Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Don’t be Afraid! Democracy, the Labour Movement and the European Union

Note: This piece is largely written without reference to the current financial problems of the EU. Its aim is to address the underlying principle of the EU rather than its current problems.

In 1962, a senior British politician made the following statement about the idea of a federal Europe:

“We must be clear about this; it does mean, if this is the idea, the end of Britain as an independent European state. I make no apology for repeating it. It means the end of a thousand years of history.”

That politician was Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the Labour Party, and it was quite typical of early Labour attitudes towards the various incarnations of what became the EU. The Attlee government had been hostile towards the first stirrings of the European project, the Coal and Steel Community, on the basis that it was an intolerable intrusion on British political sovereignty and the distinctive British parliamentary path towards socialism. However, the issue of Labour’s attitude towards European economic and political integration only really became prominent with Gaitskell’s impassioned arguments in the context of MacMillan’s failed application for Britain to join the Common Market in the early sixties.

Gaitskell’s visceral hostility to the Common Market was the first prominent salvo in a battle for the soul of Labour over Europe that lasted a quarter of a century. That battle had its quiet periods, and it was characterised by many alterations in fortune for both sides. 

The pro-Europeans, led by the treacherous Roy Jenkins, had their victories. For a while in the sixties Wilson committed the Labour government to entry, until that application failed in 1967. Most notably, Jenkins and other assorted Labour backsliders voted against the Labour whip to provide Ted Heath with the greatest victory of his career; that is, entry to the EC. By the time of the referendum on Britain’s membership in 1975, most prominent Labour politicians, notably Wilson and Callaghan, had, more out of inertia and convenience than any great conviction, backed staying in, and their side duly won that referendum.

However, the enduring fact was that between 1962 and the late 1980s, the underlying position of the majority of the Labour movement was one of hostility to the European Community. Most major trade unions were opposed, much of the grassroots membership and  many Labour supporters in the country were, to varying degrees, sceptical, and a number of prominent MPs, from Tony Benn and Barbara Castle to Peter Shore and Michael Foot, fought against Britain entering or staying in the EC. Labour voted against the European Communities Act which facilitated British entry to the EC (with the exception of those Europhiles like Jenkins, Rodgers and Williams, most of whom ended up betraying the Labour movement by their formation of the SDP), and in several manifestos pledged explicitly to leave the EC.

I recount these historical facts to provide context to those who have grown up in the modern Labour Party. Such people may not be aware that Labour has ever had a position different from its view over the past fifteen years: that is to say, largely unconsidered and occasionally ambivalent support. Divisions clearly did not disappear entirely. Brown and his followers in government were marginally more Eurosceptic than the Blairites, and an honourable tradition of backbench hostility, in the form of old hands like Austin Mitchell, endured. However, if anything summed up Labour’s attitude toward the EU in the New Labour years, it was a lack of interest. We never made much of it, in contrast to the Tories, because, in general, it was not an issue that the majority of the electorate expressed much concern about. We fell into quiet pro-EU orthodoxy more out of inertia and indifference than anything else. I largely followed this line as a young activist, without giving it much thought.

However, recently I have seriously began to re-think this position and have changed my view significantly.

In order to illustrate this, we need to go back to the moment when Labour’s position on the EU is usually considered to have fundamentally changed. This was Jacque Delors’s famous speech to the 1988 TUC conference when he presented the EC as a refuge from the ravages of Thatcherism, the only means of defending workers’ rights. He sold the EU to the Labour Party and the unions on the basis of the supposed merits of its ‘social dimension’. This consolidated the pre-existing shift in direction from Kinnock on the issue, and prepared the ground for Kinnock’s openly pro-EU conference speech in 1988.

From then on, the debate over the EU has been largely presented within the Labour Party and wider mainstream left as being essentially a question of defining the socio-economic consequences of our membership of the EU. If it can be shown that the neoliberal side of EU policy is most prominent, in the form of, for example, its emphasis on free markets in goods, services, labour, and capital, and the deregulation and liberalisation of those markets, the argument goes, then we should be anti-EU, or at least in favour of radical reform of the policies of the EU from the inside. If the social aspects of the EU are perceived to be predominant, in the form of the Social Chapter and the protection of workers’ rights, then we should be pro-EU. So, for example, the short-lived NO2EU party, which stood in the 2009 European Elections and was the brainchild of Bob Crow, took the former position. Labour MEPs are keen on making the latter argument, which has become the orthodox position of the Labour Party.

It is not surprising that in 1988, after 9 years of punishing Thatcherite government, the Labour movement was, like a thirsty man staggering about in the desert, desperate for any sustenance that it could perceive, or at least thought it could perceive. Trades unionists and beleaguered Labour MPs did not see anything much to lose in such a context by throwing their lot in with the EU. Surely, they thought, it has to be improvement on preserving national sovereignty when that sovereignty was in the possession of a right-wing Tory coterie.

However, my contention is that the entire framework within which this argument takes place is misconceived.

