Tuesday 27 June 2017

The Welcome Death of Liberal England

Got your lanterns and hard hats ready? I want us to take a trip down the memory hole. We don't have to go too far down, just a couple of years or so. That's right, go through the gallery in the dead centre. See the opening glowing with the yellow of liberal smuggery? There's our destination. You might want goggles because the shine is intense. Okay, we're here. Can you make out the halo of images flickering on the rock face? Look, there's one of Tony Blair telling Jeremy Corbyn supporters to get a heart transplant. There's another! Ian Dunt of politics.co.uk calling Brexit voters thickies. Who else? Ah yes, the shining talent of Britain's liberal intelligentsia valiantly taking on extremes of left and right. And there we have an ensemble of Graun columnists mocking UKIP's support. Calling them Flat Earthers, that'll learn 'em!

Liberalism as a current of thought and movement in wider society is in crisis. The party that bears its name in Parliament is a runt comprised of meaningless, shapeless non-entities. The liberal wing of the Conservatives, if one wants to be generous and style Dave and his Cameroons, were such a shallow shower that even Theresa May had no problem brushing them aside. And in the Labour Party not only do we find their standard bearers reduced to penury but also, thanks to the election result a complete collapse in their strategy and therefore their politics. Sad times for them, better times for socialist politics.

Having undertaken a too long apprenticeship on the far left, I know a thing or two about what happens when you're politically irrelevant. You can double down and carry on grinding in exactly the same way, hoping reality will swing your way eventually. Not unrelated to this, you can indulge in the expressive politics of identity display as a substitute for making a difference. Or you can retreat from a world you find bewildering and frightening, firing off angry brickbats about how everyone but your smug, liberal self is stupid from the comfort of your hermitage.

Along comes Nick Cohen with another episode in this retreatism. Our poor little group of do-gooding centrists, or "internal exiles" as Nick terms them, aren't politically apathetic like the "fools" who fell for the Moon-on-a-stick promises of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. They care. It's why they shout at the telly and swear on Twitter, but cannot countenance participating in public life because there is no way of winning. Why waste your time struggling when there's an Aga to clean? And we're told this disengagement of the engaged will have serious repercussions. If the liberal intelligentsia loosen their attachment to the country and give up on activism, then bad things will happen.

I know Nick is a doyen of comment but, to employ a phrase beloved of the imaginary campus radicals he frequently fulminates against, he could do with checking his privilege. The elite liberal strata he champions haven't done too badly over the last two decades. Cameron's "centrist" cuts always hit those at the bottom the hardest, just as Blair and Brown's third way wonkery shafted the "undeserving" poor. The "scientists, technicians, academics, managers, civil servants, doctors", on the whole, didn't have as bad a time of it - there was no clobbering. Their status remains intact, their role in society, the rewards they receive (I'm assuming Nick had senior civil servants in mind), and the security they enjoy are a cut above the rest. And scanning the pantheon of writers to have scored regular gigs in The Publications That Matter, there is hardly a dearth of liberal middle class people giving liberal middle class takes on things.

Yet he does have point. His people, his tribe are on the slide, but it's more serious than the oikish classes refusing to listen to their betters any more. For one, large numbers of the middle class are abandoning liberalism. Being on a good salary is one thing, but to be forced to swallow year-on-year real terms salary cuts with no let up in the workload focuses the mind a bit. There is no greater teacher than experience and this applies to the liberal pretense that class does not matter as much as any other political myth. The second, and more horrifying prospect given the invective Nick has thrown the Labour leader's way, is large numbers are turning towards Corbynism. It would be a serious mistake to call it a middle class fad, because it really isn't - the data proves it. Nevertheless, Corbynism's power lies in its articulating a broad range of interests. Nick then isn't even talking about all liberal-leaning middling people, but a small media set in and around comment journalism and news production. You know the sorts, the people now arguing (hoping) that Corbyn's coalition is going to break up once those remain-supporting Labour-voting layers realise he isn't going to reverse the EU referendum. Yes, this is the best they can do at the moment.

And there is a third, more serious element: obsolescence. With the rise of the networked worker, where shelf stackers, fruit pickers, and assembly line workers are, like more privileged layers of working people, plugged into a dense web of social networks via the supercomputers in their pockets, the liberal centrist scribbler - of which Nick is the archetype - doesn't have the reach. People getting drawn into politics are more interested in those writers whose work is about organising, and less switched on to what the liberal on their perfect perch miles above the fray has to say. If that wasn't bad enough, the people caught up in and remaking the Labour Party are learning more from each other. They have an intuitive grasp if not a deeper sophisticated understanding of the world precisely because a) they live it, and b) their political imagination is not straitjacketed by piffle. As one wag on Twitter put it, you had teenagers with the handles 'Tories are nonces' putting out more savvier and better takes than our liberal media heroes. Good. They are becoming their own media, their own comment, their own means of making sense of politics.

What Nick represents is a lament for a strata whose privilege and standing is evaporating. And so next time I recommend pausing before clicking his narcissistic whinges. Be kind and pass over - following through only means you're prolonging his agonies.


Dialectician1 said...

For anyone who has ever been in a trade union led by a 'moderate', you always knew, during a dispute, which way the negotiations would end up: a return to work & a messy compromise, with the employer smiling like a Cheshire Cat. Liberals like to see themselves as two things: rational and democratic. It's worth reading the book 'The Metaphyical Club', which is a history of American Pragmatism. In the book John Dewey, (a leading figure and for many American democrats and Labour Party moderates a commanding intellectual) watches with great concern the battle between the strikers and the company during the great Pullman Strike (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pullman_Strike). He was convinced the bitter conflict between labour and capital could be resolved by better communications: both sides sitting down to rationally discuss the issues. Meanwhile, the strike is violently smashed by the State and leader of the Pullman strikers, Eugene Debs, is imprisoned.

ejh said...

Re: Nick Cohen, it is curious to that he has taken to calling himself a liberal, because for around a decade following his 2002 epiphany, he used that term essentially as as insult.

ejh said...

(Incidentally, I think using "liberal" as an insult is something leftists should probably try and avoid wherever possible. We might find "centrist" a more suitable pejorative, if we're looking for one.)

Olwen said...

Good read thanks

asquith said...

This is what the yoof voted for

Comrade Corbyn has capitulated to far-right nationalism, we need a liberal opposition more than ever and the crypto-leavers in the Labour leadership have abandoned the 48%.

Anonymous said...

Shame that you treat Liberalism or Centrism as something to be vilified. You make some valid points and as a Lib Dem voter I'm struggling to see where we go next. But it's nothing to float over. Fight the real enemy.

Anonymous said...

Ah bless, "asquith" citing the UTTERLY MYTHICAL "48"%.

You do know that your about to be coronated new leader has said free movement will have to end,right?