Boris Johnson’s main political and media skill is managing impressions. It was inevitable that his government would foreground this – but how, and with what consequences and risks?

The arrival of Boris Johnson in Downing Street looks to have unleashed a whole new style, scale and prominence of propaganda techniques. The splash on the front of today’s Daily Telegraph, ‘Johnson’s £100m Brexit ad campaign’, captures the new spirit and techniques. Firstly, there is the gung-ho ‘optimism’, which has served as the bare thread of justification for Johnson’s premiership by all his supporters. The administration’s newly adopted term (or really, logo, given its wholly performative nature) for this optimism-at-work is “turbocharging”, which is being repeated across the airwaves like a reverie.

Second, there is the reference to World War Two, and the Churchillian allusion (though this hangs entirely on a quote from an anonymous Treasury source that “I can’t imagine there has been a bigger ‘comms’ campaign than this since World War Two”, which is incorrect). This continues the re-framing of Downing Street as a wartime bunker, that is in a state of urgent lock-down in defense of the national interest.

Thirdly, there is further evidence (to add to that witnessed over the leadership campaign) that certain newspapers have abandoned any effort to report critically on Johnson, and are willing to be used as mouthpieces for whatever information he and his team need distributing that week. The Daily Telegraph has become a sick joke in this respect, but The Sunday Times has also granted a string of ‘exclusives’ to Johnson (and another to Trump) which are earned at the cost of political scrutiny or scepticism.

Fourthly,  and rather bizarrely, this particular story involves bragging about the scale and seriousness of an information war: it is propaganda about propaganda. There is a kind of signalling going on here, that this government is proudly in the business of mass mobilisation. Following three years in which liberals have expressed outrage at the dark and manipulative tactics of Vote Leave, Leave.EU, Cambridge Analytica et al, there is an unabashed pride about this message, which suggests that psychological influence will now be used to unify the nation rather than divide it. Placed in the service of the national wartime state, psy-ops becomes a badge of honour. To paraphrase the anonymous Republican strategist (Karl Rove?), ‘you people can continue griping about post-truth; we’re creating a new truth that is loyal to Britain’. The implication is that Brussels is soon going to find itself in conflict with an entire people.

Hovering behind all of this is the sense that an election might be imminent, and these new propaganda efforts intend to sow discord amongst the parties of Remain. The discovery that Johnson’s team are testing hundreds of Facebook ads has fueled this suspicion further. Without wishing to add to the media hype surrounding Dominic Cummings’ giant brain, his reputation for using confusion as a tactic would suggest that the deep uncertainty surrounding Downing Street’s present intentions and strategy is quite deliberate.

How are we to interpret all of this? Is there something new going on, or is it just more cynical? The reason I think we need to use terms like ‘propaganda’ and ‘psyops’ (as opposed to ideology or hegemony, say) is that this isn’t simply an attempt to frame and explain collective experience and evidence, but consciously to act on and alter impressions. It’s less an attempt to forge a consensus about the nature of economic reality (via evidence and critique), than to coordinate how people feel and think about it.

In all likelihood, I think we are witnessing the coming together of different strands of public influence, some of which have very long histories, others of which are far more recent. This contributes to the new fusion of nationalism and neoliberalism that James Meek captures well in this essay, and that Quinn Slobodian is currently mapping. But the end result, once PR becomes the governing logic of the state, is that its power could be put to various uses, geopolitical, financial and (though this raises serious constitutional questions) electoral.

Origins of Johnsonism

Experiments in mass psychological manipulation are a long-standing feature of modern societies, dating back at least to the Napoleonic Wars. As an actively manufactured set of shared sympathies, myths, heroes and cultural markers, nationalism has always been a project in large-scale psychological influence. As I detail in Nervous States, Carl von Clausewitz marvelled at the fact that the Napoleonic armies appeared to share a common passion, of a sort previously unseen in warfare, thanks to the recent precedent of the French Revolution. He wondered what it would take for the Prussians to manufacture a similar emotional-military resource. Napoleon himself used propaganda sheets to exaggerate and lie about his military achievements to the French public.

Advertising, dating back to the late 19th century, brought a more scientific perspective to a similar challenge: how to produce an affective bond between a mass public and a product. A key difference is that advertising is primarily focused on the future (what will this product be like, what difference will it make to me and my life?) whereas nationalist communication is heavily focused on the past (great victories, sources of identity, origin myths). Nevertheless, the two became synthesised in the twentieth century with wartime efforts to boost ‘morale’, which aimed at increasing solidarity and enthusiasm (things that become increasingly important as warfare engages more non-combatants and involves aerial bombing).