There are clearly arguments on both sides in terms of the consequences of EU membership on the nature of British socio-economic policy. The Left is divided, as we have seen. The Right is also divided, between those who think that regulations emanating from the EU have produced an unduly inflexible labour market and excessive red-tape which has stunted growth, and those who praise the advantages provided by the EU to the functioning of a capitalist market economy.

The complexion of the EU is, as such, truly in the eye of the beholder. It is like a brilliant piece of quartz that looks mesmerisingly different depending on which angle you hold it at. Given the ambiguous, slow-sand-shifting nature of the EU, this is inevitable. The policies of the EU have been decided by a massive, ever-changing constellation of political forces over a long period. They are the result of a massive bureaucratic decision making process that encompasses the representatives of 27 nation states within numerous different institutions, most notably the Commission, the Council of Ministers and the  European Parliament. We must also factor in the sprawling negotiations between countless heads of state and bureaucrats that resulted in the numerous treaties that shaped the underlying structure of the EU, from Paris to Lisbon. The EU’s policies have been the result of a painstaking, inordinately complicated political sausage factory over 60 years. The ultimate character of the EU’s economic and social policies is determined by the overall political balance of forces within Europe, which inevitably tos-and-fros. Often this balance of forces is more a deadlock of forces, which necessitates compromises to satisfy the vanities of multifarious different governments, statesmen and political parties, not to mention unelected elites. This makes the EU fundamentally ambiguous in character. It is scarcely any wonder that a bewildering variety of politicians manage to hold identical positions on the EU despite having almost nothing else in common; everyone can find something within this colossal Euro mish-mash to suit their prejudices if they wish, and with such eclectic material ideologues of both sides can patch together a case for or against according to which elements they choose to emphasise, and it is to some extent a matter of circumstance, convenience and temperament which side they choose to fall on.

With this in mind, I would nonetheless at this stage register my (no doubt partial) view that the EU in the past decade or so has gone substantially down the path of imposing neoliberal orthodoxy and austerity, both in its recent handling of the Eurozone crisis, the growth and stability pact (and other similar attempts at a common economic policy), and in terms of the impact of many of its directives on competition policy and state aid, which have undermined collective bargaining, sane, interventionist industrial policy, national employment standards and wage rates. 

However, this is in many ways beside the point. The very ambiguous nature of the EU shows the fundamental problem with it. If we, as British Leftists, are lucky enough to live in an era of social-democratic dominance within Europe, with most major European countries enjoying left-leaning governments, then eventually the EU sausage machine might crank out some bangers of consolation, as the drift of policy within the EU goes our way. If we are unlucky, as we have been recently, the opposite might occur, which might mean, for example, a drift towards an emphasis on market liberalisation and an erosion of workers’ rights that we might not like. The point is, however, is that British national policy on many issues becomes largely at the mercy of forces over which we as a nation have little control, and which, for that very reason, are not very susceptible to proper democratic control.

This links in to the fundamental and profound point. Democracy, that is to say, representative democracy in the way we understand it, as embodied in our system of parliamentary democracy, has its natural geographical and national limits. The EU, while it is still made up of nation states who see themselves as meaningful and distinct cultural and political units, can never be properly or meaningfully democratic. A democracy can only function in a political unit in which all its individual members see themselves having enough of a common existence for the will of its majority to represent something meaningful. The nation state and representative democracy appeared at much the same time in history, which was no coincidence. Only the large degree of commonality of identity provided by being members of the same nation state (or similar unit) has ever provided the conditions for a legitimate representative democracy. The EU is made up of 500 million people, and the vast, vast majority of those people do not recognise the kind of common European citizenship that would be required to make EU-wide democracy meaningful. They see themselves as being citizens of nation states, and will accept as binding and legitimate decisions taken in a democratic way only at a national level. For example, if we had a European-wide referendum on an issue, and Britain vote 95% to support one side, but every other EU country voted 95% the other way, then the overall result would be for the side Britain did not support, and we as a nation would have to put up with it. That would not make it any easier for Britain to swallow, and, I daresay the same would be the case if you replaced the word ‘Britain’ with practically any other country in Europe. This is because it would feel like a decision being imposed by alien forces upon us as a nation.

There are several reasons for this. One is the issue of size. In a democracy, each individual by definition has his or her say on the overall policy diluted in proportion to the size of the population of the state in question. The very nature of representative democracy makes this dilution considerable. However, it seems to me that there must be a point at which it becomes so diluted as to be akin to a homeopathic treatment. It seems to me that such a point of dilution would be reached in a polity as large as a hypothetical United States of Europe. There are clearly variations in size between nations, but there seems an upper-limit to the level of dilution that will be widely accepted which is rarely contravened by the population of an average or even large nation state. This seems to me to be a matter of intuitive common sense. 

