Sunday, 22 May 2016

In Defence of Democracy

One of the consequences of 2008 and its aftermath has been the ratcheting-up of centrist criticism of the left, with the traditional patronising dismissal of its lack of "realism" overtaken by a noisy denunciation of its illiberalism and authoritarian tendencies. No longer mad or misguided, the left is now malign, and that malignancy has spread well beyond the indulgence of supposed Islamofacism to encompass misogyny and bigotry. This isn't a new criticism - you can trace the idea of "perversion" back to George Orwell's analysis of leftist self-hatred and Bertrand Russell's fallacy of the superior virtue of the oppressed - but the current turn is distinguished by a renewed determination to detach the "progressive heritage" of civil and minority rights from the left and claim it exclusively for the political centre. This is most obvious in the increased salience given to democracy and civility in liberal discourse.

Mild-mannered social democrats like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn are today characterised by liberals as at best irresponsible and incompetent and at worst as cynically indulgent of racism, sexism and mob violence. Claims that Sanders is harmful or that the Labour Party under Corbyn is institutionally antisemitic are obviously absurd, but their wide circulation provides enough "whataboutery" to enable left criticism of liberals to be drowned-out or dismissed as ill-intentioned. However, what we're witnessing isn't just the use of identity politics to distract from social and economic policy, but part of a wider move to bring social media under control. The revelation that Facebook curates its trending news (and might not be doing a good job due to institutional sexism) is as significant in this regard as the spurious claims of chair-chucking.

The liberal response to 2008 was a focus on morality, in terms that had been rehearsed since the 80s (greed was not good), which was held to explain the corruption of an otherwise beneficial system through misaligned incentives and inadequate regulation. This combined a liberal refusal to consider capitalism as systemically flawed, beyond externalities like climate change that required better regulation, with a conservative insistence on propriety. Before 2008, liberals had largely employed ethics instrumentally, with an emphasis on the transactional: the quid pro quo of rights and responsibilities for the poor, and being relaxed about the rich so long as they paid tax. Despite the attempts to give this philosophical substance through communitarianism (e.g. Tony Blair's infamous "social-ism"), "what's right" was clearly subservient to "what works". In practice, ethics was largely in the shadow of managerialism after 1989.

After 2008, ethical discourse was revived in recognition that capitalism could no longer be defended as self-evidently benign. The idea that capitalism must be buttressed by an ethical code is hardly new, and neoliberal social policy with regard to the poorer strata of society has always been couched in ethical terms appropriated from conservatives, but the reintroduction of this idea after decades in which the middle and upper classes were told that competition was the best arbiter of the good was problematic. How do you construct a popular theory of right behaviour that accommodates a laissez-faire attitude towards personal conduct? The answer was to revive the classic conservative hypocrisy in which public propriety and civility are divorced from private action. You can do what you like in the bedroom, but you cannot call people names in public.

Social media have provided the perfect arena for this ethical performance, combining the ease of virtue-signalling with familiar market mechanisms (likes, polls etc), while also dramatising the value of privacy (i.e. freedom from surveillance) and the liberty of self-definition. The problem for liberals is that social media provide scope for horizontal organisation as much as they atomise society, which is why they quickly became attractive to the left. The emerging liberal strategy, insisting on both the curatorial responsibilities of businesses like Facebook and the communitarian responsibilities of users, is a bid for control. The consequence has been extensive media coverage of trolling, way out of proportion to its incidence or impact, and a hissy-fit over free-speech. These are not contradictory but complementary attempts to define what can be said: "Islamofacist", yes; "fat bitch", no.

Since the 1960s, the liberal prospectus has been based on a combination of pragmatic incrementalism and technocracy, which required the left to be characterised as wedded to policy impossibilism and progress redefined as the outcome of well-regulated business and bureaucracy unrestrained by special interests. Though the neoliberal recovery of 2009 restored the narrative of irresistible economic "realities", this has clearly failed to find popular favour outside the conservative right's promotion of austerity as a necessary purgative. The sorry tale of the LibDems in government, no less than the poor performance of centrists in the Labour leadership election, revealed not only that political liberalism was indistinguishable from managerial conservatism but that it lacked the "vision thing".

In contrast, the left has been distinguished since 2008 by the variety of its utopian thinking, from the 1968-lite of Occupy to the media-friendly speculations of Erik Olin Wright and Paul Mason. In practice, the political left has been both pragmatic to the point of disillusion (Syriza) and starry-eyed about the potential of technology (accelerationism). In other words, the left has struggled to escape the liberal paradigm of the last half-century, which goes a long way to explain why it has defaulted to the revival of social democracy as a proven model. We therefore have an odd situation in which the left simultaneously indulges nostalgia and celebrates emergent modernity while liberals adopt poses of conservative despair in defence of progressive values (meanwhile, the political right is intellectually all over the place and facing damaging schisms).

