Friday, April 11, 2008

Decentism: Burke and Paine again

More on Marko Attila Hoare's important post and the on-going debate about it.

Jura Watchmaker (aka Francis Sedgemore), one of the Drink-Soaked Trots, has been one of his antagonists. He returns to the fray here. A couple of extracts:

One thing that stands out in Hoare’s post is his use of the term “homogenous citizenship”, when defending his vision of an egalitarian society. Homogenous? Hoare’s support for an “ultra-liberal immigration policy” aside, this reeks of the aculturalism that I associate with Burkean liberal-conservatism. The last thing I want to see is a homogeneous society. It would be the social equivalent of thermodynamic heat death. 
There are other issues I have with Hoare’s post, including the display of what is for an historian a shocking ignorance of the struggle for enfranchisement of the working class in western societies.
On homogeneous citizenship: I think JW is missing Hoare's point here, if I'm reading JW right. Hoare is not advocating a culturally homogeneous citizenship or social homogeneity. He is, I think, advocating all citizenship being equal and empty of cultural content, and hence equally open to all, of any culture, making for a less culturally homogeneous society. This is a typically republican position, not a conservative position. Conservatism is (partly) about national values, national culture, citizenship as merely an expression of national identity.

Neoconservatives and muscular liberals vaccilate between a republican conception of citizenship and a conservative one - as does the New Labour government, with its contradictory stands on this issue.

On the working class struggle for enfranchisement: Again, I'm not sure if you can read MAH's ignorance of this from his post. However, this radical, proletarian republican tradition JW refers to is indeed important. The British democratic socialist tradition which is, in some ways, the antecedent of today's British "decent left", was very conscious of its deep roots in a proletarian republican movement, which Paine was not part of, but certainly a key influence on. This radical republican tradition, and the wider radical Englightenment it was part of, is the foundation of that part of the Western legacy which is worth exporting elsewhere.

***

Freeborn John has an extremely erudite post about the debate. He knows a lot more about Paine and Burke than I do - and probably more than the interlocuters in this debate do too. For example, I had no idea that Paine sat on the right side of the French Assembley.

One of the interesting comments that Freeborn John makes is this: "A characteristic of those involved in this debate who feel closer to Paine than Burke is that, on this point, they agree with Burke: democracy should be representative, and particularly not direct." I'm not sure where he gets that from. Of course, JW talks about the working class struggle for enfranchisement, which might imply representative democracy, but it is clear from the rest of his post that he believes - as I certainly do - in a far deeper form of democracy than simple voting. I think even Marko, perhaps the closest of all of us to conventional liberal democracy, would agree that (especially in a domestic context) the struggle for a deepening of democracy is a key part of our politics, and something that differentiates us from conservatives of any sort.

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Freeborn John also writes:
In his post, Bob from Brockley argued against Marko Hoare's Pro-West/Anti-West analysis as follows:
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.
In this, he was guilty of simplification: people like Smith and Paine had argued against colonialism as early as the late eighteenth-century. Paine and many other Liberals fought against the slave trade and were finally first to abolish it, then to drive Britain into what might be a unique fight against slavery around the world, something that occupied the Royal Navy into the twentieth century and that might actually have cost more than the profits that had been gained from the slave trade. The Liberal tradition cannot be blamed for colonialism - it fought it - and it is this tradition Hoare means, I am certain, when he writes of the "West".
Yes, there was a Western struggle against Western colonialism. The problem is, neither the brutal aspects of Western colonialism nor the Western traditions of Abolitionism, democratic internationalism and anti-colonialism can be thought of as the essence of what "Western" means, to the exclusion of the other. As I tried to make clear in this post, "the West" is a deeply contradictory formation. But that is why "pro-Western" is an uncomfortable label for me.

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It is probably also worth saying something on why Peter R's phrase "Paine abroad and Burke at home" resonated with me - and with JW and MAH - as this is something Freeborn John wonders about. It is probably not out of a deep understanding of Paine or Burke (at least not on my part), although Paine is an inspiration for me. It is the issue, as JW makes clear in this post, of the at home/abroad division. We criticise those whose radicalism stops at the border, the leftists who think Blair represents incipient fascism and that fundamentalist Christians are the real Taliban, while they are happy to see brown-skinned people suffer under real fascist dictatoris and theocrats: these people (from Ken Livingstone and Tony Benn to Noam Chomsky and George Galloway) are "Paine at home but Burke abroad". But we also criticise those who want to export democracy and secularism to the Middle East, but make their peace with the Ancien Regime at home: "Paine abroad but Burke at home".

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Finally, on the phrase "decent left": JW distances himself from it, seeing it as synonymous with "centrism", a swear word for the Drink-Soaked Trots, while Freeborn John seems to place the likes of Fat Peter, JW and me in it (with Hoare, the Harry's Place bloggers, Nick Cohen and Oliver Kamm described as a Neo-Conservative). What do I conclude from this? Probably that the term - like neoconservative - is so slippery as to be meaningless...

1 comment:

The Contentious Centrist said...

"Probably that the term - like neoconservative - is so slippery as to be meaningless..."

I don't think it is meaningless, but its intensity and focus are flexible and depend upon the context and who you are talking to about these ideas. It's like the Anglican Church. When Anglicans reside in proximity to a Catholic community, they appear more Protestant. When they are in a predominantly Protestant environment, they appear more Catholic. The Decent Left and the neoconservatives react and interact in the same way.

Centrism, in my opinion, does not occupy the middle ground but is rather in triangulation with the two, indebted to both but standing apart. You know, like the Charioteer's Fable in the Phaedrus? Balancing strong reason with the wisdom of the emotions, and all that.