Between Burke and Paine in the twenty-first century

In this post, I am going to write a tentative personal response to the pieces I linked to here. It started out with a brief comment here, but I decided I needed to flesh it out a bit more. Apologies for the length.


Marko Attila Hoare “It is no longer Left vs right, but pro-Western vs anti-Western

The broad picture Hoare paints here is right: a growing centrist consensus in the West around welfare capitalism (although this part of the picture might seem less accurate in America, where the welfare state is far from universally accepted); and strange, new and not always predictable alliances on the left and right.

His description of the anti-Westerners’ faux “anti-imperialism” is deadly accurate. His genealogy of its alliance with the far right is spot-on.

But here are a few tangents and quibbles.

1. I worry about all grand narratives of this sort. Can we ever talk about “the principal ideological divide”? Surely, there are many important divides, and trying to reduce the political world into a two- (or even three-dimensional) chart loses something.

2. I am not sure I recognise Hoare’s description of the old left-right battle lines: “redistribution of wealth, public vs private ownership, a planned economy vs the free market”. Firstly, this reduces the left to its social democratic version, leaving out more radical positions, such as Marxism.

In particular, it completely misses the libertarian left. Even at my most left-wing (ca.1994), I never advocated redistribution, planning or state ownership. Instead I believed in mutual aid and voluntary co-operation and a radically decentralised form of social ownership; I saw the Plan (whether the versions advocated by pro-Soviet fake-Marxists or the versions advocated by Keynesian and social democratic Western leftists) as state capitalism, just a more bureaucratic sort of exploitation, whether more brutal (the Soviet model) or gentler (the Old Labour model).

It also obscures the fact that the term “the right” has always been about something other than the free market: it has been about race and nation, blood and soil, conserving the old ways, family values.

3. But my most important quibble is that the West, whatever that is, has all too often not been the embodiment of the values Hoare describes here as “Western”: “he extension of the liberal-democratic order across the globe, through the politics of human rights, promotion of democracy, universal values and interventionism (not necessarily always military)”.

Most importantly, while the West was on the right side in the fights against fascism and Stalinism, its involvement in the third of what Hitchens calls the great questions of the twentieth century, colonialism, has tainted its claim to represent freedom and democracy.

While fighting totalitarianism in Europe, the Western powers unleashed horrific violence against people all over the world, from the Belgian Congo to extermination of the Herero and Namaqua, from the “late Victorian Holocausts” of Bengal to the Trail of Tears. Indeed, more recently, in the name of the fight against totalitarianism, the West has sponsored some of the most blood-thirsty regimes in history, including Saddam’s, Pol Pot’s, Pinochet’s and Stroessner’s; it bombed the people of Laos and Cambodia; it undermined democracy in Haiti, Guatemala and scores of other places where the voters supported leaders whose politics did not coincide with the interests of free trade.

Even leaving this legacy aside, imagining it is too far behind us to matter now (which would be wrong in any case), the West today continues to sponsor the most profound suffering. In its voracious hunger for diamonds, oil and coltan, in its ruthless promotion of the privatisation of basic utilities in the countries where the most vulnerable barely struggle to survive, in its imposition of structural adjustment policies, the West is not a beacon of hope for many.

Because of this, I would never want to be identified as primarily of the “pro-Western” camp. Surely there is a better term for militant support of human rights and democracy?

New Centrist pushes in the same direction, and I like his conclusion:

“I agree that it useful to analyze contemporary conlficts as between the forces supporting economic and political liberalization and those opposed to this opening. However, like Ignoblus, I am rather uncomfortable being lumped in with president George W. Bush. My political opponents on the radical left have often reduced my nuanced centrist position to that of neo-conservatism but there is no need for Hoare to fall into the same trap. After all, part of the appeal of the Euston Manifesto among self-described leftists was it provided an opportunity to be robustly anti-totalitarian (i.e. “decent”) without being right-wing or conservative. Hoare also ignores the existence of ultra-leftists, anarchists, and other self-styled revolutionaries who advocate a third perspective that is classically “anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist” while also critical of Jihadist terrorism. I’m refering here to Three Way Fight, World War 4 Report, etc.

