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Boris Johnson Takes His Brexit Demagoguery to the Social Media Sphere

The U.K. prime minister’s communication style of short questions and short answers is typical of demagogic politics.

The U.K. prime minister's communication style of short questions and short answers is typical of demagogic politics.

On August 28, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson prorogued British Parliament, which means that its current annual session will come to an end earlier than expected. This will leave just a few days in early September for the opposition to attempt to block a “no-deal” Brexit by passing emergency legislation and/or trying to force out Johnson by a vote of no-confidence.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn described Johnson’s move as “a threat to our democracy” and spoke of a “constitutional outrage” and a “smash and grab of our democracy by the Prime Minister.” Chanting “Stop the coup,” thousands protested in Central London and other cities after Johnson’s suspension of Parliament. The fight over a no-deal Brexit between Johnson’s government and Parliament will enter a hot and decisive phase when the British Parliament reconvenes after its summer recess on September 3.

Brexit’s Long History

Johnson came to power as part of a revolt of the most right-wing factions in the Conservative Party against former Prime Minister Theresa May, whom they saw as secretly wanting to remain in the European Union (EU). The members of these groups assumed that she was not tough enough in the negotiations of a withdrawal agreement between Britain and the EU.

Johnson argues that the EU has to drop the so-called “backstop,” an aspect of the withdrawal agreement that leaves the U.K. in the EU Customs Union in case no solution can be found that allows preventing a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Johnson says that if the EU does not change its position on the backstop, then Britain will leave without an agreement on World Trade Organization terms and with “no ifs, no buts” on October 31. He speaks of wanting to use alternative technological arrangements instead of a physical border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, but such means do not exist. They are mere techno-deterministic fantasies.

Johnson’s political plans include further reducing corporation tax and lowering the income tax rate for those who earn more than £80,000 per year. Many observers believe that behind the scenes, Johnson is preparing for a general election and will try to blame the EU, the British Parliament and anti-Brexit members of Parliament for the breakdown of negotiations in order to mobilize voters. At the same time, in light of the G7 summit, Johnson and President Trump have both talked about wanting to establish a free trade deal between the U.S. and the U.K. Such a deal could result in the privatization of public services, the further deregulation of working conditions, and the lowering of food and consumer standards.

On August 27, leaders of the opposition parties met in order to plan for passing emergency legislation during the first two weeks of September, when the British Parliament will sit after its summer recess and before another break during which the British parties’ annual conferences will take place. Under Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour Party, the Scottish Nationalists, the Liberal Democrats, the Welsh party Plaid Cymru, the Green Party, independent members of Parliament, and potentially some Tories who oppose Johnson’s position on Brexit plan to pass a law that would stop a no-deal Brexit.

On August 28, the Johnson government got the Queen to prorogue Parliament. Prorogation is the period between the end of one parliamentary session (one parliamentary year) and the start of the next one that is opened by the Queen’s Speech. Johnson’s prorogation of parliament reduces the time available to the opposition to try to block a no-deal Brexit.

The prime minister’s move indicates that he is scared of the opposition blocking his no-deal Brexit plans, and that he wants to circumvent these plans by minimizing the time available to parliamentary business before October 31. An unplanned “no-deal” rupture between the U.K. and the EU without a withdrawal agreement would very likely bring back a physical border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which could flare up and bring back the “Troubles in Northern Ireland” or, as the more pessimistic observers argue, be the trigger of a war in Europe.

There are only speculations about what consequences a “no-deal” Brexit would mean for Britain. The British and the EU economy are highly interlinked via imports and exports. In 2018, 78.2 percent of the U.K.’s import value of pharmaceutical products, including human blood and medicines, were coming from EU countries. In 2018, medicinal and pharmaceutical products accounted for 6.7 percent of the value of all British imports from the EU. A leaked government memo revealed that the Johnson administration expects food and medicine shortages in the case of a no-deal Brexit.

Johnson’s demagoguery has also extended to social media.

“People’s PMQs” as Ideology

On August 14, Johnson broadcast the first “People’s Prime Minister’s Question Time” via 10 Downing Street’s Facebook page that has around 630,000 followers.

At 11 am, a message was posted that called for users to ask questions: “Get ready for the first ever #PeoplesPMQs later today. Put your questions to the [prime minister] by commenting on this post.” At 12:15 pm, the broadcast started. In the 75 minutes that were available to post questions, a total of 956 comments were made. The broadcast lasted for 11 minutes. Johnson answered eight questions, which means he devoted roughly 80 seconds to each selected comment.