The other, and more profound, reason is that the EU is not and will never be constituted as a polity in such a way as to mean that it could attempt to have democratic institutions in a way analogous to a nation state. The only way that it could possibly work would be to have a federal system, which is the practical solution adopted by the two largest democracies in the world, and the only two real cases that would be analogous to a United States of Europe; that is, India and the USA. However, these countries have a sufficient consciousness of a national identity to make some degree of unity at the federal level, in terms of, for example, foreign and defence policy, possible (though this is sometimes debatable in the case of the USA).  This consciousness of a common national identity does not exist to sustain any level of democratic federal government in the EU at large. Some idealists who find within their own bosom a zealous consciousness of a common Europeanism may wish this were not the case, but they are deluding themselves.
So the EU ends up in the worst of all worlds due to the natural consequences of political, cultural and national realities. Its member states are too jealous of their national identities, of being German or British or French rather than European, for a federal system, with a properly democratic structure at the federal level, to exist. However, they are not prepared to dissolve the EU and revert to being nation states with the democratic apparatus of a unitary state as the only means of mediating the operation of their sovereignty. So, the decisions taken in common have largely fallen outside the control of proper democratic accountability. Many decisions are taken by elected heads of state in the Council of Ministers, which is typically unsatisfactory for two reasons. Either it leads to some nations imposing their views on other nations, which, since most people perceive themselves to exist politically primarily as voting citizens of their nation state, is not perceived as being democratic. On the other hand, if there is deadlock in the Council of Ministers due to the need for unanimity on some topics, then nothing happens. For this reason qualified majority voting has increasingly replaced unanimous decision making and has been diluted to make it easier for things to pass. Even more worryingly, the Commission has become more and more powerful. Let us not forget that the Commission is utterly lacking in democratic accountability. The people of Europe have no way of removing the commissioners, who have such a colossal influence over the lives of millions of people, by the ballot box or any other peaceful means. In other words, the rules have been changed to make it easier for large nations to push through the policies they prefer, or responsibility has been given to a non-democratic body to get around this problem. 

Of course, the European Parliament does have some role, and it has enjoyed a moderate increase in power since its inception. However, it suffers from the same problems as every other EU institution. Since hardly anyone in Europe sees themselves as primarily or even significantly a democratic citizen of the EU due to the lack of a meaningful unifying European identity, but instead see themselves as essentially citizens of their nation state, they would not be prepared to see the European parliament as the authentic legislative body expressing their will even if it had the power of a national parliament, which, of course, it does not.

In short, only a people who perceive themselves as a unified political unit can be represented satisfactorily in a democratic institution. Since the former condition does not exist, and is not likely to ever exist, among the people of the EU, the EU cannot and will not ever have political institutions that are properly democratic.

This raises further questions. At least, it does if you are an ideologically convinced Euro-federalist. Is it the fault of the people of Europe that they do not see themselves as, first and foremost, citizens of Europe, prepared to embrace an out and out federal system? Is the inability to eliminate the mindset of identification at the political level of the nation a symptom of an immaturity that will eventually render the EU and its member states a geopolitical irrelevance?

These questions give a flavour of the tone of elitist arrogance that characterises those within the EU who favour a federal solution. It is, as usual, the fault of the stupidity and parochial character of the people of Europe, who do not understand the infinitely subtle mechanism being constructed by their superiors. This arrogance has been shown in the constant attempts of Euro-federalist elites to force us into ‘ever closer union’ with little consultation of the people of Europe, and the fact that whenever they are forced to confront the will of the peoples of Europe in referenda, and the people disagree with them, they just re-run the referendum with ever greater levels of pressure and propaganda until the people give them the answer they want.

However, I say that there is nothing wrong with national self-determination. It is foolish and contrary to obvious empirical fact to deny that differences of national outlook exist and that people with an independent and distinctive identity wish to run their own affairs. We cannot have it both ways and impugn imperialism because it denies self-determination to nations who wish to be independent, and then endorse European federalism despite the fact that it does much the same thing. Some might give us idealistic talk about how national differences are the source of the world’s tensions. They might argue that the world would be much better and more peaceable if we could eliminate nations and live together free of such artificial divisions.

There are a couple of responses to be made here. Firstly, by this perspective having a common European identity is hopelessly chauvinistic, since it excludes the rest of the human race. Europe is itself a human created cultural and political entity, so if your problem is excessively narrow identification with artificial political units then the answer is to advocate world government rather than a European Federation. Secondly, whatever the rights and wrongs of it, it is hugely unrealistic to expect national identification, which has historically proven the most powerful and enduring of all loyalties, trumping class, ideology, religion and gender, to suddenly melt away. From a pragmatic point of view, it simply is not going to happen. Thirdly, and most controversially, I would argue that, so long as it does not become aggressive or based upon a view of inherent cultural or racial superiority, there is nothing wrong with identifying oneself politically primarily at the national level. It accords with the feelings that most people have anyway, and provides a unit of a manageable size for democratic governance.

