‘Authenticity is a Disciplining Tool’—An Interview With Joe Kennedy, by Thom Cuell

Joe Kennedy’s second book, Authentocrats, is a wide-ranging and informed analysis of the way in which a brand of provincial, white working class experience is both privileged and distorted by politicians and journalists who aspire to appear credible outside of Westminster. From Owen Smith’s cappuccinos, to the poverty tourism of writers such as John Harris, to the modern ‘gritty’ incarnations of James Bond and the popularity of Scandinavian noir, Kennedy is insightful, occasionally scathing and original. Here, he discusses the idea of Authentocracy, and other issues addressed in the book.


To begin with, can you give us a definition of ‘authentocrats’ or ‘authentocracy’, and tell us a little about the starting point for your book?

I say something slightly different every time I’m asked this, but I guess one way of explaining it might be as a ‘populism of the centre’, albeit one refracted through the optics of Third Way spin. In short, it’s – in this country at least – those in the New Labour/ Blairite/ Brownite continuum, notwithstanding internal differences, seeking to wield a conservatism they impute to a notional ‘forgotten working class’ as a threat against any drift leftwards. It uses stock phrases like ‘the legitimate concerns of the people of Worksop about immigration’, and so on. But what’s important to understand is that this return to a notion of identitarian authenticity is always linked to the first part of the New Labour story, which I think was about an absolute individualism, a kind of post-political cosmopolitan freedom. What I wanted to figure out was how the early ideology of the Third Way – have a great time all the time, we’re all middle-class now, be what you want to be, reject the fusty old Tories, leave the worrying to Tony – turned into this sententious grind about the left-behind of the English provinces. It seemed to me that you could map this onto a more general turn in British culture (and Anglophone culture, and maybe other cultures) from zany pop-postmodernist flippancy towards a fixation with turgid realness, something you can see in the supposedly ‘gritty’ new Bond films, in all the laughably imitative British Scando-noir shows and in all this zealous back-to-nature stuff about leaving the city to become a butterfly collector, or whatever.

I was very interested in your account of poverty tourism as a trend in journalism, and your experiences of growing up in Darlington, and seeing the way it is represented in print by the likes of John Harris, were similar to my own of growing up in Stoke. How do you think we can challenge the view of these areas as monocultures, without in some way becoming authentocrats ourselves?

I’m not entirely sure. One way, I guess, is for people like us, from the provinces, to write more about them, but to make that an end in itself rather than putting the task in the service of chastising an alleged metropolitan elite. I’ve noted that lots of novels have come out over the last few years which seek to give the (again alleged) chattering classes a good telling-off about ignoring the provinces, but, of course, in doing so they flatten the provinces into an abstraction. Raymond Williams was my touchstone for trying to do that in Authentocrats – there’s this amazing devotion to real particularity in his work, maybe particularly in his fiction – he’s blowing apart the hierarchies of cultural attention but in such a nuanced way. And the poverty tourists’ fascination with Orwell – well, maybe they could do with actually reading Orwell in a little more detail. For all his faults, most of which were noted by Williams, he had a better eye for the details of place than point-provers like Harris. .

You note that, during the Owen Smith Labour leadership challenge, ‘frothy coffees’ and ‘little biscuits’ became unlikely symbols of authenticity. In future political campaigns, what other day to day items would you like to see candidates appropriating as signs of the ‘realness’ or otherwise?

The more I thought about this book the more I came to hate the thought of thinking about party politics ever again! I really found myself coming to some kind of accord with the anti-electoralism some people I know on the radical left embrace, although I’m probably too boring and chicken to ever really hold that position myself. For me, hope came in 2017 with Corbyn not bothering with little biscuits and instead talking about his love of Ulysses, which he copped a lot of crap for from posh-schooled New Statesman journos who finger-wagged about how out-of-touch this made him. A big possibility of Corbynism, I think, and it’s a movement I have lots of issues with and caveats about, is that Williamsian idea of culture as simultaneously ubiquitous and important. So, a copy of Ulysses is perhaps not a day-to-day item, but Corbyn’s implication is that it should be.  

Looking at Danny Dyer’s recent intervention on Brexit encapsulates many of the faultlines in Authentocracy. Much of the criticism of Dyer in the media was class-based, addressing his language and delivery; and yet if he had been using the same accent to speak for Brexit, he would presumably have been hailed as an unimpeachable voice of authenticity. So what can the incident tell us about the current state of media discourse on authentocracy, and how it can be challenged, if anything?