With the liberal order now difficult to defend in the terms preferred before 2008 - the inevitability of globalisation, the perfection of the market, and the superiority of liberty over equality - centrists have been obliged to plant their flag on terrain that they had hitherto neglected, namely democracy. This has become a defining cause of the centre in recent months, despite its historic origins on the left, allowing both right and left to be grouped together as equivalent threats to the status quo. To achieve this reconfiguration, democracy has had to be reframed as something established rather than in progress (hence the House of Lords is once more an adornment rather than an embarrassment), and the left's claim to be democratic has had to be loudly denied. The neoliberal focus of the 90s was on democratic praxis ("power for a purpose") but the new discourse is concerned with theory: how can democracy be saved from voters (or the "mob", as some right-liberals have started to call them). A perfect example of this was provided last week by Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian.

Though he claims to be analysing "The Age of Trump", it is clear that his concerns are with the UK. He talks of the "rage" harnessed by the likely Republican Presidential nominee: "In almost every case, those voicing it claim to be speaking for the people and for true democracy. But in their most extreme forms they threaten to shade into something darker: a revolt against the norms, the agreed boundaries, that make democracy possible". The sleight of hand is in the last sentence: the suggestion that democracy is only effective when qualified, when it has boundaries (I don't recall "agreeing" what these might be, outside the thumping defeat of the AV referendum in 2011 when Freedland was arguing against those norms). This is essentially a conservative argument that would have found favour with Edmund Burke, particularly because it makes no attempt to question either the origin or legitimacy of the constraints.

Freedland indulges the by-now familiar class contempt of the liberal elite in his analysis of both Trump and Sanders's support: "The group in question is the demographic that was known in the US journalistic shorthand of 20 years ago as the 'angry white males', now more politely referred to as the white working class ... [for whom] the financial squeeze is only one part of a double betrayal. The US has grown steadily more liberal over the last two decades, with a loosening of attitudes to diversity, gender equality and sexuality, a trend that is especially pronounced among the young and well-educated ... For many of those angry white males this is deeply unsettling". This comes close to suggesting that the working class cannot be black, gay or female; or, at the very least, that embracing those identities can only come at the expense of diminished class consciousness and vice versa (he obviously didn't get the memo about intersectionality).

Freedland also ignores the many rich angry white men who have bankrolled Trump, largely because this is asymmetric and thus distracts from his "both houses" schtick - i.e. there aren't many rich angry white dudes financing Sanders, despite the "brocialist" meme. In the liberal worldview, it is the working class that is the primary source of social reaction. This is both a claim that it has failed to succeed in a competitive economy (consider the ambiguous use of the word "losers") and that it never had the progressive role ascribed to it by socialism. For Freedland, this realisation of its own impotence has left the working class vulnerable to demagoguery: "So now we live in an age when fundamental change to the economic system has come to seem all but impossible. No wonder voters turn their ire on democracy instead ... We are not yet living in a post-democratic world. There are still elections and most of them are not being won by populist insurgents – not yet anyway" (the UKIP surge is ever-imminent).

This choice of words seeks to recuperate (i.e bastardise) two strands of leftist criticism: Frederic Jameson's famous quote "it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism"; and Colin Crouch's notion of post-democracy. Jameson's sardonic point was not that change is impossible but that ideology denies that we can talk meaningfully of planned change at the level of the socio-economic system. Hayekian ignorance and "the end of history" meant annihilating the future as a subject of debate outside of the agenda of business and technology. The result is that dystopias (President Trump) are easier to imagine than utopias (postcapitalism). Crouch's thesis is that democracy has been hollowed-out from the centre by neoliberalism and technocracy (including the politico-media "caste" represented by Freedland), not that it has been eroded from the margins by uncivil "haters".

Central to the contemporary liberal critique of the left has been the equivalence between the "far" left and right, which allows the extremism (real or imagined) of the latter to be projected onto the former. This is self-reinforcing as the centre's rhetoric towards the left also encourages its abandonment of restraint in its criticism of the right. Every time Donald Trump is labelled a Fascist, this prepares the ground for a charge of antisemitism against the left, while every accusation of left antisemitism justifies the deployment of the F-word. What we're witnessing is an arms-race of outrage conducted wholly within the political centre. The irony is that this hyperbole undermines the pleas for civility, with the result that Hitler seems to be everywhere these days. The irony disappears when you realise that characterising public discourse as under threat serves the cause of regulation; and regulation, rather than freedom or equality, is the real liberal goal.

1 comment:

  1. Good analysis.

    I think the root cause is the fact that liberal democracy has hit the buffers as far as progressive politics is concerned. There are no formal freedoms still to be fought for, and socially and economically liberals have long since fully embraced the status quo. Unwillingness to control socio-economic forces seems to lead to a desire to control discourse and suppress alternative points of view. At least 'genuine' liberalism would welcome the potential for political and social change that the capitalist global economy has unleashed, but it is undoubtedly true that neoliberalism is simply conservativism in new clothes, and there is precious little remaining of the 19th-century 'classical' liberalism, let alone more radical forms.