Furthermore, those feelings are not invalid. If we live in a nation, as we all do, we are conscious of certain things, such as a shared culture, language and history that give our common existence greater value in our eyes because they are unique and exclusive to us. That does not mean that we must trumpet these things as inherently superior to the national identity of other nations or attempt to subjugate other nations, but merely as preferable to us by virtue of sentiment, familiarity and natural attachment, in much the same way as we prefer our own family, despite the fact that we would not necessarily argue that our family is objectively superior, nor would we try to subjugate other families. The particularity of national attachment is what gives it its value. Love, in life, comes from loving something exclusively. If we profess to love everyone or everything, in practice we love nothing. So it is with nations. So it is also with nations that their interests are susceptible to differing interpretations. National loyalty and identification does not necessitate supporting the status quo. It implies supporting what you think is truly in the interests of the nation, which is, of course, contestable, but nonetheless always contested within a distinct national context.

For these reasons, I see no contradiction between my being proud of my national identity and my being a radical. Our common language, our system of parliamentary democracy, our landscape, our common literature and history, among many other things, in my view, bind us together in such a way as to make it only possible to govern us justly and democratically on a national basis. Of course, there are elements of these things which I prefer to emphasise. There is a vision for our destiny as a nation that I prefer; Britain as a democratic Socialist commonwealth. The point is that only if we maintain our national sovereignty can this vision be meaningful, just as a Conservative or Liberal vision for this country can only be meaningful on that basis. That is the whole point. If we were to subsume our nation within a Federal Europe, our national destiny would not be within our control, and that would be intolerable. Exactly the same principle applies to every other nation-state in Europe, all of which deserve government on the basis of their national status as much as we do.

As it stands, we find ourselves in an odd half-way house, half self-determining nation-state, half part of a European Union that frustrates democratic self-determination by its very nature. As such, the whole EU project is flawed fundamentally and on a matter of national and democratic principle, regardless of whether the general drift of its policy at any one time happens to be conducive to my political perspective or not. This is why I hope that the reports that the Labour leadership are considering offering a referendum on our membership of the EU are true and that we are bold enough to give the people of Britain a genuine say for the first time in nearly 40 years. It is why I would support leaving the EU if such a referendum were called. None of this implies that I am blind to the need for co-operation with other nations on a whole range of matters. I am aware that in light of the pressures put upon nation-states by such phenomena as globalisation, and indeed the current financial crisis, such co-operation is more pressing than ever. However, it should be done on the basis of the genuine democratic will of fully self-governing nation states, not via the process of relinquishing national sovereignty to supranational institutions that end up by their nature lacking democratic legitimacy, such as the EU.

These basic principles trump the supposed arguments in favour of the supposed benefits that we get from the EU, either in ideological terms or straight economic terms. Given the austerity being inflicted on its member states by the EU, the economic argument is looking flaky at the moment anyway, but no number of pieces of silver could justify us giving up our right to genuine national democratic self-determination. As such, I call on my Labour colleagues to at least be honest enough to have the debate. I call on them to remember the words of Michael Foot when talking on the subject nearly 40 years ago (albeit in slightly different circumstances): 

‘Now people say, “All these burdens, all these political disabilities, all these derogations from our sovereignty, all this dismemberment of our parliamentary institutions” - because that is what it involves – “all that, must be done because of the economic circumstances that face us. We have no other choice”. I don't believe it, and so I say to this great conference, at the end, I hope the main message that will go out from this conference to our movement up and down the country is: Don't be afraid! Don't let this great Labour movement of ours be afraid. We've lived through this argument and we still survive, and we will come out a stronger Labour government I believe at the end. Don't be afraid! And I say to our country, our great country, don't be afraid! Don't be afraid of those who tell us that we cannot run our affairs, that we have not the ingenuity to mobilise our resources and overcome our economic problems. Of course we have, we can do that and save the freedom of our country at the same time.’

Friday, 28 October 2011

Material Considerations

“I’d like to introduce the first application

On the agenda tonight

It’s an application for a proposal

Providing a formal indication

Of my designs on your affection.

The material considerations are crucial,

The usual ones for an application of this kind:

The aesthetic dimension, compatibility in its sexual context

The principle of emotional development

And, of course, your assessment of future romantic amenity.

The recommendation before you is one of approval.

The statement of devotion is sound in planning terms

Though the surface adoration management is poor.

Nonetheless, most weight must be placed

On the presumption in favour of sustainable entanglement."

Alas, in love all considerations are material,

And the heart is no Town and Country Planning Act.

Besides, your desire is in a Conservation Zone

And, since your committee’s rejection,

I have no appeal. There is no pining inspector.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

On the Fear and the Pleasure of Solitude

Samuel Johnson, notoriously, hated being alone. Solitude to him not only invariably provoked his bouts of depression, but he saw it as something fundamentally corrupting and suspicious. He described the “solitary mortal” as “certainly luxurious, probably superstitious, and possibly mad”. Solitude to him was “dangerous to reason, without being favourable to virtue”. In his imagination, one supposes, seclusion was a hothouse producing the febrile, disordered fantasies of cranky, treasonous Whigs and republicans. It was both personally disarming and politically troublesome. As such, he was famously open to entertaining any guest, no matter how slight the acquaintance, until any time of the night. He would often beg the last guest to stay so as to stave off the dreary purdah of his own company, company that the fashionable classes so craved for, for as long as possible.

