Monday 2 January 2017

Living Dead Liberalism

The liberal establishment is a thing. It exists and it has power, influence. But it is not in charge. Liberalism has its privileged place in our media output. It is the primary outlook of academia. It casts a wide net across our politics, claiming one party officially but finding adherents in whole and in part on the government and opposition benches, not to mention large numbers of the politically active and civic-minded. It's shared by senior people across the civil service, is de rigueur among celebrity, and is the common sense of millions of people. Yet its philosophy is at odds with the assumptions guiding the government, including our most illiberal Prime Minister. It plays second fiddle to the investment and divestment decisions that really rule the life chances of millions, and where liberal principles come into conflict with the exercising of economic and political power, there is no contest.

In short, liberalism - and here, I mean it in the sense of a movement, a trend in society encompassing prominent individuals and institutions, as well as ideas - is dominant. Or, rather, a dominant. As elites go, their power and influence is nothing compared to conservative elites. It's this status, as a dominated apparatus of discourses that confers liberalism progressive social creds, not least because it has on plenty of occasions defined itself against powerful conservative governments. And it always finds friends who aren't liberals happy to make common cause - a so-called progressive alliance being just one of its manifestations. And so liberalism has a seductive allure. As a philosophy of individualism, it chimes easily (superficially) with Labourist and socialist concerns with inequality. Liberalism, at its consistent best, is opposed to discrimination. It is philosophically antithetical to bigotry and prejudice, though that hasn't stopped liberalism being used as a means to discriminate against minorities deemed to be illiberal. Therefore liberalism presents both as is and what should be, as the common sense of the (self-certified) enlightened and the state of grace to which everyone should aspire. Who, after all, could possibly disagree and not accept the rights of the individual, that people should go about their business unmolested, that folks should not get held back because of their gender, ethnicity, and sexuality? Isn't there, after all, a progressive consensus held by the majority and backed by the state?

This last year, liberalism in Britain received four body blows that fundamentally undermined its sense of place in the world and has rendered it spent and decadent as a force that paid lip service to progressive social change. In each of these cases, the world asserted itself as something at odds with the accepted liberal way of things. With the EU referendum vote, liberals discovered that those outside their accepted terms of reference did not see the world in the same way. That people voting to Leave weren't swayed by the huge apparatus of liberalism arrayed behind the Remain case, that the statsplaining and Eddie Izzard appearances didn't do the trick. This was partly because Leave tapped into anti-political establishment populism, of which liberalism is a (subordinate) part, and because liberalism was utterly incapable of providing answers to Leave attack lines. Small wonder immigration proved so potent as liberalism for the last 30 years has either copied "tough" rhetoric, or championed free movement without addressing the lies written and broadcast about jobs, housing, and strains on public services. Leave made hay with the anxieties and insecurities ever-present in advanced, de-industrialising societies and drew deep on decades of their being married to racism and scapegoating. In short, liberalism treated the referendum as a battle of ideas and not what it really was: a clash of interests.

An identical dynamic was at play in the US presidential elections. Donald Trump is an utter moron, so how could anyone vote for him? He had no experience of political office, is obviously unsuited, is a racist degenerate with nothing but contempt for disabled people and sees women as objects to be groped. And this is before you get into the finer points of policy, such as the repeal of Obamacare and a free-for-all for America's most polluting companies. His election, despite receiving almost three million votes fewer than Hillary Clinton, scrambled liberalism's networked brains much more than Brexit because of the characteristics that would have sunk anyone else. They cannot conceive how someone so anti-liberal to the the point of offence managed to pile up the votes where he needed to. Part of which is their fascination with American politics (something shared by British conservatism) and the illusions they had in Clinton as a great liberal hero, and part, again, an inability to analyse the social relationships and dynamics that determine the course of elections.

Third, there is the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and the transformation of the Labour Party from the B-team of British capitalism into something else. As I've argued previously, understanding what was going on meant looking at the character of the new people coming into the Labour Party. Yes, there were a lot of "usual suspect" lefties. As Alex Nunns points out in his excellent account of the Corbynism's emergence, networks of established activists flocked into the party. But Corbyn's challenge activated a wider, coming strata of working people for whom networks are part of their everyday, in and out of work, but more on that another time. However, the nine-tenths beneath the surface were invisible to liberalism. For them, the Labour Party - and therefore a viable leader - has to remain within (their) bounds of political respectability, differ from the sitting government by degree and not by kind play the Parliamentary game, and be able to win votes from the Conservatives. Because the majority of the membership rejected this view, liberalism was at a loss to explain what happened. It was a matter of lefty self-indulgence, Trot entryism, or a middle class takeover. Nothing to do with wider changes in British society, and certainly sod all to do with the campaign of destablisation liberalism aided and abetted in and outside the party. And so, for now, Labour is closed as a vehicle for liberalism's ambitions.

