In a speech delivered to the United Nations in New York on September 24, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson entered into unprecedentedly bizarre territory. While he has always calculatedly courted the absurd, this screed involved imagery that belonged more in a fever dream than in political discourse. It featured mattresses that could read your nightmares, futuristic “pink eyed terminators” set on the destruction of the human race, and genetically mutated and “terrifying limbless chickens” running amok.
Johnson, who read classics at the University of Oxford, bloviated in this vein throughout his remarks, comparing his own political struggles to that of the Titan Prometheus. He claimed that this gargantuan rebel, who brought fire to humanity and freed them from the yoke of the old gods, provided a mythic equivalent to the situation in contemporary Britain. As he battled against the Zeus of the European Union to bring about a new age for the UK, the vultures of parliament were pecking out his liver for eternity.
While the allusion is facile, the analogy only partially functional and the imagery in his talk strange to the point of opacity, all this does seem to indicate a fundamental shift in British, and indeed Anglophone, conservatism: after years of promising order, the Conservatives have shifted the terrain to chaos. They are turning politics into a horror movie in which they are the monsters, casting off the shackles of social restraint and governing by shock and fear.
It has not always been this way. The foundational myth of the conservative state involves a heroic representative of order slaying a monstrous threat. This triumph over a symbol of the irrational creates social stability. Oedipus takes on the Sphinx to rule Thebes; Perseus destroys Cetus to initiate the Persian line; and Theseus kills the Minotaur. The patron saint of England - the Cappadocian Saint George - overcomes the dragon in an updated version of this trope.
This split between the state and its chaotic bestial outsider has long-infused political discourse. As the historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker have demonstrated, in the first age of modern democracy, reactionary forces conceived of new rights-demanding peoples as a many-headed hydra they needed to subdue. In Haiti, for example, the rebel enslaved people who fought against French colonialism were cast as gothic terrors, haunting the petrified white world.
Radicals themselves sometimes embraced this monstrosity, taking charge of a representation that sought to stigmatize them. They identified with figures like Prometheus, who for the poet Shelley (who gave Labour their slogan “for the many, not the few”) was the paradigm for the human fight against religious oppression. The “spectres” representing the coming of class war and the downfall of industrial capitalism in The Communist Manifesto provide another illustration of this theme.
But the stigma remains. In the present day, one of the foremost metaphors used by the right to divide up, hierarchize, and ultimately wage war on the non-west or non-national is to cast the social outsider as monstrous. This language has shaped anti-immigration rhetoric, neo-imperial interventionism in the Middle East, and, in the UK, discussion about Brexit.
All of which makes it quite remarkable that the Conservative Party, those doyens of stability, are now led by a man who identifies with monsters. Not content to be Prometheus, Johnson has also claimed that his Brexit Britain is like the incredible Hulk, an identification that runs counter to the political language and self-characterisation that conservatism has always used.
The question becomes, why this change now? I think there are two major reasons.
The first is tactical. Johnson’s monstrosity is in part a cack-handed attempt to align the Conservatives with the imagery they have tended to associate in the past with popular sovereignty. If democracy is monstrous in the reactionary worldview and Brexit is democratic, then, so the reasoning goes, we must become monsters too. To be a monster in the conservative worldview is to embody a radical democratic urge, even if there is no actual interest in fulfilling it.
But there is also something deeper at play. The alliance between conservatism and capitalism used to be ambivalent, a marriage between a retrospective aristocracy committed to preservation and historical inertia and the most revolutionary force in history.
The evidence of the contemporary moment is that this tension is giving way, with the Conservatives becoming the political spitting image of capitalism. As Karl Marx observed, capitalism acts like a monster as it endeavours to quench “the vampire thirst for the living blood of labour.” Indeed, in the nineteenth century, as capitalism became the dominant social system in the west, its representatives (especially banks) were cast as octopi or creatures of the deep, whose tentacles extended everywhere, blindly and voraciously.
That Johnson now wants to be a monster himself shows how modern conservatism amounts to little more than the market made flesh, while co-opting a history of monstrous radicalism. These two separate trajectories have, in this moment, come together. Yet in spite of how this looks, the reality is that his party is no more on the side of the mass public than they ever were; it’s just that they’ve happened on a political tactic that they hope might catalyse a majority for them in the next election.
Perhaps all of this is to over-theorise a basic nihilism in contemporary conservatism, whose ideology has become little more than gestural: an attempt to destroy everything no matter what the cost, masking a basic hollowness of meaning at its core.
Like the monsters of yore, this destructiveness is random and directionless, driven by little more than political instinct. Indeed, modern conservatism resembles nothing so much as Herman Melville’s squid in Moby-Dick: “A vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth, of a glancing cream-color, lay floating on the water, innumerable long arms radiating from its centre, and curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas, as if blindly to catch at any hapless object within reach.”
Insofar as embracing monstrosity constitutes a strategy, it is a risky one. In times of uproar and systemic chaos, the party of order usually wins out. Ceding this ground to others grants an opportunity to the political opponents of conservatism. Whether those opponents are ready to pick up the mantle remains to be seen.