Friday, 8 February 2019

The Bitter Harvest of Centrism

Since the eighteenth century, both progressive and reactionary thinkers have imagined that history proceeds through epochal change. Periodisation clearly pre-dates the Enlightenment - consider the "ages" of Hesiod - but the antique view tended to imagine a limited series of eras culminating in a stable present with no expectation for future development. Up until 1789, revolution meant restoration. After the fall of the Bastille, revolution came to mean "A new age of …", providing a formulation that could be applied to social and technological change as much as political. As the dynamism of industrial modernity increasingly impinged on social life, it became routine for politics to be discussed in terms of epochal predictions - the coming age of something or other - but this was a form adopted as eagerly by reactionaries as progressives. Indeed, stylistically they often borrowed each others' clothes. Just as progressives could articulate their expectations in the language of romantic nostalgia, such as William Morris's News From Nowhere, so reactionaries could base their predictions on the rigour of empiricism, from the "Malthusian trap" to Victorian "race science".

In contemporary politics, demography has come to occupy a central role in the production of predictions. Some of this is non-controversial extrapolation of evident trends, such as changes in household composition or home-ownership, and much of it serves a progressive (if shrill neoliberal) purpose, such as the "things can only get better" riffs of Steven Pinker, but demography has also become the favoured tool of reactionaries for whom the changing makeup of society is essentially pathological, whether in the form of le grand remplacement or the persistence of an incorrigible underclass. It is in this context that we should view the recent vogue for linking demography with political party formation, from Ford and Goodwin onwards. For example, the political scientist Jonathan Wheatley suggests "that the economic conflict between capital and labour that defined political competition in the 20th century is giving way to a new sort of conflict based on culture and identity". This isn't a particularly novel claim: you can find variations on it from Anthony Crosland in the 1960s to Eric Hobsbawm in the 1980s. What has changed in recent years is the extent to which demographic analysis has been used to bolster theory.

That analysis has tended to focus on the working class, and in particular the "white" or "native" working class in Western countries. Though culture and identity are central to middle class aspiration and performance, the demography of comfortable suburbanites and metropolitan professionals has received much less attention. This is partly a hegemonic assumption that the middle class is the natural core of society, but it also reflects (unintentionally) the Marxist idea that the working class is the agent of history and its chief struggle is to achieve consciousness of itself as a class. That so much recent demographic analysis of the working class has emphasised values over material interests is no accident. Not only does it allow the economic dimension to be downplayed, tropes such as "the culture war" allow the very concept of class to be marginalised in favour of ideological frames such as open vs closed. We're now at the point where this supposedly empirical base is being used to predict a new political epoch. As Wheatley puts it, "There is therefore a very real possibility that the shift from left-right politics to open-closed politics may lead to a complete restructuring of the party system and the end of traditional party allegiances. The political map of 2020 may look very different from that of 1970" (I wonder if he's put any money on that).

The bi-axial model of politics (economics vs values, or left-right vs authoritarian-libertarian) has enjoyed a particular salience in recent years because of the assumption that an economic reaction to globalisation has amplified a cultural expression of populist nativism (the resentful "left behind" thesis). In some quarters the analysis has been reduced further to a belief that political initiatives like Brexit are primarily driven by objectionable cultural attitudes and cannot be excused on the grounds of economic distress or political disempowerment: "It is not that Leave voters feel less disenfranchised in a generic sense from political processes now the result has been achieved, it is that they feel more empowered to hold and vocalize what were previously unacceptable views on specific areas by a result which appeared to legitimate and embolden those who held them in doing so. ... To the extent it is about anger at existing political norms, it is precisely because these are insufficiently authoritarian and excessively socially liberal."

The result is that the traditional call for a centrist political formation in the UK is now presented less as a middle way between the free market and the state, a proposition whose credibility was undermined by 2008 and the subsequent enabling of austerity, and more as a partisan commitment to an "open" politics in response to the twin commitments of left and right to a "closed" worldview. Though this sounds like the dichotomy of cosmopolitanism and parochialism, in which both poles reflect lived experience, it is presented in terms of a superficial reaction to liberal shibboleths, with the "closed" worldview being entirely negative. As Philip Collins puts it, "Party affiliation now matters less than cultural outlook and a better way to understand politics is to ask a person’s view on multiculturalism, immigration, globalisation, feminism and gay marriage. The split occurs between those who welcome change and those who are suspicious of it. … The birth of the Labour Party was a response to a change in the composition of the electorate. We do not have that now but we do have a change in the nature of the electorate and this might allow Labour to split."