All in all, I find much affinity with what Hoare is writing on these issues and this diagram is a good first attempt at describing political alignments in the post September 11, 2001 era. I’m very interested in seeing Hoare and others develop these ideas further. For example, if muscular liberals are lumped in with neo-conservatives into some sort of political coalition, where does Hoare see the potential for political cleavages developing between these two groups?”


Given these lines of critique, it is good to turn to Peter Ryley’s review of Andrew Anthony’s Fall-Out. Riley criticises those who turn away from the left because of its lunacies (its anti-Westernism, in Hoare’s terms), but slip into a complacent bourgeois conservative liberalism as a result:

“those that are firmly anti-totalitarian but have little or no critique of domestic politics. They have made their peace with the establishment and the legacy of Thatcherism. However dramatic their declarations of human rights, they are Tom Paines abroad but Edmund Burkes at home.”

I love that phrase: Paines abroad but Burkes at home. A good example would be Nick Cohen’s justified hatred of Ken leading him to support Boris Johnson. Perhaps the support some of my comrades give to John McCain (1,2) falls into the same category: McCain may be Paine in Iraq, but he is Burke in the US.

The Jura Watchmaker, who takes up Ryley’s standard brilliantly, sees Alan Johnson’s position on the American primaries (already discussed on this blog) as more Burkeanism (unless I’m misunderstanding him). He also sees Hoare himself as an example of such Burkeanism. I wouldn’t go that far, but I see it as a danger.

Hoare concludes his piece with this:

"we have a left-right alliance of our own: the alliance of all honourable socialists, liberals and conservatives in defence of liberal-democratic values and our fellow democrats abroad.”

Ryley concludes his piece by identifying the counterweight to the new Burkeans on the decent left:

“There are humanist Marxists, left libertarians, social democrats, Old Labour diehards, those who would combine Marx with Mill, querulous liberals, and others who place human emancipation at the centre of an ecological understanding of the diversity of the natural world. It is where I feel most at home and where the more interesting, and idiosyncratic, writing is taking place.”

I think I’m happier amongst the second lot…

P.S. As a post-script to this post, and to Ignoblus', now go and read Terry Glavin at the Z-Word, on anti-Zionism as the Canadian left's shibboleth, an essay rightly described by the Fat Man, in another superb post, as an essential read.

P.P.S You might also be interested by David Semple's Death and Post-Politics, including the comments by him.

Related posts: The left's old neighbourhood; Conservatism, realism and the anti-war movement; The conservatism of the anti-war "radicals"; The trad left; A lexicon for our times.


Anonymous said…
Hey Bob,

I wish I could provide a link here to the sound effect of a hammer hitting a nail squarely and soundly on its head. This piece is fantastic. I have said elsewhere that my politics have increasingly been formed by the interplay (dare I describe it as "dialectical"?) between my background experiences in anti-fascist work and in anti-imperialist organizing. I routinely find myself frustrated by radicals who, though well-intentioned, conveniently forget one of these elements in order to foreground the other as central or indespensible to social change. Thank you for helping articulate some of that frustration. (Now I need to actually read all the pieces you link to; how do you have the time to read all this stuff???)

The Plump said…
I really like your take on Marco Hoare. I think that you clarify my sense of unease when I read him on political theory (on Balkan history he is much more secure and authoritative). Especially important is the point about the times when the West has not been the promoter of 'Western' values. This is why I was arguing that the left stands on social justice rather than pro-West.

An interesting analysis and thanks too for the kind words.
bob said…
Thanks comrades.

Where do I find the time? Actually, I don't have it! But I read all these posts over the last two days sitting in various Turkish Cypriot greasy spoon caffs in New Cross, eating treyf, high-cholestorol and very fattening lunches.
I regard Johnson, Hoare et al. as Burkeians as - like Peter Ryley says - they have little or no critique of domestic politics, and they have made their peace with the establishment and the legacy of Thatcherism. There is nothing "left" remaining in their politics, and they now see the world in geopolitical rather than human terms.
Just read this on Pajamas Media:

Tony Blair:

"I sometimes say to people that in modern politics, the dividing line is often less between traditional left vs. right; but more about open vs. closed."