The relationship between state communications and advertising has been one of frequent exchange over the past century. Edward Bernays’ 1928 Propaganda demanded that politicians adopt the same techniques of mass persuasion as businesses had done, in order to render mass democracy viable and faintly predictable. Capitalism is a system that requires trade-offs between flexibility and commitment, and has always depended on various devices (credit scores, statistical models, brands etc) to achieve shared expectations of the future, that allow for coordinated change, as Jens Beckert has explored. These are crucial aspects of what Deleuze dubbed ‘societies of control‘.

The neoliberal era that followed the collapse of the Bretton Woods global monetary order generated additional types of psychological influence. The neoliberal political system and ideology emphasises that all situations are uncertain and competitive, and it is therefore up to all decision-makers – states, firms, investors, job-seekers, parents, students – to adopt a responsible, enterprising and flexible mentality, in approaching a fundamentally unknowable future. This makes impression management (especially impressions of the future) an essential technique at all scales of decision-making. Intuition and instinct become crucial cognitive tools, and targets for persuasion. We can see this on two fronts.

Firstly, agents are required to try and influence the expectations and impressions of those around them. Advertising obviously does this in relation to consumers (only more so under neoliberalism, with brands becoming effectively independent of the products they happen to be attached to), but new techniques of financial PR and self-marketing become critical. Central bankers are required to select their words with immense care, so as to convey the right impression to the markets. Social media ‘influencers’ are one of the more recent frontiers to be crossed, in this extension of a marketing and PR mentality into all corners of life. The anxiety of platform-based sociality is that any false step might lead to a sudden loss of reputation. As Michel Feher details, the dominant logic of neoliberal society is that of credit-rating, whereby social life exists in the shadow of evaluation technologies, which are constantly tweaking our reputations.

Secondly, agents are required to exert control over their own impressions of the future. This is where a ‘positive attitude becomes a necessary psychological resource of executives, entrepreneurs, school pupils and everyone else. Positivity can even be drummed into people, as a way of forcing them back into the labour market. An expanding array of life coaching, positive psychology techniques, happiness classes and motivational techniques are all key elements in the forging of neoliberal subjects, for whom uncertainty is a type of resource, sustaining the belief that anything might yet happen in the future. This ‘cruel optimism‘ can mitigate some of the disappointments of the present, though not indefinitely. At its most mystical (and cruel) this ideology insists that positive thoughts by themselves can deliver wealth and success – and that the absence of these things is therefore evidence of a bad thought pattern.

Nationalism meets neoliberalism

Boris Johnson’s main skill as a journalist, politician and celebrity is impression management. He is renowned for his ability to shape how people feel in his presence, just like a good stand-up comedian (see my piece on this). Several former colleagues and employers have issued warnings about him, all of which have testified to his charm and enjoyable company, which he uses to deceive people with. None has declared him unlikeable. Newspapers and magazines, which ought to be in the job of reporting facts (or so we once hoped), have been unable to resist the entertainment factor he brings to both political reporting and comment.

It was always inevitable that, if he ever got into Downing Street, his leadership would be one that operated in the space of impressions, affects and deception, far more so than his predecessors. Of course, politicians lie and always have done. The worry with Johnson is that lies don’t catch up with him in the same way, because he doesn’t recognise that they matter (and, polls suggest, isn’t judged according to normal moral standards by the public), and will happily change the subject when it suits him.

What’s been less clear is how this strategy works, once scaled up to the level of national leadership. Comparisons to Trump are easy to make but there is a key difference emerging. Trump’s daily propaganda war stokes divisions within the United States, taking aim at Democrats, ethnic minorities, Hilary Clinton, anyone who criticises him and mainstream media outlets, rallying his base with the support of Fox News and Breitbart. The gamble this represents is that he might eventually make so many enemies as to forge an electoral coalition that defeats him.

Johnson, on the other hand, nurtures images of national unity and harmony. Whether this really is because he wants to be Churchill, or whether it’s because of the unusual conditions of Brexit (which allow him to frame Brussels and disparate forces of Remain as enemies), his rhetorical and affective spirit is one of constant enthusiasm and generosity. His leadership campaign and victory have been endlessly touted by his media and Westminster cheerleaders as a triumph of ‘optimism’ and ‘cheerfulness’.