Those last two sentences are telling. We have reached a stage where objective change in the composition of the electorate is unnecessary to explain epochal shifts; an apparent subjective change in its "nature" is now sufficient. This metaphysics is built on two dubious premises: that parties have become divorced from cultures (in the sense of sets of values) and that cultures are consistent (if you're in favour of gay marriage, you must be in favour of multiculturalism etc). No evidence is provided for either, and it's easy to find evidence against. Parties have always reflected a broad range of values, precisely because their glue was a common material interest. Ideology might predispose you towards certain values, but it wasn't a given. That's why some rich people have always been happy to vote Labour and why some gays were prepared to vote Conservative in the 80s (the tax-cuts more than offset Section 28). Similarly, Collins's choice of examples is designed to avoid any jarring notes, such as the uneasy relationship of transgender rights and feminism, and kept at a sufficiently coarse level to avoid nuance (few people are either wholly for or wholly against immigration or globalisation).

Paradoxically, the idea that politics is undergoing a major realignment that will cause the established parties to be rent asunder coexists with the belief that those parties are actively realigning towards the new social reality. The Tories are held to have thrown in their lot with the anti-immigrant right while the current Labour Party leadership is increasingly cast as isolationist and indulgent of nativism (among its more trenchant critics, it is characterised as authoritarian, racist and antisemitic, suggesting that it's really going for broke on the values dimension). Any sign of pragmatism, such as the long-time eurosceptic Jeremy Corbyn voting remain in 2016 and urging a Brexit in name only thereafter, is taken as evidence of hypocrisy. That both parties have been accused of moving towards the "closed" pole, despite their profound differences on the economic axis, is obviously intended to create a welcoming space close to the "open" pole for a new centrist formation (that centrists, particularly in the Labour Party, spent much of the period between 2000 and 2015 flirting with "closed values" has been quickly forgotten).

In order to present the centre as the champion of social liberalism and "openness", it must deny any similar affinity between the left (its chief opponent) and progressive values, hence the return of cold war rhetoric. In this context, the true value of Venezuela for centrists is not merely the hoary old idea that socialism inevitably leads to mismanagement and economic ruin, but that the isolationism that proceeds from a "closed" mentality does the same. That the country has been actively isolated by others is occluded in media reports of the regime's "defiance" and paranoia, tropes that have long been deployed in respect of North Korea, Iran and others. Where neoliberalism once advocated the "opening up" of countries to enable modern development and rising living standards for the poor, i.e. as a means to an end, it now promotes a cultural case in which "openness" is an end in itself and a social good of greater value than economic justice.

The danger is that centrist ambition, which is ultimately still about reconciling the free market and the state, is actually amplifying nativism and reactionary cultural attitudes because it cannot revive the pre-2008 arguments in favour of neoliberalism. In place of the rationalism of the 90s, centrists are promoting faith. In place of evidence-based policy-making, they advocate a catechism of bien pensant values. Iraq obviously destroyed those earlier pretensions, and 2008 gave the lie to the claim that technocracy delivered stability. Now, centrism is driven to an almost hysterical insistence on its virtue because it lacks an empirical case for its proposed social and economic dispensation. Neoliberalism has boosted inequality, fractured communities, and accelerated the despoliation of the planet. The result is that centrists are all too easily attracted to pushing the idea that half the country is made up of vicious, small-minded fools, even if the precise composition of that half seems to be constantly changing. The "closed" mindset is not some deep-seated prejudice that will determine the political landscape for decades. It is simply the projection of centrist guilt.


  1. The irony is that these 'long-term demographic trends' that centrist thinkers are so fond of are actually used to bolster some very short-term political arguments. Indeed, they were used a few years ago after the bizarre 2015 election to forecast the end of the 'traditional' party system that was revived spectacularly in 2017. Anyone taking a step back can see Europe as an idiosyncratic issue that has traditionally evaded party lines and, as such, been the only issue that has provoked national referenda. There is no reason not to believe that obsession about the cause of Europe will revert to being the preserve of a few cranks once a reasonable compromise agreement is finally sorted out.

    I agree with your assessment- the wholesale use of flimsy faith and 'values'-based arguments by centrists is evidence of ideological and moral bankruptcy.

  2. I would agree until the last sentence, I don't see guilt so much as a very indignant incomprehension.