August 23, 2018


Politics of the void: how the left abandoned patriotism and the common good: From the mid-1960s the New Left took socialism in a doctrinaire direction that was abstract and soulless, preferring progress to tradition, identity to class and free choice to common endeavour. (ADRIAN PABST, 8/22/18, New Statesman)

The rise of identity politics marks the triumph of the 1960s motto that "the personal is the political". Since then, both left and right have embraced variants of this approach. From the mid-1960s onwards the New Left took socialism in a doctrinaire direction that was abstract and soulless. It equated the purpose of the left not so much with the struggle for greater economic justice but primarily with cultural liberation. The socialists of the New Left preferred progress to tradition, identity to class and free choice to common endeavour.

During their time in office, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair both attempted to articulate an ethical vision, but their governments were much more committed to modernisation and liberalisation than to patriotism and the common good. Left politics became increasingly technocratic and transactional, focused on fiscal transfers and the extension of individual entitlements rather than national renewal around mutual obligations. The loss of an animating purpose explains in part why the left in Britain bequeathed economic crises in 1976 and 2008 that the right exploited to establish new political settlements.

Starting in the early 1980s, the New Right combined libertarian economics with a corporate capture of the state. This had the effect of aligning conservatism with borderless capitalism, and with individual freedom largely devoid of reciprocal duties. An unholy alliance of fundamentalist faith with an aggressive consumer culture trumped the historic commitment to citizenship. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher spoke the language of morality and hope, but their politics promoted a rampant individualism. More recently, George W Bush's "compassionate conservatism" and David Cameron's vision of the "big society" failed to tame market fundamentalism or rebuild civic ties.

Since then, the political contest across the West has descended into culture wars, fuelling the tribalism on which the liberal elites and the insurgents are now thriving. Each side legitimates itself by purporting to protect the public from the threat posed by the other.

As a consequence, our politics have become more partisan. Liberal elites dismiss populists as bigots and racists. Hillary Clinton's jibe about Donald Trump voters, many of whom were former Democrat supporters, as a "basket of deplorables" was emblematic of this contempt. Similarly, insurgents label liberals as "enemies of the people". A once noble newspaper like the Daily Telegraph characterises politicians who dissent over hard Brexit as being guilty of treason. As disagreement gives way to demonisation, democracy becomes debased and demagogic. Identity politics is devoid of any sense of public service and the pursuit of noble causes.

The obsession with individualised identity has fuelled a moral panic about race, gender and sex that turns difference into absolute division. An example is the accusation of transphobia levelled at the feminist writer Germaine Greer for saying that transgender women are "not women". What is hate speech to some is free speech to others, with no agreement about the ethical norms of public debate.

A society devoid of any shared moral horizon would by this logic be condemned to see crimes everywhere. If there are no common moral values to shape the law, will not the fight against all forms of discrimination slide into a Hobbesian "war of all against all"? Instead of nurturing adults and citizens, politics increasingly treats people as eternal adolescents and consumers in the marketplace of identity.

Of course, Margaret Thatcher/Tony Blair and W were able to forge electoral juggernauts precisely because their Third Way politics is universalist and morally based.  The next significant leaders of the Anglosphere will, likewise, offer us Second Way (left) results--social security--via First Way--free market--means.  This reality will only be accelerated by the replacement of human labor with machine.

Posted by at August 23, 2018 4:31 AM