I think that Johnson’s hearty disdain for isolation reflects a powerful current in the English character. One detects in Johnson’s eighteenth century attitude twinges of the characteristic distrust of such detachment found in the bracing attitudes of pioneering, tyrannical nineteenth century public school headmasters such as Edward Tring of Uppingham, say, or Edward Lyttleton of Eton. To them, a penchant for one’s own company was inherently subversive, a symptom, along with excessive reading and masturbation, of a lurking anti-social tendency that had to be stamped out in the course of the moral formation of the upstanding denizens of Britain and the Empire. Enforced games-playing, the House system, constant supervision and cold showers were enlisted as conscripts in the war against furtiveness, seclusion and sensitivity.

This is far from being the case only amongst the upper classes. Natural suspicion falls in British life upon anyone who displays a proclivity towards solitude, beginning early in life. There is no more damning analysis of a child or adolescent’s character than “he spends an awful lot of time alone up in his room”. Children of all classes who show a fundamental indifference to the company of others are perceived as worrisome, and are usually, in a similar way as the domineering Headmaster of Harrow or Wellington might force recalcitrant students into unwanted games of rugby, dragooned into some communal activity that they are not the slightest bit interested in.

This is usually done with the best of intentions, by the most loving of parents. Excessive isolation is seen to be either a cause or a symptom, or possibly both, of unhappiness and unhealthiness, and therefore in need of remedy. Even my parents made attempts (admittedly fairly desultory and half-hearted ones) to lure me from my self-imposed infant exile from humanity, at one point trying to persuade me of the virtues of joining the Cubs or Scouts. I had no intention whatsoever of engaging with such an organisation, and I’m not even sure if I ever got as far as being forced to attend one meeting. My parents not being the most compulsively social people themselves, and certainly not wanting to force me into anything that would make me unhappy, gave up, mercifully with very little resistance.

I think that this obsession with society (in the literal sense of being in the company of others), with ‘mixing’, is rooted in a fundamental idea that happiness is only achievable through other people. Emotional investments and bonds in other people are the only root to happiness. Because, ultimately, what is the alternative? Some kind of solitary debauchment? Or even worse, knowledge and facts and ideas?

Therein lies the British obsession with the dangers of solitude; the association with, in its broadest sense, subversion. It links into our much-vaunted distrust of intellectuals, who, squirrelled away, scratching into midnight with their treasonous quills, disturb solid moral and political common sense with their over-analysis and perhaps even unpatriotic ways. The solitary, it is always feared, is prone to dis-ease, perhaps with himself but also with the status quo in general. The projections of this dis-ease onto society manifest themselves in some kind of radicalism, either nihilistic or (in an irony noted by the splendidly grumpy Bernard Shaw’s self-description as the ‘antisocial socialist’) socialistic, and the projections onto the individual manifest themselves in morally questionable debauchment, the luxury, superstition and madness of which Dr Johnson was so apprehensive.

However, there is another aspect to this, which links more directly into the obsession with finding fulfilment or happiness primarily or solely through other people. There is a pervasive suspicion that unless one’s primary source of satisfaction is some relationship with another person or other people, particularly but not exclusively a monogamous sexual relationship, one is not a normal human being. Sneaking terror of loneliness projects itself onto the fearful and neurotically hateful attitude towards anyone who lives out the profoundly feared destiny of solitude, a hate which is as much actual or potential self-hatred as anything. This crystallises itself in that extremely common stock-character of British life, real and fictional – the man who lives alone, or perhaps with his mother, his lack of other relationships indicative of or a cover for some seedy and mysterious habit, such as serial killing, wearing mackintoshes into adult cinemas, or listening to Gardeners’ Question Time.

This fear and hatred has heightened in recent years, and not surprisingly. Increasingly, the traditional institutions through which social interaction and stable relationships were initiated and sustained, and loneliness warded off, have been chipped away. The decline of religious observance and Church-going, the break-down of established conventions of marriage and courtship, the decline of the nuclear family, the increased tendency to live alone, and even the decreased vitality of collective institutions of working-class life such as working men’s clubs, pubs, football clubs and trade unions, have given more substance to this terror of solitude. Because the initiation of social interaction and other relationships are less regulated by well-known conventions, the pathways into social bonding and marriage less obvious and negotiated with less certainty and more anxiety, the kernel of our fears has been shown to be more solid than we would like.