...And then I asked which politicians on the right he regarded as on his side, the open side, of the new argument. He replied:

I think you can see the Republicans in the US who are on the pro-immigration side of the debate, on the pro-free-trade side, the Americans who are Democrats but protectionist. I think the thing that has come home to me most since leaving office is just the speed at which the world is opening up.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the plug. I’ll be writing a reply to this in a post soon (with proper attribution, of course).

Jura Watchmaker (whose comments I often agree with) is unfair in remarking about Hoare, Johnson, and others in the following manner:

“There is nothing "left" remaining in their politics, and they now see the world in geopolitical rather than human terms.”

If this were the case, they would have “left the left” like myself. Instead, both Johnson and Hoare remain committed to the values if not the goals of the democratic left. I don’t want to speak for either of them, but I suspect they both would claim the contemporary radical leftists are the ones who see the world through a reductionist lens that only sees the world in geopolitical terms. Zionism = Nazism, Bush = Hitler, “We are all Hezbollah Now,” and all that nonsense. This is the content of contemporary anti-Imperialism.

Here is a long excerpt that eloquently refutes JW’s claim, at least in regard to Hoare:

“'The perfect is the enemy of the good' - this is a proverb that applies to the seductive but bankrupt ideology of 'anti-imperialism', which presents itself as opposition to the most powerful form of oppression but which in practice is something much less positive, indeed negative and reactionary.

In simplest terms, 'imperialism' can be defined as a state's pursuit of empire or the expansion of its power, through acquiring territory from, or power over, other states or peoples. No reasonable person would not oppose this, but 'anti-imperialism' today means something other than opposition to imperialism. 'Imperialism', in the eyes of the average 'anti-imperialist', is coterminous with 'the West', i.e. with the US and its West European and Israeli allies. As such, it is used to refer to the bloc of states that dominates the world today, and there is undoubtedly something emotionally appealing to the individual 'radical' in apparently fighting that which is all-powerful.

As an eighteen-year old Trotskyist and 'anti-imperialist' at the time of the 1991 Gulf War, I can testify to the empowering sense of self-righteousness I felt as I demonstrated against the US and its allies, in the course of which my views became increasingly extreme: I fervently believed that the US-led intervention was by far a greater evil than Saddam's occupation of Kuwait; that it would be a blessing for humanity if the US and its allies were defeated; that such a defeat would trigger revolutionary outbreaks across the Middle East and even in the West.

Such were the views of a teenage zealot with no knowledge of the Middle Eastern peoples or appreciation of their interests. I debated at the time with Kanan Makiya, the great Iraqi dissident, who shocked me by saying that it was in Iraq's interests to be liberated by the US. Makiya derived his views from his great knowledge of Middle Eastern politics and his love for the Iraqi people; I derived mine from abstract principles. It was only when my own mother's country, Yugoslavia, was torn apart by local fascists that I gradually came to realise that Makiya had been right, and to comprehend the political and moral bankruptcy of 'anti-imperialism'. It is very easy to be ideologically purist when it is someone else's country that is at stake; much more difficult when it is one's own, and one's own people are being slaughtered.”

This is not a justification based on geopolitics. It is something far more rare. This is an articulation of the devastation of conflict and war in personal—dare I say human—terms.

Regarding Johnson, Democratiya alone is enough to display the man’s dedication to the "decent" left.
"Decent left" is not a label I find either useful or meaningful. If anything I am indecent; a proud member of the barking wing of the thinking left.

As for Hoare, Johnson et al., they are certainly allies in the struggle against left-fascism masquerading as anti-imperialism. But their politics are centrist if not centre-right, and I do not see them commenting much on nuts and bolts domestic issues. Instead we get lots of grand narrative, eloquent or otherwise. This seems to be mostly about international affairs, and much of it comes across to me as textual padding.

I guess that with my political form (left-libertarian/anarchist, with a brief youthful flirtation with eurocommunism – my one and only accommodation with bourgeois politics :-) ) I will never share that much common ground with the Democratiya school of politics. But mock fellow Eustonites as I do, I do not regard them (all) as enemies. Kamm is an exception on the grounds that he is incapable of speaking good about anyone whose politics he dislikes.

