From Folklore to WokeloreHow Myths of Britishness Are Turning Totalitarian
Peter Jukes and Hardeep Matharu argue that Britain cannot ignore the Conservative kulturkampf, and that one way to combat the mythologising of politics is to expose the politics of the myths
Humans are narrative-hungry animals and though, to survive, we need an acute appreciation of reality (when to sow crops, where to create a shelter, what predators and parasites to watch out for), we also need overarching stories to give us purpose and meaning. In a time of crisis or alarm, when our purposes and place in the world are unsettled or obscure, these narratives can turn into consoling fantasies that cannot compensate for reality.
That’s where Britain finds itself as the ‘War on Woke’ is launched.
The Uncivil War first unleashed by Vote Leave now has all of the apparatus of the state behind it
With a hard Brexit combined with a deadly pandemic, Britain is seen by many, especially overseas, as suffering a convulsion of grandiosity and insecurity – a delayed reaction to our post-war identity crisis. Having lost our imperial role 75 years ago, the UK has spent most of the last half century trying to put ourselves at the heart of Europe – only to suddenly and resentfully wrench ourselves away. Added to that strategic break is Britain’s poor handling of COVID-19, which adds recession and lockdown to dislocation.
In normal times, this combination would be deadly for a Government. But these are not normal times. Since the ruling political party cannot win on its record or its promises for the future, it is resigned to campaigning over the past and misrepresenting reality.
If you can’t fight on truth, you have to fight on myth.
Fair is Foul, Foul is Fair
Rather than facing reality, the British Government and most its institutions have gone through a looking glass world in which “fair is foul and foul is fair”.
Though Britain has suffered one of the highest per capita COVID-19 death rates in the world with 120,000 people lost, and one of the biggest economic recessions, we are told – and seem to believe – that this was under the aegis of a government which “truly” did everything it could.
Though the UK, in search of some kind of indissoluble sovereignty, has actually created a border within itself in the Irish Sea and seen business after business bear the impact of a hard Brexit as a result of which exports to our main market in Europe have shrunk by 60%, this has been done to ‘take back control’ – in the same way a man controls the gun which shoots him in the foot.
Meanwhile, as Britain’s idea of the past is dominated by a generation only old enough to remember Airfix models, Eagle comics, and the mythologisation of World War Two, we elevate the heroism of a 100-year-old soldier who walked laps of his garden to raise money for the National Health Service (in one of the richest countries in the world), forgetting all his comrades who voted in the Labour Government of 1945 to create a health service that didn’t rely on charity.
We will likely not reach the sunlit uplands of a post-Brexit Global Britain. We cannot recreate the conditions for a British Empire 2.0. So what do we do?
Our collective story is in crisis. But, just at the moment that history is needed more than ever, the study of it is under question, with the Government insisting that it should shape and control what historians write about our national past and the creation of a freedom of speech tsar patrolling our re-examination of ourselves.
British history was always prone to legends and fairy tales. But what is new is the state sanctioning of confabulation; of an army of think-tank commissars and commissioning editors ready to enforce it. From the ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ fairy tales and legends of our past, we are moving into the area of religion and myth – an absolutist version of a collective narrative that requires unconditional assent.
Legends and Fairy Tales of the Fall
From King Alfred’s defence of Britain against the Danes, to the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and a quarter of the world ruled over by the Empire, the legendary status of our collective past has always shaped the way Britain sees itself.
The Brexit years, in particular, have seen a revival of the exceptionalism at the heart of Britain’s colonial exploits and wartime successes. That we stood alone – a plucky, great nation which saved Europe from fascism – and have always punched above our weight, need nothing or no one apart from our own superior abilities, drove the Vote Leave campaign’s ‘take back control’ mantra.
Forgotten in this love-in with our past are inconvenient truths – that Churchill effectively sacrificed a subjugated Empire in order to defeat Hitler’s quest for his own, for instance, or that Britain relied on thousands of soldiers from its colonies in Asia and Africa to win both wars.