Much as this may be seen as a controversial statement, these changes have probably affected men more than, or at least differently from, women. In practice men, most notably heterosexual men, are still usually expected to initiate romantic relationships. You may quibble around this, but any honest assessment of the situation has to conclude that it’s basically true. Therefore, the fact that courtship and marriage are far more marked by uncertainty and less regulated by fixed conventions and rules than they were has had the effect of hitting men harder than women, since this morass of uncertainty is more often negotiated in a proactive way by men. Women have, in general, probably adapted far better, and indeed benefited far more, from the decline of the traditional nuclear family. The collective social institutions of life, particularly working class life, that have been most obviously eroded have been the ones that were male-dominated. I am not suggesting that women do not still suffer from a great deal of injustice and discrimination in other areas, and some of the developments I have outlined are not bad things. However it still seems to me to be the case that the problem of solitude and fear of isolation, as it has intensified in recent decades, has probably disproportionately affected men. It is significant that the stereotypical figure of the weird loner in fiction and reality is most often male in modern culture. The most famous and well-observed fictional representations of these neuroses since the 1960s are of male characters. Mark Corrigan in ‘Peep Show’, David Brent in ‘The Office’, even Rigsby in ‘Rising Damp’, all personify it. The stereotype of the crazy cat-loving spinster still exists, but it is nowhere near as prominent in the modern imagination as the male equivalent.

What is needed to moderate and correct this picture, however, is a sane attempt to appreciate the many pleasures of solitude. I am sure that this is partly a temperamental preference, based on personality as much as any universally applicable argument, but I am unable to function without long periods of isolation, and I’m sure that the benefits of solitude are capable of wider appreciation.

The joys of being away from other people are many. You do not have to regulate your life according to the whims of someone else, whose preferences are never likely to accord with your own. Compromise is much less necessary. You can get on with serious and uninterrupted reading and study. Most of all, you don’t have to constantly fret about others’ perceptions of you. You can be uninhibitedly yourself. If you want to talk to yourself in order to better think something through, or if you want to drink tea out of a pint glass, or eat raw jelly cubes out of the packet, you can do so without having to explain yourself. This may be a recipe for some degree of eccentricity, but by heavens to murgatroid, it sure is liberating.

Furthermore, you don’t have to feign interest in the tedious things that other people have been doing with their day. You can free yourself from the annoyance that is other people. Almost all people annoy me. Even people I like very much or even love often annoy and infuriate me. Most people do so without any compensation. They witter on with their unintelligent, overly sentimental, priggish, petty or ill-considered opinions, feelings or other outpourings, and frankly I could do without it. As my favourite philosopher Schopenhauer put it:

The wise man will, above all, strive after freedom from pain and annoyance, quiet and leisure, consequently a tranquil, modest life, with as few encounters as may be; and so, after a little experience of his so-called fellowmen, he will elect to live in retirement, or even, if he is a man of great intellect, in solitude. For the more a man has in himself, the less he will want from other people,—the less, indeed, other people can be to him.

Schopenhauer may have put it in perhaps excessively strong terms. Despite my argument, I would not claim that I do not get pleasure out of the company of others. On the contrary, excessive solitude can start, as Dr Johnson held, to drag on one’s spirit. So long as people are my kind of people – cynical, with a dry or inappropriate sense of humour, usually but not necessarily politically motivated, resistant to false emotion, unsentimental and so on – I derive can great rewards from them. As such, I wouldn’t quite go to the extreme of Sartre, for whom hell was other people.

However, I can honestly say that when I finally get some time to myself, even after a prolonged period of interaction with people who entertain me, being left alone again gives me a pleasure of relief and contentment that little else can provide. The cool and unhurried thrill of silence, of being able to think and reflect and not be judged or weighed up, is wonderful. Solitude gives one time to reflect, to give one’s own emotions – whether they be happiness or sadness, frustration or industry, desire or contentment - a space to breathe.

Anyone who knows me who has read this far probably thinks that this piece is an extended bit of self-justification for my notorious and spectacular failure with women. My extensive acquaintance with the joys of solitude is partially attributable, no doubt, to just this. However, I nonetheless do take a genuine pleasure in being alone, and I do not mean to suggest that there aren’t pleasures to be had from relationships with other people, whether sexual or otherwise, pleasures that are conducive to the good life. My point is that they are not the only important pleasures, nor even ones without which happiness is impossible.

However, it seems that the fear of solitude in modern culture has reached a point where many people, especially but not exclusively young people, feel anxious or nervous unless they are with other people the whole time, or nearly the whole time. They may not even particularly enjoy the company of those other people, but the presence of someone else, anyone else, is thought superior to solitude. This is an absurd attitude. My presumption is the other way around. I have a presumption in favour of solitude, unless I can see some way in which the presence of another will improve things. It will sometimes thus improve things, but presuming that it necessarily will is often foolish and always ill-advised, in my experience. A more balanced attitude, which re-examines the very real pleasures and benefit of isolation, may do everyone a favour. Even people less misanthropic and grumpy than me.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Maurice Glasman: A Defence

Maurice Glasman cuts an unconventional figure. It is difficult to imagine anyone further away from the soulless technocrat banalities and bland certainties of New Labour. With his roll-ups, trumpet and cardigans, he is easy to dismiss as some kind of clown.

Some have gone to the opposite extreme, picking up on a few thoughtless remarks, about the EDL and immigration, in order to portray him as a closet racist. His emphasis on tradition has prompted a backlash from some feminists, fearful that he advocates some return to patriarchal domination, and, more generally, from the sniping metropolitan Left of the party, who see any challenge to their liberal assumptions as necessarily having sinister motives.

