Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Progressives and reactionaries

David Aaronovitch has a piece in today's Times arguing that the real political choice is between 'progressives' and 'reactionaries' and that since these cut across party lines, this choice is more complicated than it once was:

"For years, of course, these allegiances have been breaking up, but the essential divide has been thought to remain. It's there in the common-place that Tony Blair is right-wing for a Labour man, or that David Cameron is left-wing for a Tory. But the truth has been dawning on many of us for some time now that this way of dividing the political world is an anachronism. It no longer fits the facts. When I look at the candidates for Parliament in my own constituency, the Labourness, Libdemness or Toryness of them no longer seems to be the main question. What I want to know is whether they are a progressive or a reactionary."
Further on in the piece he outlines what this means for him when confronted with our party system as it is today:

"I could vote for David Cameron, but I couldn't vote for David Davis or Ken Clarke. I could vote for Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, but I couldn't vote for Frank Dobson or Clare Short. I could vote for Vincent Cable or David Laws, but I couldn't vote for Jenny Tonge or Phil Willis."
What he appears to be arguing is that while this choice may confront the 'progressive' voter with some complexities, the manner in which he has framed the essential political division of our day isn't: there are 'progressives' and there are 'reactionaries'; 'progressives' are the right choice because 'progress' is a Good Thing - end of story.

I know what he's getting at and agree with some of what he said but fundamentally I don't think it clarifies matters much because these concepts are more problematic than he supposes. Leaving aside the questions as to why there are only progressives and reactionaries and no conservatives, why is it automatically assumed that 'progress' per se is a good thing? I suspect because the concept of a reactionary has usually had connotations of not only 'keeping things as they are' but wanting to 'turn the clock back', which is held to be impossible and therefore fundamentally irrational. But herein lies one of the problems I've always had with this notion of 'progress'. It's too deterministic for implicit in the idea is the belief that history is 'going somewhere', that this is inevitable and cannot be resisted.

That 'progress' is held to be inevitable shouldn't perturb those of us who are of a, um, progressive disposition when we hear what David Aaronovitch understands by this:

"We tend to believe in interdependence, and that what happens on the other side of the globe is our affair. We tend to believe in the open exchange of capital, ideas and people. We tend to believe - as India proves - that liberal democracy is not some kind of Western model that cannot be exported, but the best way of allowing human beings a say in their own government. We tend to believe in progress towards a fulfilling and equal existence for men and women, without arbitrary barriers. We tend to believe that scientific and technical progress can usually be harnessed for the benefit of humankind."
We also tend to believe in motherhood and apple pie. But it's when this is broken down to specifics, one encounters a few problems:

"Do I want a Labour MP who argues that there should be no private money involved in health provision and that the structure of the NHS should be the same in 2008 as it was in 1948? That there should be only one type of school? That the greatest enemy to mankind is the United States of America?"
Or rather it's really one problem - all the examples Aaronovitch uses have to do with the surprisingly resilient fashion for what one might describe as 'neoliberalism' and here, because one is swimming against the tide of History, resistance is useless. It's akin to Blair's 'Forces of Conservatism' speech - an insidious speech that sent a chill down my spine. The Forces of Conservatism are responsible for all the misery in the world, Blair intoned - they are those who shot Martin Luther King, killed Bambi's mum and goodness knows what else. It's a simplifying ideology that lumps people together as either belonging to the Future (good) or belonging to the Past (bad). Is there no room for people to take different views on all of these things Aaronovitch lumps together for different reasons? Do I think that the greatest enemy of mankind is America? Of course not but why is that placed next to a neoliberal agenda in public services? Can we not think the NHS needs reformed but without lining the pockets of contractors? Does David Aaronovitch think we have at present "only one type of school?" The translation of the above is obviously "support Blair's market reforms in education or you're, like, so yesterday man". Can I not think, as I do, that Mr Aaronovitch knows nothing about education, how it works, what needs to be done to improve it without being a 'reactionary' who obviously hates America and irrationally opposes globalisation?

Moreover, when does a conservative become a reactionary? For Aaronovitch it is those who want to go back to the postwar settlement and set it in stone. But what about his position? 'Flexible labour markets' are the thing. This means, essentially, less rights for workers so that they can be sacked more easily. Ok, how flexible? Because we could go back to the 19th century and have almost completely 'flexible' markets - no health and saftey, no sick pay, no maternity leave, no union recognition. But then isn't that reactionary? You see the problem. Aaronovitch is confusing mechanisms and institutions with principles. Traditional leftists were and are wedded to the comprehensive system because they were under the impression that it was a mechanism for producing social equality. But does the realisation that it doesn't do this very well mean you have to support market-based reforms because otherwise you'll be labeled a reactionary, even though you think they'll simply make matters worse? For the Blairs and the Aaronovitchs I think it does. Very well then, I'm a reactionary - on this issue as with a few others.

Why couldn't David Aaronovitch have simply said, socialism is no more, now there's only liberals and conservatives? There's nothing new about that. So you find liberals and conservatives in all different parties? There's nothing new about that either.

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