And lastly, there is the shift in social media. Gone from being the relatively quiet and charming plaything of Graun commentators and hangers on, in successive years it's been flooded by waves of hyper-partisan and seemingly unreasonable people. In 2013, it was fresh kippers. 2014 came the cybernats. 2015 the Corbynistas. And 2016 racists and Nazis trading under the alt-right tag, and fanatical brexiteers. For the leading lights of British liberalism, particularly those in politics and the media, death threats and rape threats have surged, utter nonsense and "fake news" is bandied about like the revealed truth, conspiracy thinking has mainstreamed, and the line between naivete/bampottery/trolling has grown so thin it's impossible to pin some people down. That this was the year places like Breitbart and The Canary captured widespread attention is no accident: they rode the wave. For the liberal mindset, the chaotic jumble of social media at once confounds and reinforces its prejudices. It confounds because like Brexit, Trump, and Corbyn, how can anyone believe this shit? And it confirms because, ultimately, it comes down to a lack of education, of not being reasoned or informed enough to construct and understand the liberal outlook, of failing to grasp the things that matter.

At the dawn of 2017, liberalism finds itself confused. The world isn't what it was, it's bewildering, normless, chaotic. Nothing makes sense, the counter-intuitive rules. Liberalism is lost and cannot even think about a way forward, let alone plot a course. In effect, it moves, it shambles around, but there is no coherence, no answers, no intelligence. It has gone the way of the living dead, and can only throw out a decomposing imitation of life. Living dead liberalism manifests in two zombified forms. The first is liberal virtue signalling. You know the sort. The kind that fights shy of the world. It prefers not having to deal with it, and so shuts reality out by blocking or ignoring, or pretending they're Dumbledore's Army or some such childish shit. Even worse is that variant of zombie liberalism that doubles down on all the elitist faults ascribed to it. Calling people thick because they voted Trump? No problem. Brexiteers are all stupid morons who don't know what's good for them? Let's have it. Coming up with colourful ways to call people names make well remunerated journalists with big platforms feel better, but what does it do apart from signify one's impeccable (and super-intelligent) creds? Nothing. This form of liberalism accomplishes its retreat from the world and becomes the rhetoric of shrill but frightened narcissists.

The other type of undead liberalism says it's vital and alive, but is anything but. So-called muscular liberalism has poured a gallon of paint onto its red lines and is prepared to fight relentlessly, tweet-by-tweet, rebuttal-by-rebuttal, by-election by by-election against the rubbish pushed by the right. Challenging opponents' commonsense and redefining politics is, well, what progressive politics is supposed to do. And, to be fair, I'd much rather have liberals mindlessly tap polemic into their laptops and mail it in than posture uselessly to other liberals. But ultimately, what's the end game? Defeating the right in their Tory, kipper, and alt-fash guises requires boots-on-the-ground politics, a vehicle for transforming lives and implementing policy. Labour is no longer the vehicle for liberal aspiration, the liberalish Cameroons are marginalised in the Tories, the SNP are too ghastly, and so all that is left are the LibDems. While their real support is probably underestimated by nationwide polling, nine MPs and 70,000 members can hardly strike out for liberalism, especially as they remain compromised by their previous association. And so liberal writers will write, liberal campaigners will campaign, and the world will not be better or worse for it. Liberalism can rage all it likes, but as a movement with political power it is diminished.

And so liberalism offers no way forward. It is paralysed because as an elite movement, it is structurally incapable of seeing the world from anywhere but its position near the top of the pile. Yet, the irony is, liberalism should be strong. The spontaneous outlook of growing numbers of young people in most developed countries is more liberal than preceding generations. It should be the liberal moment, and yet liberalism cannot relate. Its fixation on the language games of posture and polemic, and its basic philosophic resistance to viewing the world in terms other than individuals struggling for recognition and position means it cannot orient itself to a rising generation blighted by precarity, debt, low pay, housing shortages. To start probing this world of interest means abandoning liberalism, but when so many are comfortably self-satisfied with it, not least the feted leading lights and their zombified comment cabaret, what incentive have they in building something alive?


David Timoney said...

Good analysis. It occurs to me that the title of the new Fabian Society pamphlet moaning about Labour is perhaps better read as a projection of the liberal dilemma rather than a critique of the opposition's electoral prospects: too weak to win and too strong to die.

Igor Belanov said...

The Fabian Society's line is typical of current liberalism in its stress on lesser-evilism and the idea that the only possible political constellation is an anti-Tory 'unpopular front'.

One of the things that has led to the utter mess of political liberalism is its negativity. While the right welcome the economic effects of modern capitalist change but bemoan the social and cultural results, liberals seem entirely at ease with those changes. They might be better off becoming more strident advocates of capitalist change rather than resorting to manipulation, smears about the racism, stupidity or evil of others, or pretending to 'understand' the concerns of those that they are unconcerned about.