Thursday, January 12, 2006


In the last few weeks I have been undergoing something of a minor political realignment. I don't really want to go into the reasons why in any detail - or at least not yet. Those who've read this blog for a while, no doubt, will not find this process of realignment or the whereabouts of my political destination much of a surprise. I've always been a cautious hedger of bets. I'm instinctively a left wing social democrat. In a nutshell, I'm unhappy with certain aspects of Marxism* as a theoretical tool and, in particular, highly uneasy with the revolutionary political practice to which it leads. Sorry, but there you go. I never considered myself to be a revolutionary, so perhaps the alteration here would not appear to be such a great one to any observer, but my (epiphanaic) final realisation that I am constitutionally, by nature, in my bones, a (left) reformist (that most despicable of all creatures*) has had quite a powerful impact on me which it's quite hard to convey here. In fact it's been quite a scary, and in many ways rather painful, experience. This must all seem very self-indulgent, for which I apologise to the brave reader, who manages to get this far.

Like I say, I may go into this in more detail at some later stage, but I think that the basis of my change of mind lies in a recent conscious admitting of something that has been gnawing away at the back of my mind for the past 2 or 3 years. It is simply that the basis of my leftist political instincts are ethical and (gasp) moral ones. Underneath it all I'm an 'ethical socialist'*** - a state of being which is not in the end, I think, compatible with Marxism taken as a whole****. I must stress that 'ethical socialist' ( I do not like the term by the way) is not to be taken as a term synonymous with that despicable body of neo-con hugging B52 liberals known as 'the decent left'.

I will leave it to others to judge whether I am simply being honest with myself here, or whether this is self-serving cowardice on my part - laying the foundations for a career on the academic centre left. I'm mugging up on my 'cosmopolitan deliberative democracy' theory right now - ho ho-only joking - I still have my pride you know. I still consider myself a socialist and, I hope, would still be considered a loony left wing extremist by the average reader of the Daily Mail.

That's enough navel gazing, I think, for the time being. Now I must insult liberals.

I made the mistake of informing a good friend of mine about my inner doubts and movement away from the revolutionary left a few days ago. Within the space of a few hours I found that the rumour of my 'political conversion' (an exaggeration) had spread right across the rather insular world of the university politics department. I have been approached by no small number of liberals over the last couple of days, all evidently keen to share with me their gleeful 'told you so' wisdom. They cannot keep the grins from their faces. This is all highly, highly annoying.

I can assure you, however, that I am not a liberal. Liberals always seem to be utterly convinced of the naturalness of the status quo. They tend not to analyse the historical, material emergence of liberalism (they're fine on the supposed evolution of the ideas which is treated in most cases as an autonomous development unrelated to the material world - but not on the specific social/economic context of its development). Partially as a result of these inadequacies they tend to be utterly blind to the systematic deficiencies and injustices of liberal democratic countries (particularly their own) and to the systematic exploitation and terror on which liberal capitalism as an actual political/economic practice actually rests. Furthermore they tend to be deplorably ignorant of the socialist ways of thinking which they are so quick to dismiss.

When talking to a liberals you are likely to encounter an absurd straw man model of Marxist political economy. A deeply unfeasible dichotomy between Marxists and 'democratic socialists' is also drawn regularly. The term 'democratic socialist' has the effect, of course, of defining anyone who falls outside its categorial boundary (usually anyone who is not in the Labour Party) as a sinister, enemy of democracy by implication. The meaning or content of the term 'democracy' or 'democratic', of course, is simply assumed.

For liberals, the idea that liberal democratic states have and are torturing and killing people on a massive scale (either directly or by proxy) is absurd. Or, if a minority of cases are admitted, special circumstances are pleaded, or the 'few bad apples' excuse is invoked. The idea that the West has anything very much to do with Third World suffering is hardly considered. At most it is said that the West does not give enough aid - that is, that it is not generous enough. That, there is some direct relationship between our present wealth and their poverty cannot be admitted. The idea that our present day world standing and standards of living rests on centuries of blood and filth cannot be countenanced. I referred to Mike Davis' Late Victorian Holocausts in one of the first posts on this blog - and I should like to refer to it again. This book should really be required reading for every liberal.

George Monbiot recently produced an outstanding article on 'Britain's Holocausts' (picked up via Snowball). Monbiot outlines some of the shocking details of just one of liberal democratic Britain's atrocities:

Three recent books – Britain’s Gulag by Caroline Elkins, Histories of the Hanged by David Anderson and Web of Deceit by Mark Curtis – show how white settlers and British troops suppressed the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya in the 1950s. Thrown off their best land and deprived of political rights, the Kikuyu started to organise – some of them violently – against colonial rule. The British responded by driving up to 320,000 of them into concentration camps(3). Most of the remainder – over a million – were held in “enclosed villages”. Prisoners were questioned with the help of “slicing off ears, boring holes in eardrums, flogging until death, pouring paraffin over suspects who were then set alight, and burning eardrums with lit cigarettes.”(4) British soldiers used a “metal castrating instrument” to cut off testicles and fingers. “By the time I cut his balls off,” one settler boasted, “he had no ears, and his eyeball, the right one, I think, was hanging out of its socket”(5). The soldiers were told they could shoot anyone they liked “provided they were black”(6). Elkins’s evidence suggests that over 100,000 Kikuyu were either killed by the British or died of disease and starvation in the camps. David Anderson documents the hanging of 1090 suspected rebels: far more than the French executed in Algeria(7). Thousands more were summarily executed by soldiers, who claimed they had “failed to halt” when challenged.

He goes on to say that:

There is one, rightly sacred Holocaust in European history. All the others can be ignored, denied or belittled. As Mark Curtis points out, the dominant system of thought in Britain “promotes one key concept that underpins everything else – the idea of Britain’s basic benevolence. ... Criticism of foreign policies is certainly possible, and normal, but within narrow limits which show “exceptions” to, or “mistakes” in, promoting the rule of basic benevolence.”(13) This idea, I fear, is the true “sense of British cultural identity” ... No judge or censor is required to enforce it.

If there's one thing I ain't, or don't want to be, it's a liberal.

Incidentally, there's a very good article by Blackburn in NLR entitled 'Imperial Margarine', which I highly recommend in which the writer lays into Niall Ferguson's odious lauding of the British Empire.

* Insert ready-made jargon-insult here.
** I stress certain aspects - I still think that the Marxist theory of history, in particular, is the most convincing of all.
*** Insert another ready-made jargon-insult here.
*** Hard to explain - but there are aspects of Marxist thought/theory - economics, history in particular - that I do not reject. Whether or not Marxism is a mode of thought/analysis which can be broken down and cherry-picked as it were is debateable.

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