penchant for transgression has proven especially catastrophic in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic: the British prime minister, whose brand of cavalier, fact-free bonhomie was so fundamental to his political and electoral successes, is now regularly required to appear deferential to the very experts he and his Brexiteer coterie had spent years cynically maligning. Suffice to say he struggles in the role.
In a critical lineage going back at least to the Frankfurt School, progressive thought has for long been deeply sceptical of all that smacks of the normal, the natural or the commensensical. For this mode of thinking, what appears to spontaneously arise as if by necessity – the kinds of work we value and remunerate lavishly, for example – is in fact the contingent expression of powerful political, economic and social interests. The kind of analysis that sought to expose these contingencies – what became known as “critique” – seemed only possible when articulated through a highly specialised theoretical idiom that could match the slippery hoodwinking of its opponent, the liberal capitalist dispensation, which proved extraordinarily adept at making itself appear coincidental with “normal” reality, and thus inevitable. Hence the grim Thatcherite incantation: “There is no alternative.”
While fluent in the language of critical theory – Davies has recently written some of the most incisive rebuttals to conservative hysteria around “wokeness” and its supposed origins in certain critical discourses in the modern and contemporary humanities – This is Not Normal is not a work of forbidding theoretical density. Rather, the essays of which the book is a compendium are meant to engage in what Davies calls “real-time sociology”: a methodology that might, he hopes, “straddle the fast-moving world of the news cycle with the search for underlying conditions and structures”. One of these structural changes is in how Britain’s hegemonic political forces relate to norms and the normal. As recent events demonstrate, it’s now clear that British conservatism cares little either for norms or the stability we have been told these guarantee. Moreover, abnormality and its symptoms are no longer something concealed beneath layers of ideology and in need of careful excavation: they are openly and everywhere on display. Johnson’s Tory party, for instance, actively markets, as an electoral strategy, its seemingly relentless desire to subvert and undermine the liberal order of which it once claimed to be a pillar, if only because many of its voters now resemble, in Davies’s words, “a hybrid of Che Guevara and a Telegraph-reading retiree from Sevenoaks.”
Analytically, this “freakish” situation demands a novel approach, and Davies’s “real-time sociology” is in this regard a promising overture. He refreshingly eschews one hallmark of the above-mentioned “critique”: a tendency to adopt the bird’s-eye view, which favours a level of abstraction that is at the same time a measure of its distance from actual political happenings. Far from evidence that his book might lack theoretical sophistication, this is in fact compelled by what I noted above: the painstaking work of exposure that once defined critique is rather less urgent in a world awash in conspicuous abnormality. An alternative approach, which Davies’s book represents, is to first enumerate recent events, and to then begin considering why and how British, like American politics, is currently defined by a trend whereby one absurdity is superseded by yet another as apparently unprecedented and not long ago unthinkable. This raises the question, which his book is in large measure an attempt to answer: what has drawn an electorate in as venerable a liberal democracy as Britain to political actors who regularly deploy tactics that we might once have dismissed as those of a rogue state, or as belonging to the darkest corners of Twitter?
For Davies, the answer lies in the increasingly parricidal relationship between liberalism and neoliberalism, topics on which he has written extensively. It has been assumed, erroneously, that the latter, an ideology which prioritises above all else the wisdom of markets and the “rational” calculations these supposedly aggregate, somehow naturally comports with the former: a political order whose sine qua nons are individual autonomy, representative democracy and robust constitutionalism. Yet the economic depredations of neoliberalism have ravaged the very regime of trust without which liberalism and its social contract soon becomes untenable. Davies calls this, in Weberian terms, “the disenchantment of politics by economics”, a process inaugurated, as the familiar story goes, by the Reagan-Thatcher era, and accelerated in our own. As is becoming increasingly clear, the sustainability of postwar liberalism was made possible only by its having coincided with hitherto unforeseen levels of income equality that helped actualise, to an extent, the formal rights which the liberal state guarantees its citizens.
Income inequality, of course, has skyrocketed over the last two decades, to disastrous effect. Should we be surprised, accordingly, that solemn declarations of the importance of political institutions and the norms by which they are governed come to sound more and more like hollow bloviations to a citizenry for whom freedom and equality remain abstractions? While liberalism has been long fending off the charge that it is, at root, a distant, legalistic doctrine that makes little contact with the realities of those whose rights it purports to secure, the growing infiltration of politics by financial logic has only served to further corroborate this impression, caricatured as it might be. What’s more, digital media platforms have facilitated the proliferation of a deep cynicism that is an inevitable corollary to this. Davies writes:
Neoliberalism is a system that progressively devours the conditions of social trust and converts it into revenue streams. The common attribute of credit derivatives, digital platforms and contemporary democracy is that, behind the publicly visible institutional face and the various promises and commitments on offer, there lies a hidden logic of calculation, which is ultimately in command. Institutions become a kind of cosmetic veneer, mere ritual, behind which sit financial and algorithmic machinations. Political cynicism is the logical outcome of a system that views public life as a resource to be extracted from, rather than as a stage on which justice and truth will be established. The sense that public life is now a sham, and the yearning for this to be called out (if necessary by a maniac), lie at the heart of the political movements that shook the world in 2016.