Lastly, I don't think it's a good idea to pitch one's politics in direct relation to the new fascists. Attack their ideology, but never compare oneself directly with them. Instead let others observing the debate make moral comparisons based on what they see, read and hear.
Anonymous said…
“"Decent left" is not a label I find either useful or meaningful. If anything I am indecent; a proud member of the barking wing of the thinking left.”

That does not discount the fact that Hoare and Johnson identify themselves in this manner, or that many democratic leftists find the label useful.

This all boils down to arguments about who is the “real” leftist? What is the “real” leftist legacy? What are the “real” demands of the left?

But those questions are best addressed to Hoare, or Johnson, or Bob. I'm not leftist.
"Many democratic leftists"?

We are talking here about a very small group of bloggers who have met up a couple of times for a drink over the past few years.

I don't do "real" and "fake"; people can define themselves how they wish. But if folk are to employ terms already in common usage, it is perfectly legitimate for others to question what they mean, and to ask why a group uses such and such a label when its professed beliefs are so different from what went before. Otherwise it can all get very Alice in Wonderland and absurdly poststructuralist. Call me old-fashioned, but I remain attached to signs and signifiers of the more solid, earthy kind.

In the case of many of the Eustonites, it's not as if we're talking about marxists who are attempting to reclaim the title from those who now sup with the forces of darkness. Some of them are well to the right of the Fabian Society.
bob said…
I don't see the point in arguing over who the 'real' left is. I've never felt close to the term 'left'. I might vacate it when the term comes, but for the time being it still fits OK.

I think that judging from this blog I could easily be seen as a Burkean at home and Paineian abroad: I spend more of my time slagging off the idiot left than I do making positive interventions in domestic politics. This is mainly because I spend most of my time these days amongst leftists, and my views on domestic politics aren't much different from leftist common sense, so I don't feel I have much to contribute. However, I feel I have something to say about the idiot left.

I don't know enough about Hoare and Johnson's activities to say whether they spend enough of their time fighting for social justice in the domestic context, so I won't weigh in on that issue!
"Decent left" is not a label I find either useful or meaningful."

Reminder; It was meaningful enough for Michael Waltzer to employ it (for the first time?) here:

"Can there be a decent Left?"

".. the American left has an honorable history, and we have certainly gotten some things right, above all, our opposition to domestic and global inequalities. But what the aftermath of September 11 suggests is that we have not advanced very far--and not always in the right direction. The left needs to begin again."

"If anything I am indecent; a proud member of the barking wing of the thinking left."

Isn't "barking" a contradiction of "thinking"? Barking is making a lot of noise, to intimidate and chase away, not to evince the kind of cool-headed engagement with ideas and facts that can lead to better understanding of our realities.

I can name a few bloggers and thinkers (like Bob, George S, Alan Johnson, Norm Geras, Oliver Kamm, New Centrist) who can serve as examples for thinkers who actually talk to you and not at you.

There is a signal to noise ratio in every piece of political writing. The people I mentioned are those who take scrupulous care to ensure that the signal does not get drowned in noise. When you speak from cognition and self-knowledge, you don't need to bark.
Read "barking" as a self-deprecatory British sardonicism, not in its literal, canine sense.
See what I mean about "signal to noise" ratio?
Not really. Would you rather I wrote in midatlantic or euroenglish, shorn of all colloquialisms and cultural references? I had to write and speak like that when I worked with the cultural purgatory that is the European Space Agency. Noise is an integral part of any signal, culture included.
This comment has been removed by the author.
(Sorry for the deletion. I had to correct something in this comment)

"Noise is an integral part of any signal, culture included."

You are confusing system with signal. Noise is a random and independent part of any system. It constitutes a disturbance. It interferes with the signal. In order to get accurate measures, physicists seek to reduce or eliminate the noise factor in a system or filter as much of it as possible it when they can't.

The best analogy is trying to have a conversation in a large hall full of noise. Unless you make some effort to reduce the noise, or find a quiet corner where it is less noisy, you can't really have that conversation.

Of course for some people this is the ideal environment to hold their conversations. They can yell as much as they like and hardly anything they say makes it into their intelocutor's ears. Perfectly futile engagement...
I am a physicist, and I did mean "system", not "signal". My excuse is that I was hurrying to get out of the house when I typed that.

