In Frank Herbert’s space opera Dune, conflict within the ruling commercial-feudal aristocracy is governed and contained by a set of rules known as kanly. When those with a share in economic and political power fight one another, they do so on defined terms. The violence can be vicious but there are forms to be observed.
Britain is currently witnessing something like an episode of kanly. Last November the national media, which had rained adulation on the Prime Minister through a ludicrous general election and a disastrous pandemic, suddenly changed its tone. Negative coverage began with Johnson’s handling of a lobbying scandal in early November and continued after a typically shambolic speech by Johnson at the Confederation of British Industry a few weeks later. It started to do real damage with a series of revelations in December about parties in Downing Street during lockdown the previous Christmas. After a break for festivities the revelations have started up again.
As with Herbert’s kanly, there are tight limits to the scope of the attempt to bring down Johnson. His lax morals, his lack of focus and seriousness, and the office culture he permitted are fair game. But the media are in no hurry to emphasise the close ties between their own sector and the current administration. It is true that it has now been reported one of the most damaging examples of disregard for the rules took place at a leaving party for James Slack, who went on to work at the Sun newspaper as a deputy editor. But who in the media knew what and when, who was and wasn’t at the events themselves, has not featured prominently. Just as significantly, the overwhelming evidence of corruption and incompetence in emergency procurement at the height of the pandemic has remained off the table. And the role of the media and the right wing of the Labour Party in putting Johnson into Downing Street in the first place might as well be an official secret for all the attention it attracts in the media that most people see.
The tight focus of the attacks on Johnson is not the only reason to think that events are unfolding according to the logic of something like an aristocratic code of honour. Last October a piece by a former employer of Boris Johnson, Max Hastings, appeared in the Guardian. In it, Hastings assured Johnson that he still had ‘a window to quit Downing Street on his own terms and return to doing what he does best: telling adoring audiences what they want to hear.’ But in the public school and playing fields dialect they both speak Hastings urged Johnson to take ‘an early bath.’ If not, Hastings warned him, he would not escape ‘the protracted descent awaiting him if he lingers.’ I am sure that Hastings did not know what was about to happen. Yet the UK’s structure of elite cooperation and competition still somehow approximated the formalities of kanly. Johnson had fair warning.
The impact of the campaign on support for the Conservative party has been rapid and obvious. Polls that showed them at around forty percent last October now have them at around thirty percent. And in this case the media are very keen to notice public opinion. Our outrage and hurt are welcome at the content factory, directly as vox pops and phone-ins, indirectly via the righteous outrage of the professionals of speech.
Let’s be clear about what is happening here. A faction of the ruling class has moved against the Prime Minister in what looks like a carefully sequenced and intensifying campaign. As a result, the press are now reporting on social events that took place regularly in Downing Street over the course of a year. A hundred people were invited to just one of them. Even the carefully circumscribed account we are being offered has established as a matter of public record that at least one senior journalist attended at least one of these parties. And we also know that rumours were circulating about all this at least as long ago as January of last year. The antics in Downing Street have been transformed into matters of political consequence deliberately and with considerable skill, skill that could have been used against Johnson at any time. This is not ‘news’, this is a redistribution of knowledge, from the tight circuits of elite complicity into the wider world.
The motivations of Johnson’s enemies are less important than what the whole affair tells us about the nature of the political. The meaning of an event changes when it becomes known to different people, and it changes in light of the ways in which it is described. Some things are waved away and minimised, others are set in vivid contrast to the lived experience of those being addressed. Nothing ever speaks for itself; its social meaning is socially brokered. The process through which public knowledge is produced and distributed is what really matters. Who has the power to initiate this process? Who has the power to complete it? In matters of core concern to all of us only a handful of people play an active and conscious role in this creation and maintenance of social reality. Just imagine what they can do, what they can exaggerate or downplay, what they can re-describe or reframe, what they can invent. Meanwhile our opinions, aggregated as ‘the national mood’, are how an aristocracy of communicative power keep score.
Once we grasp how the political plays out in our heads, we are faced with the challenge of imagining another communicative regime altogether. If social facts are artefacts of speech that become consequential through our collective acceptance of them, then how do we ensure that each of us has an equal power to understand, and, where necessary, change them? How do we move beyond the occasional equality of the ballot box to an everyday equality in the collective formation of our beliefs and desires?
We aren’t yet helpless. The Prime Minister’s coded appeal for support from the right wing press has taken the form of an attack on the BBC. Rather than rally to its defence, we should begin to coordinate now so that the next charter renewal in 2027 establishes a new basis for public media in this country. We can use democratic techniques to discipline the various guilds and factions that currently dominate the production of social reality. We can use generalised agenda-setting powers and popular juries to direct and assess inquiry in specific areas. We can break the silences that surround the current, aristocratic, communicative regime. As broadcast gives way to digital media we can ensure that the platforms we use belong to us and serve our interests.
At the end of Dune, the rigidly stratified and elaborately formal world of kanly is swept away in a holy war. Our own social order is becoming less and less intelligible to itself, less persuasive to the majority, less effective at responding to what language cannot control—the stubborn progress of the climate crisis above all. Perhaps it is time to break into another way of making sense together.