Liberalism, now attenuated, on Davies’s reading, “to an ethical persuasion or cultural identity”, and reducible to pageantry like EU flag-waving at the Proms or New Labour karaoke, faces a crucial choice: either liberals can forge an alliance with the Left, who, ironically, have in recent times done more to defend the very rights that liberalism claims to celebrate – see Windrush or the “activist” lawyers fighting Britain’s “hostile environment” towards migrants – than many self-declared liberals themselves, or they can continue their retreat into a solipsism according to which “norms are only of pragmatic, cosmetic, affective or instrumental value”. In the absence of such an alliance, ground will continue to be ceded to norm-busting reactionaries attuned to an electorate whose mood is one of relentless Bartlebian negativity.
This is Not Normal catalogues what such a society begins to look like, and how Britain has arrived there. As neoliberalism has eroded faith in politics and its institutions to enact meaningful change, so has a new form of gleefully mendacious and provocative political discourse emerged triumphant. Davies rightly insists that this is symptomatic less of a crisis of facts, or a lack thereof, than of trust. As he wrote in his previous book, Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World, “mounting inequality in the West means that, in certain ways, the facts produced by experts and technocrats simply do not capture lived reality for many people. Objective indicators of progress, such as GDP growth, conceal deep fractures within society.” We can continue, of course, by “hurling facts” at the problem, and insisting that they, after all, don’t lie. But this is likely to further enrage an already disillusioned electorate, many of whom have decided – correctly, in some cases – that politics and public life are populated mostly by self-regarding liars and deceivers.
What, then, explains the success of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, two notorious liars and yet the totemic figures of the 2016 populist revolt? This is where things become especially frightening and dangerous. In a prescient and much-cited 2013 article in the London Review of Books, the novelist Jonathan Coe wrote of a popular mode of satire in Britain that considers itself rebelliously “anti-establishment”; Have I Got News For You is a paradigmatic example. For Coe, far from embarrassing, through exposure, those in positions of power – what the self-flattering satirist might consider herself to be doing – this kind of comedy and its message of relentless levity has instead seeded “a culture of facetious cynicism” whose message is resoundingly clear: politics is a scam tout court, and the sooner we all realise this the better. Davies himself singles out Have I Got New For You as a particular culprit in this regard: at best, it has provided a palliative “to those on the liberal left seeking to cope with political events that seem beyond reason”; at worst, this variety of satire has actively encouraged a pernicious dissolution of politics into comedy. In a recent article, he went as far as suggesting that stand-up comedy represents a kind of epistemic matrix for contemporary politics, in which content serves only to elicit laughter and enjoyment from its audience, “without any of the constraints of fact”. The sociologist Arpad Szakolczai has termed this, concisely, the “commedification” of the public sphere.
The liar and the provocateur, unsurprisingly, draw hearty sustenance from this state of affairs. If it’s assumed that all politicians lie, then, from the electorate’s point of view, conspicuous, unconcealed mendacity can come to seem, however perversely, refreshingly honest; you know where you stand, to some extent, the pseudo-logic goes. Davies points to an insightful paper written by US academics Oliver Hahl, Minjae Kim and Ezra Zuckerman Sivan that helpfully distinguishes two types of lies. The first, which they term “insider lies”, entail dishonesty on the part of those expected to “truthfully report facts”. The second, “common knowledge lies”, are those favoured by the “bullshitter”, as theorised by the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt in his short 2005 book, On Bullshit. These lies – such as Vote Leave’s transparently false claim about sending £350 million per week to the EU, or Donald Trump’s insistence that the crowd at his inauguration was record-breaking in size – “do not pretend”, in Davies words, “to be bound by the norm of honesty in the first place”. It’s for this very reason that Frankfurt considers them the most egregious and potentially corrosive of all, for they dispense entirely with any relationship to truth. This separates the bog-standard liar from the more radical bullshitter, who “is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says.”
Right now, the probability of remedying any of this seems depressingly low. Not only does a Johnson or a Trump benefit from this “liar’s dividend”, but the incentive to do otherwise is entirely absent. In fact, they are actively encouraged by their ongoing successes to foment yet more and more outrage. For their supporters, infuriated and energised anew by the latest example of “political correctness (gone mad)”, the increasingly acrimonious public sphere – if it’s still appropriate to call it that – is a welcome liberation from the tedium of liberal pieties.
