Monday, November 21, 2005

Faith and skepticism: on old cons and neocons

David Clark has a piece in today's Guardian, which argues essentially that Britain's 'liberal hawks' or 'prowar left' either are, or run the risk of becoming, like the 'Socialists for Nixon' in the 1970s - the original neocons. While I didn't agree with his analysis for reasons I'll explain, this was an intelligent article that attempts to address the split on the left caused by Iraq and was, I think, ill-served by its title and sub-title. Unfortunate because there are a couple of points that he is right about, which deserve attention.

One is he correctly identifies a tendency for political movements that tear themselves apart over foreign policy issues that are of little concern to ordinary voters who are more concerned with how the shoes pinches:

"Bill Clinton famously won the presidency by exploiting the popular perception that George Bush Sr devoted too much time to international affairs. The Conservatives, of course, tore themselves apart over Europe, but that merely served to illustrate how out of touch they had become. The war on terror has changed all that. Today it seems that foreign policy once again has the power to transform the political landscape."
His concern is that today's split will become a schism that could become permanent resulting in a lost opportunity that could result from the end of the already waning Bush/Blair era. His argument is that it was precisely this sort of leftist disarray that benefited Reagan and solidified the rise of the New Right in the 1980s.

Where the balance of blame should lie, I would take issue with Mr Clark but he articulates a point that I've often thought of since this whole thing began: there are not enough people on either the prowar or antiwar left that have given enough thought as to what they're all going to do exactly when all this is done with. Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking that there are rather a lot of people whose idea of the Good Society is one where no-one ever takes a contrary view to them, which always reminds me of Milan Kundera's remark to Philip Roth that there's "always a gulag built on to the side of paradise". (This is the gulag that I have absolutely no doubt I would end up in 'come the revolution', which is really the key self-interested reason why I gave up any notion of revolutionary socialism before my twentieth birthday.)

The other merit of David Clark's piece is that knows enough history to understand that neoconservatism originated from the left and retains a number of elements that belong to the revolutionary tradition. This can be seen in the area of foreign policy - for what is 'regime-change' if not originally a leftist idea? It certainly does not belong to traditional conservatism, which has always been inclined to see order as the first political virtue of a polity and to prefer not to exchange a present with known benefits for a future where these might be uncertain.

And it can also be seen in the New Right's attitude to economics. These are the pure politics of faith, not of skepticism. How else can you explain the fact that Third World countries have been subjected to a doctrinaire free-market fundamentalism that mirrors no discernible historical pattern followed by any of the industrialised countries of North America and Europe? I think it was Skidelsky who I recall saying that the unbridled free-market was the "great last-tried utopia". An apt phrase, which I've always thought appropriate in the case of Russia - a country unfortunate to have been the victim of two enormous economic experiments in the space of one century. (If you're thinking of putting in the comments box that I don't understand, the Russian experience showed they weren't free-market enough, please be aware you'll only be making my point for me.)

Also David Clark is even prepared to concede that we British 'putative neocons' have something resembling a case occasionally, a rare thing from a left-wing opponent of the war:
"The left can be reluctant to assert the superiority of liberal democracy, thereby laying itself open to the charge of moral relativism. Those who preach critical engagement with the more moderate currents of Islamism often fail to remain sufficiently critical in the face of reactionary and illiberal opinions. Some with a simplistic, Manichean worldview tend to look like the mirror image of George Bush, disagreeing only about who is good and who is evil."
A good point rather neatly put - and one I agree with of course. But here is more or less where I part because there is much else to disagree with in the article. For instance, while his historical observation on the origins of neoconservatism as a movement originating from the left is correct, his historical comparison doesn't really fit on the details. His argument is that anti-communist Democrats, disgusted by the nomination of the anti-Vietnam McGovern ended up drifting to the right, "contributing to a broader political realignment that swept Ronald Reagan to power" - the obvious parallel being with those on the liberal-left that have supported regime-change in Afghanistan and Iraq.

For one thing, I think Clark is conflating Vietnam and anti-communism somewhat but that isn't really the most important point. Rather I'm wondering to what extent former leftists supporting Nixon relates to support for some aspects of Bush's foreign policy, leaving aside the simplistic charge that in both cases, elements of the left have sold out to imperialism? The former, along with Henry Kissinger, epitomized the realpolitik containment policy of the age; the latter as a foreign policy direction born out of an understanding that it was precisely this policy that wasn't working . Surely this, regardless of whether you agree with it or not, whether you think it is ill-conceived or not, has to be accepted? This is to say nothing of the inconvenient fact that it was a Democrat that led America into Vietman and it was the Republican Nixon that disengaged.

It was of course September the 11th that prompted the shift that figures like Wolfowitz had been advocating for years and this brings us to the crux of the problem with Clark's piece: the failure to understand the role real events internationally and in the domestic economy have played, rather than personalities and their shifting opinions, betrays his fundamental lack of historical sense. The piece would have been better if he had addressed the question of why, when confronted with difficult and challenging world events, the left is either caught unawares and/or so often doesn't appear to have any constructive answers to them beyond a nebulous 'anti-imperialism' and anti-capitalism.

For example, Clark mentions the "Nixon Socialists" and the Soviet Union in a sort of "be careful you don't end up like this" sort of way while failing to address the obvious difficulty for the left that they were, in this at least, proved right. And as ostensibly even-handed as his piece is, it never considers the possibility that large swathes of the left, having learned precious little from the mistake of backing the Soviet model, are now in danger of making a similar one to the extent that they relativise, rationalise, and in some cases objectively support another absolutist movement because that movement has the virtue of being anti-American.

And it's here that he fails to consider the possibility that the identification of sections of the left with aspects of conservatism may cut both ways. He gives the following as examples of the rightward shift amongst a segment of the liberal-left:
"It is now quite common to find former stalwarts of the liberal commentariat celebrating the primacy of global markets, urging a return to selection in education, denouncing multiculturalism and calling for the election of rightwing governments in foreign countries."
I'm not sure who from the 'liberal commitariat' he's referring to so I can't comment on their position regarding global markets and the election of rightwing governments but what are we, in turn, supposed to make of a movement that historically has opposed theocratic power and has supported the rights of women and homosexuals now making excuses for the most reactionary religious movement in living memory? For my own part I can't quite see how Nick Cohen's recent advocacy of grammar schools can quite compete with this in any 'rightward shift' competition.

Clearly David Aaronovitch, Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen et al are stung when they are accused of 'apostasy' and becoming conservative in their old age This is not a feeling I share because I do not belong, and have not done so for many years, to some ideological church subject to the rulings of the bishops of leftism. I freely confess to having become more conservative as I've got older and often over the last couple of years I would have found it more convenient simply to yield and let others define me because I really don't care where the SWP and their kind put me on the political spectrum. I could respond to the conservative charge by saying there is no left anymore, only old cons and neocons that are left representing the politics of faith and the politics of skepticism - and that if you took to the streets to march for the Kissinger doctrine, you're kidding yourself that it is otherwise. The only problem with this is that I happen to think that it is inaccurate - for now at least. But to return to the spirit of the piece, it may not be for much longer if we continue like this.

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