Thursday 25 July 2019

The Dude Derides

To me, a very interesting aspect of Boris Johnson’s assumption of the premiership yesterday was the fact that both the Daily Telegraph and The Independent picked up instantly on the word ‘dude’ in his acceptance speech. Both papers understood this as a reference to The Dude, hairy anti-hero of the Coen Brothers comic film ‘The Big Lebowski’, played by Jeff Bridges. The Dude has become a cult hero: ex-60s radical, sunk into alcoholism of a rather sumptuous kind (White Russian cocktails), reluctantly forced to be a makeshift private detective. Unflappably cool, partly thanks to his vodka intake, his motto is ‘The Dude Abides’.

In invoking this Bridges character Boris is making a clever appeal to a largeish proportion of the voting population who find him amusing, entertaining and unlike the typical politician. His political allegiances may be fluidly variable but this doesn’t deter this particular audience, who despise most other politicians as humourless charlatans. Boris is a humorous charlatan, and that works for many people. In short, Boris was staking a claim to be Cool, with a capital C.

In 2000 I co-authored, with my late friend David Robins, a book called ‘Cool Rules’ (Reaktion Books, Sept 2000). An informal sociological analysis of popular culture, this book was widely misunderstood as promoting the virtues of coolness, which it was not, but nor was it either condemning it. Instead the claim we made in this book is that the phenomenon we christened Cool with a capital C (hoping to avoid such confusion) is a major shift in the social psychology of affluent Western consumer societies, a change in the ‘spirit of the age’ away from Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic to a quite different constellation of character traits – which we analysed as Narcissism, Hedonism and Ironic Detachment.

The book probed the history and the consequences of this change, drawing on a wide range of reference materials, from the Beat Movement, the 1960s Counterculture, Hip Hop culture, literature and movies, the anthropology of African religions to the psychoanalysis of New York neurotics. In a nutshell we recognised Cool as an extreme form of individualism, at odds with most forms of state-based collectivism, libertarian in tendency, attracted to extremes and contemptuous of compromise and moderation. The very antithesis of Social Democracy. The final chapter of the book was about Cool Politics, and I‘ll quote a few paragraphs for the benefit of those multitudes who haven’t read it:


In a 1998 article for the New York Review of Books Mark Lilla of the Princeton University Institute of Advanced Studies pondered the two revolutions that have transformed post-war America - the 'cultural' revolution of the 1960's and Reagan's neo-liberal economic revolution of the 1980's - and was very critical of the inadequate political responses from both the right and the left of American politics to their aftermath. He characterises their responses as 'reactionary' in the proper usage of the term: that is, the Right can only react by lambasting the moral laxity bequeathed by the '60s, while the Left reacts by railing helplessly against the triumph of Reaganomics. The facts are, as Lilla puts it, that ‘the Sixties happened, Reagan happened and for the foreseeable future they will together define our political horizon’. According to Lilla, young Americans have no difficulty in reconciling the two in their daily lives, ‘holding down day jobs in the unfettered global economy while spending weekends immersed in a moral and cultural universe shaped by the Sixties’.

