Joe Kennedy’s new book is filled with curious incidents in our recent political and cultural history. A politician affects astonishment at seeing ‘frothy coffee’ in a South Wales café. A campy spy movie franchise is re‐imagined as gritty, nihilistic noir. In the pages of the New Statesman, one comic actor tells another to ‘read some fucking Orwell’. The leader of the Labour party is berated for his refusal to commit to a first nuclear strike and is widely accused of alienating his core supporters.
What links these varied and sometimes baffling vignettes, Kennedy argues, is an ideology and rhetorical strategy he calls authentocracy, and those responsible are the Authentocrats of his title.
Authentocracy, in Kennedy’s terms, represents an appeal to the supposed values of ‘real’ people. In the United Kingdom of 2018, we are told, these people are to be found in those non‐metropolitan, provincial areas bracketed as ‘post‐industrial’, and their values might include patriotism, militarism, a respect for tradition, or fears about migration. This authentic constituency of genuine Britons is placed in opposition to a liberal ‘metropolitan elite’ by whom it has variously been ‘ignored’, ‘taken for granted’, or ‘left behind’. Any party seeking to gain an electoral majority, we are told, will only succeed by accommodating the ‘legitimate concerns’ of a group which is naturally and intransigently resistant to left‐wing politics.
In its pitting of the little man against the elite, its defence of a reactionary traditionalism and its anti‐intellectual belligerence, authentocracy appears to have much in common with the right‐wing populism that has surged recently in the United States and across Europe. And yet, Kennedy cautions, ‘it is not only, and probably not even predominantly, right‐wing ideologues making these questionable claims on behalf of the left‐behind’.
Britain’s most influential authentocrats are more likely to align themselves with Tony Blair or Emmanuel Macron than Donald Trump or Viktor Orbán and, ironically, it is in the spaces of the ‘liberal elite’ themselves—in Westminster and the broadsheet media—that the claims of ‘real’ British people are being most forcefully advanced. (‘Authentocracy’, Kennedy points out, ‘passes its bucks’: it is rarely the commentators themselves demanding controls on immigration, ‘but someone more allegedly authentic who is, we’re told, not being given the opportunity to speak for themselves’).
While authentocracy is not populism, Kennedy argues, it is ‘an attempt to harness its energies’ on behalf of a political tendency—the Third Way philosophy represented by Blair—that has seen its relevance and influence wane significantly over the last decade. If the electoral strategy of New Labour in the 1990s and 2000s—broadly speaking—was to advance broadly progressive social policies, while accepting more or less Thatcherite economic reforms, then the last ten years have seen the Blairite wing of the party move quietly towards a new triangulation: ‘a scorched earth defence of the Third Way philosophy’, increasingly willing to sacrifice its multicultural and cosmopolitan commitments on the altar of the very traditionalism to which it had once represented an alternative.
As with the right‐wing forms of populism to which it so often unwittingly defers, the authentocracy of self‐proclaimed ‘moderates’ is less concerned with the genuine solicitation of ‘real’ or (especially) ‘working class’ points of view than with determining a particular, highly‐politicised idea of who ‘real’ people are and what they think. The more that politicians and commentators invoke realism, Kennedy argues, the more they end up reproducing a crude, one‐dimensional, and essentially unreal picture of a blinkered provincial conservativism.
The more they invoke the particularity of the local, the more they cleave to a fundamentally homogenous and undifferentiated view of ‘white working class’ Britain that is grounded less in patient empirical reflection than in the imaginary projections of nostalgia. Doncaster might as well be Darlington; Merthyr might as well be Macclesfield or Rotherham, Rochester. At the other end of the scale, a metropolitan district like Islington (among the ten UK local authorities with the highest levels of child poverty) is blithely presumed to be uniformly bourgeois and out of touch.
Crucially, Kennedy argues, class in the authentocrat’s discourse is primarily a cultural rather than an economic category, measured less in levels of wealth than in the length of vowel sounds. The fundamentally superficial gloss of authenticity is readily available to any comfortably‐off politician willing to claim spurious allegiance to a local football club, play up a regional accent or feign bemusement at the sight of hummus. The ‘legitimate concerns’ of authentic Britain are likewise primarily framed not in terms of economic deprivation or inequality, but in terms of identity (ironically—again—often by those more usually found decrying the toxic influence of ‘identity politics’).
For the architects of New Labour’s neoliberal reforms, Kennedy suggests, it is far easier to talk penitently about those ‘left behind’ by multiculturalism, say, than by precarious employment, punitive benefit reforms and insecure housing (which, incidentally, affect the non‐white working class as well). Once again, authentocracy represents a belated, desperate defence of a flailing centrism, seeking to armour itself against criticism with a flimsy draping of Union Jack bunting.
If Kennedy rejects the reduction of class to culture, his perspective is far from the vulgar materialist rejection of anything ‘superstructural’. Like Raymond Williams—who he more than once quotes approvingly—Kennedy proceeds from an understanding of culture which is fundamentally entwined with (and not separate from) political and economic analysis. In fact, a large part of the power of Authentocrats’ critique derives from an attention to culture—evidenced in nuanced readings of everything from Chaucer to The Vicar of Dibley—so often lacking among those who seek to weaponise it for political gain. Likewise, where the political journalist’s self‐proclaimed attentiveness to local particularity quickly reverts to ‘a focus group’s notion of what the common man looks like’, a real strength of Kennedy’s book is to point out—often with a hint of autobiographical colouring—the genuine and often surprising cultural and social heterogeneity of provincial Britain.
Some of the best cultural criticism functions to give a name to a phenomenon which had previously gone unnoticed, but which—once identified—is easy to recognise wherever you look. In this, Kennedy succeeds. In the week of writing (deep into England’s World Cup run), the New Statesman, the Economist and The Guardian (twice) have all carried articles demanding Labour embrace populist patriotism as a means to appeal to ‘traditional working class voters’, diligently trotting out the tropes of a discourse that Kennedy reminds us we have heard many times before.
While it is undeniable that such arguments are often advanced by critics of Corbyn and the left with a degree of disingenuousness, the argument of Authentocrats is not primarily directed against this sententious hypocrisy. For many defenders of a shrinking political centre, these positions are sincerely held and, as the book’s final chapter makes clear, Corbyn’s own supporters are not insusceptible to authenticity’s seductive magnetism.
Yet, even assuming good faith (which, in point of fact, Kennedy is probably over‐generous in doing), authentocracy should be rejected on its own terms, the book argues, as a fundamentally limiting influence on progressive politics. An ossified ‘realism’ which is grounded in a nostalgically conceived past—or resigned to an eternal and unalterable present—will always be incapable of imagining a better future.
Authentocrats: Culture, Politics and the New Seriousness, by Joe Kennedy, is published by Repeater Books. 240 pp. £8.99.
This blog is adapted from a longer piece in the Political Quarterly journal.