I have already written a long piece defending ‘Blue Labour’, and I will not repeat its arguments. However, I want to draw out a few points in response to some of the sniping.

Firstly, what did Glasman actually say about the EDL? He said that the Labour Party needs to face up to its “responsibility for the generation of far-right populism”, and attempt to reconnect with the kind of the person that supports the EDL so “that we can represent a better life for them”. In other words, instead of instantly dismissing white working class people who have become disillusioned with our party and turned to racist alternatives, we should attempt to bring them back within the fold by truly representing their interests via a politics of the Common Good that counters the impression that we became in hock to partial interests antithetical to the well-being of the working classes.

In the case of many EDL supporters, this is probably naive – their thoroughgoing violent racism probably makes any such engagement pointless. However, Glasman’s broader point is entirely valid. New Labour, with its attempt to fund social democracy using the unstable wealth produced by accepting the neoliberal consensus, has to partially take the blame for the alienation of the working classes that it is an inevitable result of the concomitants of that consensus, commodification and concentration of power. It is hardly worth denying that this unease has become particularly toxic within the white working classes in the context of profound social uncertainty, fostered by the inherent cosmopolitanism of a global free market. When that alienation is expressed in chauvinistic ways, though we should oppose it with all our might, we nonetheless cannot wish away its causes. Attempting to understand the forces that drive people to the far-right should be commended, not condemned due to the odd clumsy bit of phrasing. Accusing someone descended from immigrant Jews of this is especially implausible. The worst, I think, Glasman can be accused of is naivety and lack of media sense.

Much of the antipathy towards Glasman comes from his emphasis on tradition, on customary institutions and modes of living, which some perceive as being suspiciously conservative. His eschewment of Liberalism and attack on the value of abstract notions in politics instantly raise the hackles of cultural leftists who have increasingly come to see Labour less as a party designed to promote the interests of working people, and more as the political wing of the feminist and LGBT movements. This is hardly surprising, but Glasman’s approach is neither invalid nor reactionary.

To understand why this is, you have to understand how this links into the argument that politics is about nurturing collective practices and institutions that allow people and existing communities to live as ends in themselves, free from the tyranny of capital, and not about abstractions such as ‘Equality’ or ‘Justice’, in which all human relationships and traditions are seen as troublesome impediments to abstract ends. This does not involve accepting all prejudices inherent in a status quo. It does, however, recognise some realities about human beings, such as the fact that people’s particular relationships with places, institutions and traditions are powerful and often inherently valuable, except where they themselves embody other forms of domination – of class, or sexual orientation, or gender.

This view involves taking working people’s preferences seriously rather trying to rationalise them in the name of utilitarian efficiency, of state or market. Where tradition, where patriotism and faith, gives meaning to people’s existences, where those impulses do not spill over into bigotry, we have to respect them and integrate them within the Labour movement. The metropolitan Guardian-reading middle classes of the Labour Party need to abandon their attempts to impose their prejudices on the working class in the name of expunging the prejudices of the latter.

Another source of discomfort is his criticique of the Attlee Government. To many on the Left, this is sacrilege. However, it is useless to pretend that the legacy of that government was perfect. Nationalisation, in which private management was merely replaced by an equally unresponsive bureaucratic elite was not what pre-war socialists had in mind. Integration in the political nation was never enough. Socialism also requires institutions and practices outside of the state to protect working people against capitalism, such as mutuals, credit unions, co-operatives, worker representation on works councils, worker codetermination at board level, and so on. In other words, real democracy. This is a radically Leftist attempt to move on from the tired debates of whether we support ‘state or market’.

That Glasman’s argument represents a genuine attempt, albeit one rooted in history, to address the dilemma of the Labour Party illustrates an important point. Much as people like to carp, where are the alternative ideas? The Right of the party re-heats Blairite dogma and unthinking acceptance of the status quo and is more stale than year-old bread. The statist Left, Hard and Soft, is utterly bereft of anything new to say. It has no coherent political economy. Glasman and Blue Labour have the guts to formulate something paradoxically both old and new, both historic and fresh, that might actually provide an intellectually coherent basis for Labour Party policy. Go away and read Glasman’s essay ‘Labour as radical tradition’ or Polanyi’s ‘The Great Transformation’. If you don’t like it, then what’s your alternative? It’s easy being the critic; let’s see if Blue Labour’s detractors have a meaningful agenda of their own.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

A Sceptical Patriotism for the Left

To many, the idea of left-wing or progressive patriotism is an oxymoron. One immediately thinks of the ‘my country right or wrong’ bone-headed jingoism represented by flag-waving idiots at Tory Party conference or ‘The Last Night of the Proms’. Worse still are the word’s apparently indelible associations with racist, chauvinistic nationalism in the form of the far-right, which has hijacked symbols of national pride such as the flag so successfully since the Second World War.