I think that’s a tricky one because a lot of the pro-Europeans who were overjoyed about Dyer coming out as vaguely anti-Brexit, or at least Brexit-sceptical, were also people who’d played the authentocrat card against the left in the past. It was the centre left and its media adjuncts – the Guardian, the Statesman, the BBC – who, at least in the book’s argument, platformed golf-club fascism, seeking to use it as a ‘proof’ against properly redistributive politics. Think how invested both the Guardian and the Statesman were in the shitshow that is Blue Labour.

Many of the arguments discussed in Authentocrats are played out over social media; how much impact do you think ‘the discourse’ has on IRL behaviour and voting patterns? And what do you see as the potential positive and negative effects?

I’m not really sure. I’m certainly wary about the centrist counter-discourse about online being a ‘bubble’ (I’m mindful here of the line early on in Macbeth, ‘the earth hath bubbles – well, the ‘bubbles’ here are the witches and it would be fair to say they have an effect on the play’s political reality!) The President of the United States is incumbent at least in part because of seepage between ‘net culture’ and ‘reality’; I hope the scare quotes there show that I don’t really think there is much of a meaningful boundary. The conflict between the centre and the (Corbynite) left on social media is also clearly one that is going on at Westminster and in the media.

What can independent authors and publishers do to counteract the narrative of authentocracy, and effecting real change?

Stop commissioning, publishing and writing works about Englishness or about finding your true self by taking up wood carving. How many books are there on wild swimming now, I wonder? Literary culture is awful at the moment – there’s a culture of boosterism led by obviously nefarious people like Stig Abell, but also involving some who really should know better – who want to pretend we’re in some golden age of innovation and open-mindedness but there’s just loads of badly disguised bien-pensant shit about. There are about four contemporary British novelists I really think are excellent. Deborah Levy. M. John Harrison. Well, that’s two. China Mieville’s decent some of the time. There’s very little which is truly weird; a lot of what’s promoted as such is just recapitulating experiments from aeons ago.

One of the key issues you explore later in Authentocrats is the generation gap between Generation Xers and Millennials, or centrist dads vs hipsters in current parlance; instinctively, it would seem as though both groups would have sympathetic aims, so where do you see this antagonism coming from, and what effects can it have on left politics?

The vulgar materialist answer here is that Gen Xers own property and Millenials don’t. People caught on the cusp of the two, like me – well, it could go either way. But I look at Gen X and their generally frivolous approach to life, which is pretty visible in Brighton, which I live just outside, and think that they’re often amazingly cossetted. Weyhey! Let’s all go to Camp Bestival and have a ‘boogie’ and do pills in front of our children – I think, broadly speaking, they’ve had a pretty easy ride and this is why Brexit has been such a massive shock for them. Their embrace of technocratic solutions and loopholes instead of actually looking for structural solutions – one of which might be Corbynism, or emerge from it – is historically embarrassing.

Following on from this, there’s a similar divide between groups seeking cultural explanations for shifts in attitude, and those who see economic causes. Do you see this as a particular legacy of New Labour’s time in power? And what are the harmful effects?

New Labour was a project of culturalisation, wasn’t it? Arts-led gentrification and so on. I don’t want to absolutely throw out cultural analyses for the way things are, and I think there is at times a naïve materialism around aspects of Corbynism, but to me it’s unavoidable that the embrace of ‘legitimate concerns’ nativist stuff by people who’d been very heavily invested in the New Labour project comes down to its usefulness as an alibi for that genuinely horrific economic neglect of significant parts of the country.  

You refer throughout Authentocrats to Harry Pearson’s excellent book The Far Corner: A Mazy Dribble Through North East Football. After a long period of decline, throughout the Blair years and beyond, there is a new vibrancy around non-league football in recent years, with a younger demographic beginning to attend games and import elements of ‘ultra’ culture. Is there any link between this and the wider social issues you discuss within the book?

