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Slim Pickings for the Soft Left

Alexis de Tocqueville, scion of a French aristocratic family, was possibly the most interesting nineteenth century interpreter of his country’s revolution. His main observation was that a centralising monarchy in the eighteenth century had stripped political power from the aristocracy, leaving only titles, estates and other trappings. This imbalance between grand appearance and actual powerlessness prompted questions as to the purpose of the aristocracy and in effect eased a path towards the guillotine and the general destruction of that class as a central plank of French society.

Peter Mair, in his posthumously published Ruling the Void, sees an analogy with contemporary political parties, arguing they no longer represent anything much, have ceded power to the state and are pretty much indistinguishable. The implication is that they may be tossed aside. On the face of it his thesis seems plausible.

Anyone who has ever canvassed in an election will know that a certain proportion of the electorate will quickly send you on your way with the words “Yis are all the one” or similar.  Peter Mair, who says political parties have lost contact with their traditional bases, are dependent on the state and are essentially similar, offers a more reflective version of the same idea. He uses the term “cartel party” to describe the phenomenon of political sameness.

When advanced at an intellectual level, as opposed to a doorstep level, the complaint that political parties are insufficiently ideological or all too similar in ideology is usually made from the left.  And it is a complaint that has been heard regularly since the triumph of the politics championed by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and their ideologues.

Behind the left critique of contemporary politics is an understanding which places class conflict at the core of political life and which sees the concept of class as providing an interpretive key to history – in other words a politics in the Marxist tradition. The underlying problem for the left, particularly in the post-1989 world, was not so much the unsavoury politics of Sir Keith Joseph or Milton Friedman, which could be explained in class terms, but the absence of an intellectually muscular and telling response from the left.

The concepts available to the traditional left were firmly lodged in certainties which originated in the enlightenment era, including the belief that all human affairs could be understood using the techniques of scientific reasoning. This thinking, which continues to underlie a great deal of work in the human sciences, proved inadequate to the task of explaining society and history in the round. By the late twentieth century class theory had lost credibility as a source of meaning. People stopped listening to the analysis, stopped reading the books and ceased to believe, just as people ceased listening to alluring and grandiose nonsense from the right decades earlier.

The heritage of the Enlightenment underlies contemporary western civilisation. There is no other source of core ideas available to the hard left or indeed the soft left. Not even Christian democracy – arguably at the core of social Europe  – can reconfigure itself to promote redistribution as a moral issue in the tradition of medieval charity. Socially oriented politics must present itself as reasonable and rational or cease to be itself.

The right, like everyone else, lives in a world shaped by the heritage of the Enlightenment, but its politics derive from an eclecticism which draws from both the Enlightenment and the Counter-enlightenment. The big ideas of the right which emerged from this process have passed into history but the recent micro ideas from the right which cluster around the principle of individual freedom are equally eclectic in origin. They have chimed well with our postmodern times.

Of course there was never a significant commitment to class analysis among the Irish intelligentsia, but in places of mass industrialisation class seemed hugely relevant. In Ireland we missed that “phase of development” and the intellectual left in this country long struggled to interest anyone in class as the key to understanding. Our big ideas were to do with the nation and religion, both in retreat for some time, in deference to the times.

The grand ideas of the right bit the dust with the Second World War, leaving only those on the left. And it seems the presence of these ideas may have asserted some control on capitalism, forcing it to defer to social considerations, with very impressive results in many countries. Those who regret the ebbing of postwar social democracy are predominantly those of the soft left. The hard left always had its doubts, suspecting the revolution was being bought off with kindness. If it is to have a future the soft left must learn to learn to stand unsupported by the historical and intellectual backstop of the hard left. Of course, it can be said that this shaking off of leftist dogma occurred a long time ago but, if so, social democracy has proved weak in the face of the new laissez faire. It has yet to distil a political thinking capable of engaging with the processes of globalisation and directing it to serve the social good.

The EU is the last and great hope of the soft left. But that hope has dimmed in recent times. Earlier confidence and solidarity is less in evidence and there is less conviction that the third way of the EU is likely to succeed. We await the emergence of an intellectual framework capable of inspiring people to embrace solidarity, redistribution and social values. One-time bastions of social politics appear to be changing direction.

France has long been a beacon but we seem to be looking at what could be the beginning of the fall of social France. The political elites of the right and left in that country increasingly conform to Peter Mair’s idea of cartel parties but they conform on the right of the spectrum, which is the politically crucial fact. In a 2012 debate, then prime minister Francois Fillon had to point out to the Socialist leader Martine Aubry, who was posing as an old-fashioned socialist for electoral and rhetorical purposes: “When you were a minister the tax on capital was 10% less than it is today. When you were a minister income tax was reduced.”  In many countries social democrats have adopted the politics of individualism. It is said that when Margaret Thatcher was asked what she regarded as her greatest success that she replied without hesitation “Tony Blair.”

While social democrats today do not generally inspire, the game may not be up; there may be options. The big ideas of the right lost credibility in the mid-twentieth century, nearly half a century before the collapse of the big ideas of the left. Some four decades or so later the small ideas of the right began to emerge and impact powerfully on western politics. It is not impossible that a nexus of small ideas from the left, based on the idea of distribution and democratic regulation in the social interest might emerge. Such concepts are perfectly compatible with the western heritage of reason.  The alternative to filling the intellectual vacuum would be a continuation of present trends, which offers a very gloomy prospect indeed.