But your explanation of the need to eliminate or minimise noise is over-simplistic. In many systems – including those related to geophysics – noise is a good thing, and its presence can in certain circumstances amplify signal and aid its detection.

And noise in prose and speech is also a good thing. It helps give them life.
In the interest of full disclosure, I'm not a physicist but my husband is. And I made sure to consult him before writing anything about noise and signal... He thought I got it. I'll have to ask him about cases where noise augments signal.

I don't know what you mean by noise in prose being good. I suspect what you mean by noise in prose is not what I mean by noise in prose. There are instances where noise dominates to such an extent that it becomes the signal. If you get only noise in response to a question or a statement, then that noise acquires a meaning, by virtue of the unmistakable absence of signal...
Anonymous said…
CC Writes:

“Of course for some people this is the ideal environment to hold their conversations. They can yell as much as they like and hardly anything they say makes it into their intelocutor's ears. Perfectly futile engagement…”

This is my entrée to claim the radical left is not interested in changing the opinions of those who disagree with them. Instead, they are content to argue amongst themselves. At least that’s the way it is here in the United States.

Most of the actions that take place under the rubric of “radical politics” have very little actual political content, at least in relation to domestic or foreign policy. As Kevin Harris has argued, many people who join these marginal political groups are participating in a self-delusional political fantasy. Here is an excerpt from Harris’ article, “Al Qaeda’s Fantasy Ideology.” Apologies for those who have seen it before. It’s not the first time I’ve posted it.

“My first encounter with this particular kind of fantasy occurred when I was in college in the late sixties. A friend of mine and I got into a heated argument. Although we were both opposed to the Vietnam War, we discovered that we differed considerably on what counted as permissible forms of anti-war protest. To me the point of such protest was simple — to turn people against the war. Hence anything that was counterproductive to this purpose was politically irresponsible and should be severely censured. My friend thought otherwise; in fact, he was planning to join what by all accounts was to be a massively disruptive demonstration in Washington, and which in fact became one.

My friend did not disagree with me as to the likely counterproductive effects of such a demonstration. Instead, he argued that this simply did not matter. His answer was that even if it was counterproductive, even if it turned people against war protesters, indeed even if it made them more likely to support the continuation of the war, he would still participate in the demonstration and he would do so for one simple reason — because it was, in his words, good for his soul.

What I saw as a political act was not, for my friend, any such thing. It was not aimed at altering the minds of other people or persuading them to act differently. Its whole point was what it did for him.

And what it did for him was to provide him with a fantasy — a fantasy, namely, of taking part in the revolutionary struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors. By participating in a violent anti-war demonstration, he was in no sense aiming at coercing conformity with his view — for that would still have been a political objective. Instead, he took his part in order to confirm his ideological fantasy of marching on the right side of history, of feeling himself among the elect few who stood with the angels of historical inevitability.”

I largely agree. The vast majority of radical leftists are not members of the various sects and organizations because they actually expect any of the revolutionary changes they believe in will ever be implemented. Instead, it’s a collective fantasy that provides them with a sense of belonging and identity. IMHO this applies to all sects of the radical left whether Leninist, Maoist, libertarian/anarchist, etc. etc. etc.
bob said…
I think there's two versions of 'noise' we're talking about here (writes a scientifically illiterate person). There is noise as in the example of JW's use of 'barking': colourful or ingroup-specifc language that conveys cultural baggage that nuances the meaning. My uses of Yiddishisms like 'treyf' or Sarf Londonisms like, say, 'Sarf' would be examples of this. (In fact, my insistence on writing 'treyf' and not 'treif' would be an example too). These words might be meaningless to some of my readers, but add a lot of flavour for others. In this sense, I obviously support noise; as JW says, it gives life to writing.

And there there is noise in examples like the catechistic invocation of Marxist-Leninist dogma, which does not make an argument (unless you're arguing with rival Marxist-Leninists, maybe) but, rather, performs allegiance to the sect. Equally obviousl, I don't like this sort of noise. (Although I'm sure I produce some of it without realising, too deeply immersed am I in my Marxian scene; I know I used the phrase Third Camp in a recent post, for example.)