The eight questions focused on the topics of leaving the EU, the British Union, preventing Parliament from blocking Brexit, restoring the British people’s faith in politics, the alienation of rural communities from Westminster politics, mental health services, knife crime and political heroes.

The selected questions allowed Johnson to present himself as the savior who will deliver Brexit on October 31 and thereby gives a voice to, as he said in the broadcast, “people in towns and regions of the U.K. feeling that they weren’t being heard.” He presented himself as the leader who will make Britain flourish, implement tough law-and-order policies and, like Pericles of Athens, is a “powerful articulator of the idea of democracy.”

During the People’s PMQs, no critical questions were selected that scrutinized Johnson’s position on Brexit, his worldview, political convictions or actions. There was very little time for the preparation of questions. For example, the following comment was not taken up:

I require weekly infusions of human immunoglobulin to keep me alive. Human [Immunoglobulin G] cannot be stockpiled as it is a plasma product. Human [Immunoglobulin G] also cannot be produced in the UK due to the British population being at risk from [Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease]. What cast-iron guarantees can you give me, and the thousands of other patients in the UK who require this lifelong and life-saving treatment that supplies would not become difficult to obtain if no deal happens. If there was a shortage of this product, then the health of thousands of citizens could be at risk. Cancer patients also frequently require Human [Immunoglobulin G] during chemo as their immune systems deplete.

The format of People’s PMQs does not encourage citizens to come together to discuss politics and then together formulate comments and inputs; it advances individualistic, superficial, high-speed political communication. If we understand political communication as engaged dialogue of several individuals on equal grounds, then Johnson’s social media format is not at all a form of communication, because it does not allow for real dialogue.

The People’s PMQs is highly instrumental. It gives the prime minister’s social media team the power to select questions that allow him to present himself as positively as possible. There is no independent selection of questions that fosters critical scrutiny.

Further, the communication style of short questions and short answers is typical of demagogic politics. Such a politics accelerates superficial political communication, advances tabloidization, does not provide sufficient time for in-depth discussion, and ultimately represents an informational space that does not foster dialogue and debate. The People’s PMQ more resembles an emperor talking to his entourage than a democratic conversation.

Moreover, the selected questions were partly edited. For example, the question, “What are you going to do to protect our Union of Nations” reads in full: “Now we are leaving the [Common Agricultural Policy], do you think it’s now time for more a green high tech revolution in farming? If so what policies do you have for this? Plus what are you going to do to protect our Union of Nations.”

In his answers, Johnson not only presented himself as the voice of the British people who will deliver Brexit, but also communicated a deep division between those wanting Brexit, whom he described as the British people on the one side, and the EU and anti-Brexit members of Parliament on the other side. “There is a terrible kind of collaboration, as it were, going on between people who think they can block Brexit in Parliament and our European friends,” he said. Johnson uses the word “collaboration” in the context of the highly contentious political topic of Brexit. He fosters resentments by appealing to the meaning of the word as “traitorous cooperation with an enemy.”

True, deliberative democracy fosters engaged political conversations and debates as foundations of informed decision-making. Participatory democracy extends democracy from elections to other realms, such as the economy and public institutions, and allows those who are affected by decisions and organizations to take part in these organization’s governance and decision-making processes.

Given its instrumental, accelerated, individualistic, demagogic and tabloid character, Johnson’s use of social media in his People’s PMQs neither advances deliberative nor participatory democracy but rather, authoritarian plebiscitary politics. The plebiscitary state is based on pseudo-participation, where citizens are allowed to selectively and occasionally voice their opinions and vote on questions and matters that were selected by a charismatic political leader.

The People’s PMQs exemplifies this pseudo-participation, where political voice is handled in a highly selectively and instrumental manner that allows a political leader to worship himself in a self-congratulatory manner.

Social Media and the Public Sphere

In his 1932 book, Legality and Legitimacy, the fascist German legal theorist Carl Schmitt saw “plebiscitary legitimacy” as “the single type of state justification that may be generally acknowledged today as valid.” He was aware that the plebiscitary state advances tendencies of the “authoritarian state” and the “total state.” Further, Schmitt argues that plebiscitary politics means “authority from above, confidence from below” and requires “a government or some other authoritarian organ in which one can have confidence that it will pose the correct question in the proper way.”