The intellectual space now acceptable for politicians to act within has narrowed considerably from that which used to prevail. Once, we may recall, politicians in Ireland understood and explained their actions in the context of the teachings of the Catholic Church. Today they are expected to lower their sights considerably. The range of concerns society now permits politicians to address has shrunk to matters which are essentially technical. This may be what Peter Mair means when he speaks of politicians as managerial. However, in pointing critically towards the sameness of politics and political parties he makes a point which is frequently encountered. There is a widespread dislike for the sameness and shallowness of contemporary politics. It is worth asking why this is so, since that is what people have voted for.

Maybe the answer lies in a De Tocqueville-type contradiction. People no longer want their politicians to employ a rhetoric which reflects grandiose aspirations to reorder society from top to bottom in the interests of justice, freedom and all things good. Yet society has worries, which seem to be growing.  The edginess and unease increasingly manifest are sometimes claimed to be to do with a diminishing sense of meaning and human purpose. If this is so, these are questions that cannot be successfully addressed by political adherence to the laissez faire principles of contemporary capitalism.

The virtual unanimity in the west that the capitalist economy should be allowed to act with minimal interference has been endorsed in multiple elections, but its weakness is that it implies a society without direction. Certainly some people find that prospect quite exciting but more find it unsettling and fear that we are looking at a future without society, culture and morality.

There is an even bigger threat to our composure and it is one which worries, at least vaguely, most  people, and that is the dangers involved in climate change. Climate change is vaguely but correctly understood as a threat to the future and that is no small thing. A threat to the future is a threat to the principle of renewal which, as it happens, is a principle that has lain at the core of human culture throughout history. Commitment to the future is both the hallmark and instinct of humanity; it is stronger than greed or sex and without acknowledging it civilisation becomes an inexplicable nonsense.  A retreat, however slow, from belief in renewal is a retreat from humanity and a gradual denial of meaning. In such a scenario there are two possibilities. There is the unlikely one that humanity just shrugs and finds it can continue very well without meaning.  This, perhaps unfortunately, is unlikely because every human society that has existed has found a need for meaning.  The more likely outcome, in a world where the degradation of the planet has left people without faith in the future, is a generalised spiritual misery which, curiously enough, is something that would be akin to the old idea of hell.  

Under the circumstances it would be nice if the climate change deniers were right, but sensible people know they are not and everyone knows that freewheeling capitalism and its highly paid lobbyists at parliament are unlikely to stop the phenomenon.

People are concerned about big issues and would vaguely like leaders to address them but we have told our politicians – who are the only leaders we have - that they must confine themselves to tweaking things. It seems we are caught in a loop.

Margaret Thatcher’s belief that the business of government is not the government of business has long become the commonsense of politics and people have voted for this idea enthusiastically in many countries, including Ireland.  It seems we get the politicians we elect! Blaming them for the state of society, however enjoyable it may be, is an exercise in self-delusion and is very much barking up the wrong tree.

Politicians have rarely been the source of ideas in society and it is pointless to expect very much from them in that department. They are at best retailers of ideas. Arguably the world stands in need of a new nexus of ideas, a new grammar of order to harness the forces unleashed by centuries of scientific innovation and set them to serve the human interest.  Religion once supplied intellectual order and meaning. But after three centuries of living in the wake of the Enlightenment it seems we can no longer really respond to the possibilities of myth, symbol and ritual.

It is tempting to suggest that the intellectual elites of the west have succumbed to despair and defeat in the face of this philosophical dilemma. But that would not be entirely correct; a growing mountain of books and essays aspires to help but at best merely describes the problem. There are no new philosophical and political principles emerging.  Perhaps there is no new solution. Perhaps, intellectually, we have run out of road. Jacques Lacan would seem to think so and has argued that religion (Roman Catholicism) will win everyone in the end, providing as one commentator  said “bucketsful of meaning to pour over the ever more insistent and unbearable real that we, in our times, owe to science”.

If it is the case that we have exhausted the range of ideas compatible with the Enlightenment we may indeed be tempted to take out some old ones and dust them off. Religion is not the only thing in the cupboard; the hard right and left of the twentieth may also try for a comeback.  But social democracy- albeit in need of reinvention - is also in the cupboard. The alternative to the destructive dogmatism of the twentieth century’s big ideas and the grim world of capitalism’s small ideas  is that the soft left embrace the big idea of society, find the philosophical confidence to stand autonomously and get out there and change minds.

See Mishy Glenny’s review of Ruling the Void: www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/what-will-happen-to-all-tomorrow-s-parties-1.1647274 

See “Changing Models of Party Organization and Party Democracy: The Emergence of the Cartel Party” Richard S. Katz and Peter Mair http://politicacomparata.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/katz-and-mair-1995-changing-models-of-party-organization.pdf

See details of The Triumph of Religion by Jacques Lacan: http://www.drb.ie/new-books/the-triumph-of-religion