Populism is typically understood as a rhetoric of division (us against them), but Johnson is not known for saying very much about his enemies or deploying the rhetoric of demonisation and hate (except when it is under the cover of humour, as with his racist and homophobic comments). What he uses is closer to what’s called ‘cancel culture’, whereby the enemy becomes ignored, no-platformed, blocked, eradicated from view, allowing him to sustain his persona as cheerful panel show contestant. He leaves it to his friends in the ERG and the Daily Telegraph to boo and to bully, when unwelcome facts, voices and sentiments come into view.

In this, we’re witnessing the mentality and ideology of positive psychology, elevated to the scale of national propaganda. There are plenty of horrific stories of positive thinking programs in workplaces and workfare centres, in which everyone is included, welcome and valued – just so long as they don’t bring a negative attitude. Accusations of ‘negativity’ serve as a justification for abandoning employees or friends, once positivity becomes viewed as a form of health, that spreads virally through a population. One of the grimmest cases I found while researching The Happiness Industry was of happiness guru, Guy Winch, who writes “If you find yourself living with or around people with negative outlooks consider balancing out your friend roster.”

Meanwhile, as anyone who’s heard Johnson’s Conservative Party backers or media allies in recent weeks, ‘optimism’ really does appear to be a central part of his Brexit strategy. This too rests on the curious epistemology of positive psychology, that changing one’s feelings and thoughts about something is a viable alternative to changing the thing itself. But that mentality needs to be seen in its neoliberal context: facts inhibit flexibility, in an economy pervaded by uncertainty. As Alan Finlayson wrote a while back, a central prop of Brexitism is the belief that “nobody knows” what is going to happen next. The past is no guide to the future, indeed nothing is a very good guide to the future, other than sheer bravado and courage.

This focus on national impression-management has been witnessed before, in relation to bond markets and foreign direct investment. The idea that politicians should not “talk down” the nation has been used for many years with respect to sterling, the implication being that markets will be influenced by a lack of confidence on the part of national leaders. The ‘nation-branding’ industry seeks to convey a positive impression towards global investors and mobile ‘talent’. But it’s not clear how “talking up” or re-branding Britain will do much to help attain a better Brexit deal. There’s no evidence to think that Brussels cares how ‘optimistic’ Boris Johnson or The Daily Telegraph is about Johnson’s chances. The bravado is therefore for the benefit of the British public, media and Westminster only. In that sense, it is closer to the tradition of nationalist propaganda and wartime morale-management than to that of financial PR or branding.

What’s emerging, therefore, is a synthesis of nationalism (which has always been anchored in metaphors, stories and memories of war) and neoliberalism, that could also be harnessed for purposes of an election campaign, in which the distinction between the Conservative Party and ‘the nation’ will be weakened like never before. What nationalism and neoliberalism share is a suspicion of empirical evidence, and a quasi-mystical faith in metaphysical properties of some constantly evolving collective spirit, where the former finds this in a given people, and the latter in the price system. Together, this provides a fearsome set of resources to silence (or ‘cancel’) dissenting voices, that present hard facts of what is going on, and the challenges facing the country.

Johnson now has plenty of informational ammunition has his fingertips, via both the Conservative Party and the government. But the most valuable ingredient, unprecedented in the UK, is a set of newspapers that seem willing to serve as his tools, in persuading the country to feel positively towards a set of policies that will almost certainly make most people worse off. As positivity is elevated to a quasi-wartime national obligation, and as disdain is heaped on anyone who ‘talks Britain down’, reality itself starts to become nationalised.

There is, however, a serious political risk here, and it’s the same one that Theresa May and her advisors grossly under-estimated in 2017. May had been pursuing a similar (albeit less vivacious) strategy to Johnson, positioning all her opponents as enemies of the ‘national interest’, and urging the country to rally behind her as some kind of unifying figurehead, who was above politics. Maybe her difficulties with spontaneity and public engagements rendered this implausible all along, but for a while it appeared likely to work (I was one of many who grossly over-estimated it, a month ahead of the election). What did for her was the large number of people who looked at this message of national unity, and saw nothing to identify with.

Maybe she wasn’t Napoleonic or Churchillian enough; maybe a few more references to ‘war’ would have distracted people from their economic insecurity and anger. If Johnson and Cummings can generate a constant sense of chaos and surprise, it becomes harder to establish a basis for criticism and opposition. But the problem Johnson will have, sooner or later, is – as any devotee of positive thinking hacks will tell you – ‘negative thoughts’ can be eliminated for only long, but sustained negative experiences are eventually impossible to ignore and silence altogether.