I take CC's point about me (along with George S, Alan Johnson, Norm Geras and New Centrist) as "examples for thinkers who actually talk to you and not at you" as a huge compliment. I do not want this blog to preach to the converted, but to make people from disparate backgrounds think differently about the things I care about. (And for this reason, I greatly value the fact that I get links from conservative, liberal, anarchist and socialist blogs.)

Incidentally, I am not sure I put Kamm in the same category. Sometimes I see him as the anti-Chomsky: parading his erudition and analytical rigour to bludgeon you into accepting his point. (Although I don't see him as intellectually dishonest in the way Chomsky is.)
Simply speaking, signal to noise ratio signifies the relative sizes of useful information and irrelevant data.

I can't see how Bob's "benign" noise definition can be fitted into this formula. Using metaphors and other linguistic quirks in a text that is meant to convey a message is not noise. It is actually part of the signal. It has meaning, which contributes to an understanding of what Bob wants to say. It also serves as a sort of stylistic signature, which is also useful information. So it is not really "noise", is it? It does not corrupt the message but rather enhances it.

What I consider noise is a text full of gratuitous saracastic curses, ad homs, and other kinds of rhetorical fallacies that are about gratifying the rage of the writer more than to impart informative units. Rhetorical Noise is about verbal intimidation; meant to silence the other, not elicit understanding.

A friend of mine, an Israeli author, wrote a book of short stories entitled "Noise". All the stories in the book deal with noise, one way or another. The first story, which I translated, is aptly named: Knock-knock. The narrator, a person much set in his ways, hears a knock on the door, an unwelcome noise for him, which interferes with his evening meal and solitary peace and quiet. By dint of sheer doggedness, the intruder manages to get into his apartment and interest him in what it is they are offering. Which turns out to be the very thing the narrator needed, in some way. What kept him from recognizing the meaningful signal? The background noise, which was made up of what? His barking dog, the food getting cooked in the pot, his preoccupation with his own amour-propre, his rejection of anything slightly unusual in his evening routine, his hostility to door-to-door encyclopaedia peddlers, etc, etc. The intruder's noise eventually turned out to be the meaningful signal. It was not a matter of noise enhancing a signal. It was a matter of a signal being mistaken for noise.

In most cases I know about of textual noise, there is no mistaking the noise for signal, and whatever signal there is, gets lost in all the noise, not enhanced. Some people are utterly certain that their way of thinking is the only correct way of thinking; they cannot tolerate even the slightest difference of opinion, either to left or right. When these differences do occur, they resort not to clarification and understanding but to belittling the other's knowledge of anything, to curses and effing strings of invective and sometimes to using highly specialized academic jargon which has no other use except tell the other: shoo off, you are way out of your league here. Which is, again, self-indulgent and vain. In other words, uselessly noisy, or noisily useless.
JW responds in his blog:

Interesting definition by Will of "centrist". I wish I had this talent for generating curses so easily and creatively. I explain why, here:
bob said…
"Noise" wouldn't be a term I use normally. CC's definition works very well for me. But CC's use of "barking" as an example, and JW's defence of this as noise, seemed to me about something different - the first version of noise I described in my comment above. If this isn't "noise", fair enough!

JW's more recent post (and even more the comment thread) moves deeper into the brutal ad hom territory I don't follow the Drink-Soaked into. For too much noise!
The combination of ad homs laced with elaborate profanity is a schtick. As a schtick, it works for a while and seems fresh and exciting to read. But after a while, it gets tired, wrinkled and saggy... Like any overused metaphor, it becomes merely a cliche, something a good writer tries to fight.
Anonymous said…
The comments following JW's post confirm my notions regarding the radical left. For example, "Will's" notion that centrists are "fascists."

These people (Indymedia, Counterpunch, etc. etc. etc.) are clearly not concerned about convincing anyone who thinks differently from themselves. They participate for the the feeling of self-righteousness and identity it provides. This is a legacy of the personal politics of the New Left. More later, I have to go to work...
This is a good and clearly written article by Peter Collier (Via: Mick) which touches upon the discussion happening here. Here is one quote I particularly liked:

" little most of their giddy and morally vacuous talking points have to do with genuine intellectual engagement; how encounters that create clarity have been supplanted by outbursts that create only noise; and how reckless it is to put ideas into play simply because of pique or party interest, and regardless of consequence."