Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Fall-Out

I have finally had the chance to read Andrew Anthony's The Fall-Out. It is the subject of a long and very generous review in Democratiya by Simon Cottee, which provides a fair summary of its contents. However, Cottee tries to place the book in a genre that he calls "left apostasy", coupled with an odd categorisation of other writers, notably Christopher Hitchens. I think that this is mistaken. Anthony's book covers little new ground that has not been explored in more detail by others, such as Nick Cohen and Paul Berman, but, like them, it is no act of apostasy. Instead it is written from the heart of a left commitment and is an angry denunciation of the apostasy of others. His analysis comes from a realisation that part of the left 'script', learnt by every new recruit, was simplistic - and sometimes actually wrong - and that, critically, the events around 9/11 combined with unthinking left assumptions to produce the ultimate betrayal; a vociferous support for fascism and totalitarianism.

Anthony's book is about a personal journey and does not have a wide analytical compass. It is lucid and gripping and, at times, I cringed at the remembrance of some of the awful positions that I took in the past. Rather than try and describe the contents I would like to pick up on three aspects that concerned me.

The first is that Anthony suggests that the cause of the alignment with Islamism is liberal guilt. This is the theme running through his book and I think that it is wrong. Guilt is an interesting emotion. It comes straight from our conscience. It can be misused as an instrument of control by those powerful enough to make us feel guilty about innocent acts (Catholic upbringing anyone?). Most of all, though it can generate a peevish defensiveness, it is intensely introspective and brings contrition and anxiety. Is this a description of the Galloways of this world? Is it heck! The emotion we are really talking about is self-righteousness.

Self-righteousness is at the heart of the struggle within the left between moral Puritanism, often the preserve of the 'respectable' social reformer, and the hedonism of the social libertarian. And Anthony isn't above a bit of it himself. The only time he uses a personal epithet is in his demolition of the unpleasant Michael Moore and guess what it is? Yep; "fat"! More importantly, self-righteousness is a part of the creation of a self-identity that 'fights' for something worthy, often with 'courage', and usually against the powers that be (especially ones that are less likely to fight back – Anthony also rightly emphasises the motivation of cowardice). The self-righteous have a big problem with admitting error and grasping that the world they 'struggle' against may not be as bad as the horrific nightmare that inhabits the minds of those who turn to arbitrary mass murder for political ends.

Secondly, Anthony describes himself as having become a 'liberal'. In this book he gives us a truncated view of liberalism. Liberalism consists of three facets; indivisible rights and liberties, forms of democratic governance and a liberal political economy. One of the intriguing aspects of much recent writing about the 'liberal left' is that it strongly reasserts liberal rights and the defence of existing democracies, however flawed. It has less to say on political economy and the sharp inequalities that are NOT the 'root causes' of terrorism, but ARE of hunger, misery, environmental collapse and human despair. It is a telling omission.

And this brings me to my third point. Anthony describes Marxism as inevitably totalitarian. Now I do not describe myself as a Marxist, but people I respect, and who are considerably better read in Marx than I am, do so and, as a result, I am uneasy at such a glib dismissal. This also chimes with the one line (apart from his backhanded compliment to Anarchism – but then not many people understand Anarchism) in Nick Cohen's What's Left that troubled me, his statement that socialism is dead. Instead, what this whole debate seems to me to be about is a reappraisal and re-invention of socialism.

This really moves us on from Anthony's book but it is worth consideration here. The most vital debates are not happening in the Universities, and certainly not in the comments pages of the Guardian, but in the modern mirror of the pamphlets and independent newspapers of the first wave of 19th Century socialism; the blogosphere.

There are plenty of blogs that reflect the orthodox left lunacy and ones that use seductively more 'reasonable' language to reach similar conclusions. However, there are two other broad categories of sites that can be found. Firstly, there are those that are firmly anti-totalitarian but have little or no critique of domestic politics. They have made their peace with the establishment and the legacy of Thatcherism. However dramatic their declarations of human rights, they are Tom Paines abroad but Edmund Burkes at home. Whilst the finely tuned English ear is quick to pick up the contented cadences of the privilege of class.

As for the other, it is a, sometimes fractious, cacophony. There are humanist Marxists, left libertarians, social democrats, Old Labour diehards, those who would combine Marx with Mill, querulous liberals, and others who place human emancipation at the centre of an ecological understanding of the diversity of the natural world. It is where I feel most at home and where the more interesting, and idiosyncratic, writing is taking place.

What will emerge is unclear, but socialism, in the broadest sense of the term as an emancipatory, egalitarian social movement, is alive, well and thinking. Come and join in.


Terry Glavin said...

Damn good review. Good overview of the milieu, as well. Should be up at Trots.

Anonymous said...


Blogs are shit tho but. Blogs are fucking crap. Blogs allow fuckwits to spout garbage - excepting what i deem to be not crap of course.

Gramsci has something to say on this -- I will look it up and if i find it i will post it.


Francis Sedgemore said...

Gramsci has something to say about blogs, did he? This gives new meaning to the term Marxist medium.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review. Still a bit ambivalent about the 'blogosphere' though it certainly would have appealed strongly to, say, Kropotkin.

Shuggy said...

Firstly, there are those that are firmly anti-totalitarian but have little or no critique of domestic politics. They have made their peace with the establishment and the legacy of Thatcherism. However dramatic their declarations of human rights, they are Tom Paines abroad but Edmund Burkes at home.

Excellent, excellent - patent this or I'm going to steal it.

Anonymous said...

A fine review of what appears to be an important book. However, I am not so sure you are correct in dismissing liberal guilt as the key to the astounding compromises that have split the left. How that guilt is expressed is of course, varied. We live in an age of 'learned and rehearsed' experience, where some find justification for action in events which both pre-date their own lives and importantly, lived reality. This is especially true of say, Nationalist politics. The substitution of an unexperienced grievance is for many a life style choice. "We are all Hizbollah now."

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