However, the monopoly of patriotism by the right is not something that leftists can afford to ignore. One of the most persistent and damaging criticisms of radicals is that they are unpatriotic, unfeeling, cold. Burke’s accusation that radicals, in their frigid internationalism, have “benevolence to the whole species, and want of feeling for every individual" has stuck. The political passions of patriotism seem to be either harnessed by the right or, usually unsuccessfully, neutralised by the left. This will not do. We on the left must revive an older vision of what it truly means to love one’s country, a notion that separates patriotism from the narrower and damaging concept of nationalism, and that focuses on what is truly important in our approach to our national community. In short, we must go back to Enlightenment notions of the true meaning of patriotism, notions that reconcile a heartfelt love of country with ‘internationalist’ ideas of humanity’s common good.

An excellent source of such an Enlightenment idea of patriotism is a now little-remembered political thinker of the late 18th century called Richard Price. Richard Price was a dissenting minister who supported the radical causes of his age, such as the fight for freedom of the American colonies, and what seemed to him (at least at first) as the historical struggle for the rights of mankind and for humanity’s dignity and liberty represented by the French Revolution. In 1789 Price preached an acute sermon entitled ‘A Discourse on the Love of our Country’, in which he explores what constitutes a true, enduring and magnanimous version of patriotism. His ideas are as relevant today as they were in those heady days, even if the early promise of 1789 dissipated into a factious and quarrelsome nationalistic fervour.

Price critiques what we might call nationalistic or ‘vulgar’ patriotism, which is constituted by a number of doctrines. Firstly, the idea that patriotism implies believing in the objective superiority of one’s own country. This is childish, he opines; “were this implied”, he points out, “the love of their country would be the duty of only a very small part of mankind”. Secondly, vulgar patriotism implies a “spirit of rivalship and ambition” that drives countries to expand and enslave others, “forming men into combinations and against their common rights and liberties” (my italics). In other words, loving one’s own country does not imply waging a war against the rights of humankind in general, since what we share in terms of a common humanity is more important than what divides us. Thirdly, Price attacks the tendency of vulgar patriotism to imply that any critique of a country’s status quo is unpatriotic; that the loyalty of the patriot is to the country as it actually is, not a vision of what the country morally should and could be. “All our attachments”, he argues, “should be accompanied...with right opinions”. One should endeavour to create a country that one can be rightfully proud of, not glorify whatever welter of prejudice and injustice that happens to already exist.

The implication of this critique is an alternative idea of patriotism, what we might call ‘sceptical’ or ‘progressive’ patriotism; a patriotism that is not afraid to critique the existing social, political and economic structures of its country in the hope that one’s love of country can be most eloquently embodied in improving it; a patriotism that does not subordinate the interests of humanity in general to a narrow and factious belligerence; a patriotism that implies fondness and a genuine passion for what is best for one’s country without lapsing into a blind collective self-worship. It is possible to criticise this idea of patriotism as being toothless in its acceptance of the logic that what is most important is not what divides us as human beings but what unites us – in other words, one may argue that it is a watered down internationalism dressed up as ‘patriotism’. Once again, however, I revert to the arguments of Richard Price, who anticipated this objection back in 1789. “We are so constituted”, he pointed out, “that our affections are more drawn to some among mankind than to others, in proportion to their degrees of nearness to us, and our power of being useful to them”. In other words, although our interests should be subordinate to the interests of humanity in general, there is little that we can really do for such a broad and distant concept. Instead, we must harness the natural human instinct to favour the near-at-hand, what we are used to, what we are fond of out of familiarity, whilst not allowing this instinct to degenerate into a damaging chauvinism.

A good way of thinking about this vision of patriotism is the attitude we take to our families in the context of wider society. We prefer and are fond of our families, because we are used to them, and in practice we need an emotional succour and intimacy that implies exclusivity. However, few of us would seriously maintain that our families are objectively superior to all others – the most intelligent, attractive, worthwhile collection of people in the entire country. Furthermore, loving our families does not preclude us from seeking harmonious relations with people from further afield. We can love our families and have important friends and acquaintances from outside it without being inconsistent; loving our own families does not imply that we must hate everyone else’s. Perhaps most importantly, the love that we have for our family members does not preclude us from making honest criticisms of them, because we want the best for them. If our family has problems, then the truly loving thing is not to recklessly ignore them and pretend that everything is fine, but to address honestly the problems. We love our families, but this does not imply a chauvinistic hatred of everyone else, nor does it imply a general benevolence that is too vague to be meaningful.

Progressives must, therefore, love their country like they love their family – both wholeheartedly and sceptically, whilst being both constructively critical and selfless. We must harness the human passion to be attached to the near and familiar while keeping in mind humanity’s commonality and never failing to challenge a monolithic interpretation of what ‘really’ represents the country’s best interests. The Left as a broad movement must be able to say about itself what Harold Wilson said about the Labour Party in the 1960s - “We are not a flag-waving party. But we are a deeply patriotic party, because we truly represent the British people”.