These thoughts then prompted Lilla to pose a dramatic question ‘for which neither Tocqueville, nor Marx, nor Weber has prepared us: What principle in the American creed has simultaneously made possible these seemingly contradictory revolutions? How have our notions of equality and individualism been transformed to support a morally lax yet economically successful capitalist society?’ At the risk of some immodesty toward the shades of Tocqueville, Marx and Weber we offer a single word answer to Lilla: Cool.
Some might argue that Cool is primarily a western phenomenon, and that elsewhere in the world there are other equally powerful forces, for example militant Islam, that will check its progress. Another possibility is that in non-Christian cultures the Cool pose does not offer the same attraction that it does in western societies - there is, for example, no equivalent expression in the Chinese language. Actually we don't believe in any of these counter arguments. Wherever the standard of living rises to a point where television, pop music and the Hollywood movie are available (and that leaves out very few areas of the globe now) then young people will both recognise and cultivate Cool. What Cool now represents is the influence of the free market in personal relationships and sexuality, and whether politicians like it or not, probably a majority of the younger generation throughout the world now aspire to this degree of freedom. What's more, they are unlikely to be gainsaid by mere moralising, and it takes dictatorship or the military triumph of religious fundamentalism to divert them from its pursuit.
So how bad could it be if Cool did rule the world? Certainly the traditional Left would experience it as absolute defeat - capitalism unleashed and unregulated, free to seek new markets where it will. Cool consumer capitalism has discovered, as Thomas Frank puts it, how to construct ‘cultural machines that transform alienation and despair into consent.’
But the triumph of Cool would be no more comforting to those on the traditional Right since it represents the collapse of all their most cherished values. The USA, as Mark Lilla’s question makes clear, must be our model for what happens when a society embraces the free market both in labour and leisure, while losing interest in party politics: unprecedented prosperity for the many, misery for the few, Wall Street at an all-time high, jails overflowing, and a lack of any truly oppositional (as opposed to knee-jerk reactionary) politics. The maintenance of a healthy democracy requires a perceptible difference between the parties of left and right, and real confrontations over real issues, and in this light the emergence of an apolitical Cool generation is alarming.
Cool prefers the image of rebellion, as offered by glamorous terrorists, gangsters and wasted rock musicians, to the hard boring slog of real politics, and we would all do well to remember that Adolf Hitler was also a cultural rebel with artistic pretensions, a distinctive haircut, big trousers and kinky boots
Cool may once have been an expression of rebellion but it is surely not any longer. The real question is whether or not it can sustain the key elements, the rule of law and freedom of conscience, that make western democracy the least bad form of government ever invented. The picture is murky and contradictory: on the one hand Cool values personal freedom above all, it hates racism, it is egalitarian and hedonistic in temperament, on the other hand it is fascinated with violence, drugs and criminality, and mesmerised by the sight of naked power. But this book is not an effort to predict the future, rather to explain the past - to make visible the ambiguous influence of Cool in modern life precisely so that people might start to debate such matters, and more seriously weigh the pros and cons of boredom versus excitement, order versus turmoil, tolerance versus thuggery. In the end we shall, as ever, have to wait and see what happens, for deprived of Marxism’s Historic Inevitability the future’s not ours to see - Que Sera, Sera (Sly Stone’s version of course, not Doris Day’s).

If you are at all convinced by our characterisation of Cool as Narcissism+Hedonism+Ironic Detachment then it will be clear that with the ascension of Boris, the world is now largely under the sway of Cool rulers: Johnson, Putin and even Trump fit that template. I don’t ask you to believe that Xi Jinping is also Cool, but do keep an open mind - it was a bit of a shock when we learned that Mao Tse Tung was an enthusiastic orgiast after all. But my main point is please don’t confuse ‘Cool’ with good. When the spirit of an age changes, the words used to express value change with it. All young people, and quite a lot of older ones, now say ‘That’s cool!’ to mean that’s good, but that isn’t at all what we meant by Cool. Confusion arises because culture and its value system are the sea in which a people all swim and in which they can’t normally see the water: we were trying to get our snouts above the water to examine it from the outside.

So when I call Boris Cool that isn’t any sort of praise, but rather a dire warning. It makes him impervious to most of the arguments used by the Left, and perhaps even fatally attractive to young voters. Boris’s Dude-like insouciance is the perfect camouflage for the vile opinions and policies of the hard right-wingers he’s appointed to his cabinet. We know what Priti Patel thinks about the work-shyness of British workers, but Boris is a bit of a slacker himself you know, like The Dude. No-one in their right mind wants to work nowadays, rock stars and footballers are our role models, Boris is no prude, likes a larf. It’s really hard to picture Jeremy Corbyn besting Boris at PMQs.


  1. Nice one Dick! So let's see if comments are working.

  2. It's a shame you can't be our leader, Dick. You wouldn't want the job, I'm sure.

    1. Don't bet on it Dave - I've often thought being corrupted by power might be fun.


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