Alongside these historic legends, Britain has long been trapped in a fairy tale image of itself – one beloved by Americans who lap up the quaintness of Downton Abbey and The Crown, Kate and Wills, and the “People’s Princess” – Tony Blair’s populist embellishment of the late Diana.
This image of Britain that fascinates the US is the stuff of make-believe, and therefore can be opted out of. Tea at Buckingham Palace, audiences with Etonian Prime Ministers and state carriage rides are magical because they are un-real. President Joe Biden hinted at this very thing after the storming of the US Capitol when he said “we’re a government of laws… they are the guard-rails of our democracy, and that’s why there is no president that is a king, no Congress which is a House of Lords”.
The emotionally-triggered vitriol directed at Meghan Markle, wife of Prince Harry, by large sections of Britain’s right-wing media is sadly predictable because Meghan is the Woke Princess who held up a mirror to British society.
While the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex was at first lauded for its fairy tale credentials – a mixed-race American divorcee and actress marrying into British royalty was seen as a modernising masterstroke for The Firm – things quickly turned sour when Meghan was perceived as not toeing the line of keeping her mouth shut, staying humble and unambitious. She didn’t know her place. Even now, as she sits in a mansion in California with Prince Harry, having fled royal duty, the British right-wing press still can’t let it lie. Meghan ruined our fairy tale.
While these stories have loomed large in British consciousness, we have been able to buy into them or not. Our belief in these narratives has not been a condition of loyalty to or acceptance by the British state. At the same time as the Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee in 1977 the Sex Pistols’ song God save the queen / the fascist regime… Oh God save history / God save your mad parade… was top of the NME charts and number two on the BBC top singles. Britain was famed for this kind of pluralism: a contradictory collage of punk and royalty, heritage and modernity. And with a choice of fairy tales and legends on offer, none required more than conditional assent.
Myths, on the other hand, are more monolithic. They tend to demand absolute assent.
Moving Into Myth-Making
The difference between a plural set of national fictions or legends and monolithic-absolutist national myth were seen most clearly in the kulturkampf – the culture wars – of early 20th Century Germany. What began as a search for a collective set of heroes and symbols soon became a campaign against ‘cultural Bolshevism’ – which has an unsettling echo of the current campaigns against ‘cultural Marxism’.
An ominous example of the transformation of voluntary fiction into compulsory myth is the story of Richard Wagner and the Bayreuth Festival. Wagner, himself a vitriolic anti-Semite, tried to create a distinctly Germanic pantheon of heroes and mythic narratives for the new unified nation. But he hired a rabbi’s son, Hermann Levi, to conduct the premiere of Parsifal, who remained principal conductor of the festival for two decades after the composer died.
By the 1920s, Adolf Hitler was a regular attendee and formed a close friendship and alliance with the composer’s daughter-in-law, Winifred Wagner. She was a key figure in the Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur, a well-funded movement which successfully extirpated modernist music and works by “degenerate” artists in Germany.
People still debate the legacy of Wagner and his role in the rise of the Nazis. But it is perfectly possible to sit in a theatre (for hours), listen to his shimmering harmonies, suspend your disbelief about his long-suffering heroes, and then completely abandon the mumbo jumbo and psychological baggage as soon as the curtain falls.
But, in the 1940s, when the Bayreuth Festival was turned over to the Nazi party and soldiers returning from the Eastern front were forced to sit through Wagner lectures, no such choice existed. The conditional fiction had become an unconditional myth.
Walter Benjamin – the Jewish historian and cultural critic who committed sucide when encircled by the Nazis – believed this myth-making to be a defining trait of 20th Century fascism. The Nazis, he said, had succeeded in ‘aestheticising politics’.
By turning politics into a culture war, a mix of irrationality, identity and emotion, the normal means of conflict resolution in civil society – the law, open debate, the ballot box – were replaced by titanic misty figures clashing in the skies. And those myths led to war and genocide.
The Apocalyptic Element
The War on Woke is a kind of 21st Century form of the kulturkampf and, as such, cannot be dismissed as a mere distraction to avoid the more pressing issues of a hard Brexit and a brutal pandemic.
