Sunday, April 01, 2007

Trap 3

I got the chance to watch the final part of The Trap before I went away and at last I could make out what Curtis was trying to get at. One the one hand it is nice to see something on television that actually dealt with ideas, but on the other, I was also acutely aware of the limitations of the medium. Inevitably, it leads to simplifications, and often misreadings, and this was all too evident throughout the programmes.

Ultimately, though I had areas of agreement, it disappointed. This was partly because the programme again used foreign policy as the ultimate instrument of its critique. My sharp differences with the contemporary political consensus, and New Labour in particular, are with domestic political economy, especially with the alarming growth in inequality, aspects of social policy, which I find cautious, narrow, and authoritarian, and its managerialism, which has helped create a bureaucracy that British culture finds impossible to treat with anything but a deadly earnestness. (Let alone the violence with which Blairites have assaulted the English Language, especially the use of weapons of mass cliché and a serious attempt at verbicide.) However, I have never had a problem with a departure from the hypocrisies and brutalities of a 'realist' foreign policy, but then for the middle classes to focus their fury on that, rather than the inequalities from which they benefit at the margins, is far more comfortable.

There are three areas in which I think The Trap went wrong. The first is the attempt to reduce everything to concepts of liberty. Curtis' concentration on Isaiah Berlin limited his scope on the discussion of liberty, leading to a neglect of more modern writers. It is part of an overall tendency he has to erect straw men. Were any of his theorists as sinisterly influential as he implied? Personally, I am rarely a monist. I dislike reductionism and it is the same with liberty. I do not see two mutually exclusive concepts; instead, I feel that both the positive and negative variants of liberty are contingent on each other. The nature of the society we live in relies on the constant interaction between the two. Whilst I wholeheartedly endorse his concluding remark, "not all attempts to change the world for the better end in tyranny", they will without the presence of negative liberty.

I thought Curtis' point about being drawn into a paradoxical use of authoritarianism to protect negative liberty was silly. What is being attempted is to stop more shattered human corpses littering the London Underground. There is a real threat, as the people of New York, Madrid and Bali can equally attest to, and it has to be addressed. Governments are engaged in a pragmatic calculation on liberties, based on self-defence. But there is more to current politics than liberty, just as there have been more influential way of seeing the world than Game Theory.

This leads to my second objection, by attempting to bring everything back to liberty, he ignores the impact of ideologies, which have a broader intellectual base and show a remarkable persistence through many historical eras. To give just one example, Fanon, whose chapters on violence I read with a sense of revulsion, owes far more to the death cults that Paul Berman has so ably written about in Terror and Liberalism, than positive liberty. To me, Fanon is more Sorel than Sartre. I too cannot share in the romanticisation of violence and the sophistry that seeks to make it intellectually respectable and although I subscribe to just war theory it is only with a deep reluctance. However, I do not see political violence as simply the product of positive liberty. It has deeper and more problematic roots.

Finally, though he is absolutely right to mention the failings of a restricted notion of democracy as a mere method of representation, he is incorrect to see it emerging solely from the idea of negative liberty. He has more of a case with his description of 'neo-liberal' economics, but that too, as an operational ideology, has a number of other sources, not least the rationalisation of self-interest. I feel that a move away from a discussion of liberty towards one of democracy as a form of liberation would have been enormously helpful. Democracy acts as liberation only as an extensive concept.

An extensive form of democracy does not limit itself to simply an arrangement of political institutions; it has to be both a social and economic concept as well. A democratic society is permeated by enlightenment values, social equality and the full acceptance of universal human rights. In economic terms, it requires, for me, both individual independence and property rights, but these are meaningless without collective action to ensure unconditional economic security for all .

Such a concept has carried many names in the past and has spawned a number of variants. One of these was Democratic Socialism; now what has happened to that these days?

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