There is a particular kind of shameless personality – apparently immune to embarrassment, and exhilarated by the impunity this confers on them – who thrives in fuelling this fire, of which Johnson and Trump are archetypes. No wonder some, such as the art critic Hal Foster in his latest book, What Comes After Farce?, have begun to ponder whether it is in fact a “post-shame” rather than “post-truth” politics that we should be most fearful of. Yet like everything else, shame is not something shared or distributed equally. While the political right is increasingly shameless, laughing with delectation at cruelty that targets society’s most vulnerable, some on the left seem disturbingly eager to weaponise shame, often in the most cannibalistic and self-defeating of ways. As Richard Seymour writes in his recent book, The Twittering Machine, on which Davies draws, “this is part of the same spiral”: the sadistic troll and the moralising shamer are intimately linked; the former feeds vampirically off the latter. The main difference is “one of emphasis”: trolls “often mistakenly think they don’t have a moral commitment; moralists “often mistakenly think they do”. The problem, as with certain forms of humour today, is that such a dynamic, in which the basis of social interaction becomes cruelty, tees up victory for the most brutal and unscrupulous actors – by definition, one hopes, not the left.
Davies takes seriously the idea that our media environment resembles more and more a warlike space. This isn’t to say that he drifts into the kind of hyperbole that considers Britain or the US to be on the verge of another civil war, but rather that the public sphere is now structured according to a “friend-enemy” distinction in which there is no “common good”, but only “factions battling other factions”. While we might draw on the language of conflict to articulate this, the reality is more prosaic, even pitiable: less a heroic crusade than a collective schoolyard scrap, waged by vindictive bullies, not brave warriors. In Minima Moralia, Theodor Adorno wrote that such a politics, bisected by a Schmittian cleavage, is fundamentally childlike: a matter of simply either liking or fearing things, and so an affront to actual freedom, which “would be not to choose between black and white but to abjure such prescribed choices”.
For Davies, the polling industry, in concert with the digital platforms on which it is increasingly dependent financially, plays a central role in ensuring this kind of radical freedom is never realised. In a recent article in the London Review of Books, he castigated the reduction of deeply complex issues around British history, in particular its colonial legacy, to fatuous binary choices. Far from “the idealised classical or liberal public sphere of argument and deliberation”, this “tyranny of binary opinion” conceives of politics as a kind of “perpetual referendum”. Polls are often merely “a litany of idiotic questions, with binary choices between equally idiotic answers”. Echoing Adorno, Davies writes that “it is easy to lose sight of how peculiar and infantilising this state of affairs is. A one-year-old child has nothing to say about the food they are offered, but simply opens their mouth or shakes their head.” More worrisome still, this is conveniently calibrated, again, to benefit the political right in its current state of furious recusancy: debate and deliberation, we are reminded, are for “out-of-touch elites”, not no-nonsense, “ordinary” folk.
It’s hard, given current events, to see a way beyond this Manichean version of politics, with its losers and its winners, heroes and villains, guilty and innocent. Where Davies is perhaps most astute, not only in This is Not Normal, but also in Nervous States and elsewhere, is in showing why both liberals and the left ought to be wary of what might seem two of the most reasonable, and therefore tempting, of strategies. The first is to canvass a return to the apparently norm-abiding, civil politics of yesteryear, ironed by nostalgia of its manifest shortcomings. The watchwords with which we associate this species of politics – “consensus”, “competence”, “efficiency”, “modernisation” – are all, of course, desirable qualities, yet its most illustrious exponents also brought us the Iraq War and the Great Recession. Its ossification, moreover, has contributed greatly to today’s disastrous impasse.
The second approach is to embrace the wrecking-ball tactics of liberalism’s opponents, and to hope that a rejuvenated left might somehow emerge victorious after its collapse. As Davies noted in a recent interview with New Humanist, and as his book sets out to demonstrate, current events suggest that it’s the right, not the left, that stands to benefit from chaos and destruction. Besides: “nobody can live without some form of normality, and the dream of doing so is generally indulged by right-wing libertarians, delusional leadership gurus and those who think that ‘entrepreneurship’ is the solution to everything”. His own counsel, which he lays out at the end of the book, is both prosaic and radical at the same time: “we should demand normality, but of a superior kind”. Getting there will require technical expertise galvanised by “a sense of political urgency”. It will demand a new alliance that refuses to sequester politics from economics and law, built on the “common ground between defenders of institutional norms and those who agitate for economic justice”. It will depend, in other words, on liberals ceasing their anathematisation of a resurgent political Left. Such a rapprochement is less a matter of “ideological purity” than existential necessity. The fundamental question now is not can the centre hold, but should it?
Luke Warde recently completed a doctorate in French at the University of Cambridge. His essays, reviews and criticism have appeared in The Irish Times, The Stinging Fly and Eurozine (www.eurozine.com). He is books editor of Totally Dublin.