Many dismiss the notion that some kind of campaign to fight back is worthwhile or even preferable as this detracts from the evidence of failure and fights the opposition on their ground. Ultimately, for all the outrage and comment they cause, it is argued that culture wars don’t profoundly affect the real business of politics; they are the gladiatorial element of the ‘bread and circuses’ used to entertain the restive citizens of Ancient Rome: a distraction from the real struggles in the Forum and Senate.
But culture wars do matter when it comes to mass psychology and the ethos and temperature of a nation. The divisions stoked along identity lines through the Brexit project are testament to this, with the same imperial tactic of ‘divide and rule’ now being carried forward in the Vote Leave Government’s War on Woke.
Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Steve Bannon – one of the leading figures in the ‘alt-right’ populism of the past decade, who advised Boris Johnson as he planned to take over the Conservative Party – understood this well. As he explained to his head of research at the data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica, Chris Wylie, ‘culture is upstream of politics’ and, as Bannon proved, his ‘weapons’ would lead to a hyper-nationalist, nativist uprising inside the heart of American democracy itself.
Though Trump has left the White House, the War Against Woke is a British variant of the kind of conspiratorial thinking that led to the insurrection of 6 January in Washington DC and the raid on the Capitol. Yale Professor Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works: the Politics of Us and Them, has lamented that Trumpocracy seems alive and well in the UK, if waning in the US, and noted that the suggested appointment of a state-backed ‘free speech champion’ to patrol campuses fulfils two authoritarian preconditions.
The first problem is that this doesn’t solve anything. Combating ‘cultural Marxism’ or patrolling free speech is just a shadow play, which will do nothing to tackle material issues. As discontent deepens, so too can the appeal of fake palliatives and even more dramatic shadow plays. The reactive cycles of disillusion and delusion can end up in a reactionary national psychosis.
The second problem is that the mood that powers all of this is paranoia and vindictiveness. The dynamics of this kind of mythic thinking, Stanley points out, rely almost entirely on an ‘us and them’ narrative of existential threat: native people being invaded by foreign hordes, noble rebels fighting deep states and dominant empires. The words ‘anti-woke crusade’, used by sections of Britain’s right-wing press, evoke this kind of apocalyptic divide into the sheep and goats of the final battle.
A paranoid style has tainted Britain’s cultural landscape throughout the five years of the Brexit debate, which at first created the ‘enemy without’ – the EU Commission, immigrants and Turkish accession – as the main focus. But, there was always the suggestion that the enemy without was aided by an ‘enemy within’. This was tragically proven during the 2016 EU Referendum campaign itself by the assassination of the British Labour MP Jo Cox by a man shouting ‘Britain First’.
This intemperate evocation of betrayal, and a demonisation of opposition, didn’t stop in 2016. The polarised, binary battle between ‘Brexiteers’ and ‘Remoaners’ continued, while judges were denounced as “enemies of the people”. Since riding into power ‘to get Brexit done’ at the end of 2019, Boris Johnson and his Vote Leave Government seem unable to buck the divisive rhetoric. Instead, it’s amped up. These attitudes have been internalised by Conservative MPs and their communications teams, as they block their constituents on social media, attack “activist lawyers” and condemn historians merely doing their jobs as “rewriting history”. Given the Government’s majority in Parliament, the Uncivil War first unleashed by Vote Leave now has all of the apparatus of the state behind it.
And this is why Johnson’s kulturkampf cannot be ignored.
The War on Woke won’t improve Britain’s pandemic response or ameliorate its recession, heal its social divisions or growing poverty, nor solve its rupture from its major trading partners in Europe. It will just make things worse. But, as the delusions of exceptionalism fail (which they are bound to because they are delusions), the explanation of betrayal, the ‘stab in the back’ and the foreign enemy, mounts.
The escalating narrative can only resolve itself in a final, apocalyptic battle – not a conflict between two opposing forces, but between reality and myth.
As Walter Benjamin suggested, the only solution to Boris Johnson’s attempt to turn politics into mythology, is to expose the politics of his myths.
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