The Far Corner is the best book about football ever written, let’s get that out of the way to begin with. It was part of my anxiety of influence when I was writing not only my last book, Games Without Frontiers, which is about football, and all the vignette-y bits in Authentocrats. On a personal level it brought together all kinds of vague adolescent intuitions I had about what it meant to be from the north-east, but more broadly it’s a great piece of anthropology on the down-low. You get far more sense of what ‘Spennymoor’ or ‘Seaham’ mean, or what the differences are between those places, reading Pearson than reading John Harris generalise magisterially about them. Anyway, non-league! Well, I was at Dulwich Hamlet when that became a ‘scene’ and I was pretty angsty about the way that was dismissed over and over in the press for being inauthentic, for being ‘full of hipsters’ and so on. A few years down the line, though, I think the ‘non-league revolution’ has been – guess what!? – successfully commodified, and a consequence of that means that the ramshackleness Pearson celebrates gets chammied away. One of the beauties of going to watch properly bad football is that it’s incredibly unselfconscious – you go and have a drink among a load of people for whom this weird hobby isn’t in any sense weird, it’s just what they’ve done for years. You watch a game of football, chat mumblingly to the people around you and go home. I’m not anti- the ultra thing, obviously, but I don’t necessarily want to be around it all that much because it’s so energy consuming. But, yeah, there’s loads of links between this idea that a totally moribund professional football culture, paying thirty quid to watch Swindon Town lose in a seat you can’t get out of in The Betting Company Stadium, is somehow more ‘authentic’ than doing something fun and communal in the Sussex League. It suggests that authenticity is a disciplining tool in contemporary discourse.

As a fan of Velvent Goldmine and the Situationists, I was drawn to your argument that Corbynism should ‘avoid becoming overly anchored in realism’; can you expand on that a little?

I was interested in Debord before I was ever interested in party politics, and Labourism depresses me on many levels; its grumpy pragmatism offends my inner aesthete. What I meant specifically by that is that Corbynism has to be a long revolution – it can’t, contra prominent media Corbynites like Paul Mason – make compromises with (ie) anti-immigration positions just to chase the UKIP vote. Mason wrote a piece showing that Corbyn’s triangulations around Europe and immigration showed that he really understood Gramscian hegemony, which I thought was extremely fucking fatuous – as far as I can see, counter-hegemony is exactly the opposite of realpolitik. More abstractly, ‘realism’ in its various forms is really, as Roland Barthes shows us in his amazing and still under-used essay on what he calls the Reality Effect, is itself always a form of idealism, an idea about reality which is accepted in place of the thing itself. There’s useful crossover here between what Barthes says and what the sterner Frankfurt tradition calls ‘reification’ or ‘reified consciousness’. I’d rather Corbynism didn’t fall onto these static, agenda-driven ideas about ‘reality’ and what ‘real people’ want.

You reference both Alexandra Harris’ book Romantic Moderns, and the short-lived Melody Maker glam-pop fad Romo (Romantic Modernism), which set off lots of thoughts about conservative values being dressed up in the language of revolutionary movements, and the conflict between radical self-invention and the importance of solidarity within progressive politics. However, my most pressing question on the subject is: Plastic Fantastic or Orlando?

Haha. That stuff really wasn’t for me, personally. Taylor Parkes, bless him, talked a good game for a few years, but I find that whole nineties tragic-glamour-of-flock-wallpaper stuff dubious even when I like it (Tindersticks, say). Pulp, for example, are I think the real Most Problematic Group In Britpop. At some point I might expand in detail on why I think that is.

If you were an Egyptian Pharaoh, and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?

I’m one of the most thanatophobic people I know so I’ll probably answer this question quite flippantly, or, conversely, over-earnestly. I’ve got a watch my wife bought me a few years ago which I really like and have already wrecked through wear; I’d take that. A first-edition copy of Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts I got for 99p. One or all of my Darlington Football Club mugs, my Caledonian Macbrayne ferries keychain. No, sorry, this question is killing me!

What’s your favourite portrait (can be a song, painting, film, anything)?

Trying to think of some cool paintings here. I was thinking of Matthew Smith’s painting of Henry Green, then I thought of Gwen John’s amazingly bleak style of self-portraiture, always painting herself looking extremely pissed-off, which I think she had lots of reasons for being, and thought I’d put that down.

Joe Kennedy is from the north-east of England and teaches English and Cultural Studies on the University of Gothenburg’s programme at the University of Sussex in Brighton. He writes on literature, critical and cultural theory, politics, music and sport for a range of publications. His first book, Games Without Frontiers offered a radical reappraisal of our understanding of association football.  

Image of Darlington Library by Peter Robinson, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14084513