In the age of social media, demagogic authority from above does not mean control of what questions are asked, but control and selection of the questions and the pieces of information that gain public visibility. Digital plebiscitary communication is a political instrument that controls and manipulates attention and visibility in the online public sphere.

In his classic work on the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas argues that, at the time of absolute monarchies, the public sphere meant that the emperor “displayed himself, presented himself as an embodiment of some sort of ‘higher’ power.” Representation meant the repeated presentation of authoritarian power to the public and of an “aura” that “surrounded and endowed” this authority. For Habermas, the feudal public sphere is a pseudo-public that is based on the “staging of the publicity.”

The People’s PMQs advances the digital re-feudalization of the public sphere. Political voice is stage-managed in a selective manner and instrumentalized in a digital spectacle that is designed to present the charismatic aura of a single person. Re-feudalization means to “procure plebiscitary agreement from a mediatized public by means of a display of staged or manipulated publicity.”

In the first People’s PMQs, Johnson pointed out that Pericles is one of his political heroes. Pericles was a Greek army general and statesman who lived in the fifth century B.C. In his book, Pericles of Athens, historian of ancient Greece Vincent Azoulay points out that many of his contemporaries saw Pericles as “despicable demagogue” who “had the most astonishingly great thoughts of himself” and possessed the “ability to turn black into white — and, in particular, to persuade his listeners that he had won a fight when, in fact, he had lost it.” Pericles’s speeches were criticized for their “tyrannical haughtiness.” His “self-glorification attracted virulent criticism.”

Johnson’s People’s PMQs can, in some sense, indeed be seen as having some Periclean aspects. It is an example of the use of social media for political, digital, and authoritarian demagoguery and the feudalization of the public sphere.

Right-Wing Authoritarianism and the Media

The right-wing use of the means of communication for creating a pseudo-public sphere has a longer history. In his book, The Psychological Technique of Martin Luther Thomas’ Radio Addresses, critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno analyses how the Christian demagogue Martin Luther Thomas used radio to spread far-right propaganda in the U.S. in the 1930s.

Following in the footsteps of this tradition, since 1984, Rush Limbaugh has moderated a right-wing talk radio show. Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Alex Jones are among those who built on Limbaugh’s right-wing use of broadcasting. The creation of Fox News in 1996 gave the reach of right-wing media a further boost.

The rise of the internet and social media has brought a new level of interactivity to the public dissemination of right-wing propaganda. For example, far-right Canadian YouTuber Andy Warski’s channel has around 250,000 followers, and far-right U.K. Independence Party member Carl Benjamin’s Sargon of Akkad channel has more than 950,000 subscribers. Such videos often reach several hundred thousand views and achieve thousands of comments. False news sites such as Breitbart operate their own platforms and are active on multiple social media sites such as Facebook (Breitbart: 3.8 million followers), Twitter (more than 1.1 million followers), Instagram (480,000 followers) and YouTube (135,000 subscribers).

With almost 65 million followers, President Trump’s Twitter profile is the far-right medium with the largest audience. In the book, Digital Demagogue: Authoritarian Capitalism in the Age of Trump and Twitter, I analyze Trump’s politics and his use of Twitter. An empirical analysis showed that top-down leadership, nationalism, the friend/enemy-scheme and militant patriarchy are key ideological features of Trump’s use of Twitter. Right-wing demagogues are at the same time self-centred and pretend to represent the people’s interests.

Johnson and Trump’s uses of social media are the latest development in and expressions of right-wing media use that advances pseudo-participation as the means of instrumental reason, where right-wing leaders maintain the ultimate voice and control communication power in the public sphere.

What Is to Be Done Against the New Right-Wing Radicalism?

In contemporary capitalism, the rise of new authoritarianism and new nationalisms are the result of the negative dialectic of neoliberal capitalism and the new imperialism. The commodification of everything — entrepreneurialism, privatization, deregulation, financialization, globalization, deindustrialization, outsourcing, precarization and the new individualism — have backfired, extended and intensified inequalities and crisis tendencies, which created a futile ground for new nationalisms and right-wing radicalism.

How should the left best counteract against nationalism and right-wing authoritarianism? German philosopher Theodore W. Adorno suggests that it is wrong to practice a left-wing populism that imitates the tactics and strategies of the far right. Progressive media and communication should not “put lies against lies” but rather “counteract by the sweeping power of reason and the really unideological truth.”

What we need is not a demagogic and authoritarian internet, but rather a public service internet with public service formats that advance the power of critical reason against ideology.

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