Journey to the centre of the Decent mind

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As promised, I’m going to take this opportunity to delineate what I see as some major features of the Decent Left and its group psychology. This follows on from Justin’s excellent analysis – I especially want to expand on his points 4 and 5, pointing to Decency’s historic links with left sectarianism, which not only accounts for the zealotry of the “ex”, but also for their importation of some of the least attractive elements of far left discourse. What follows is in no particular order.

1. Decency can be defined as an attempt to establish in Britain an exact carbon copy of American neoconservatism, only without the specific context that gives the neocons what intellectual weight they have. Alternatively, it can be seen in terms of ageing former leftists who have moved sharply to the right, but have spent so many years denouncing conservatives that they can’t admit to having essentially become conservatives. Therefore they reach for the smelly comfort blanket of senile Shachtmanism.

2. Fundamental to Decency is the Whig version of history, according to which there is such a thing as “The West” (this might be defined broadly as the global North, or more narrowly as the United States plus Airstrip One). “The West” is held to represent progress in a historical-teleological sense. It may not be exactly an ideal society, but it’s the nearest thing the world has to one. The rest of the world (“Ruritania”, in Fukuyama’s terms) is struggling to achieve this ideal. Decency goes beyond this in arguing that countries which don’t seem to be struggling towards the Western ideal should be bombed into following the correct path. The Decents also like to see themselves as the most enlightened people in this most enlightened society, as the only true representatives of modernity and progress (viz Marko’s Egg of Truth). Remember that the next time they hold forth about Leninist vanguardism.

3. The Decents are a foreign-policy tendency. While they may individually hold plenty of views on domestic policy, as a group they are remarkably uninterested in matters domestic except as a weapon against those (the Muslims, the Trots, Ken Livingstone) who have incurred their wrath on foreign-policy grounds. So, even if you don’t personally care much about gay rights, it can be a useful stick to beat the Muslims with. (The SWP have also discovered this of late.) Despite their claims to leftism, they are uninterested in the class struggle except as it impinges on Iranian bus drivers. And they are obviously uninterested in challenging the structures of power, as they keep lobbying those structures to invade foreign countries.

4. As Justin points out, the Decents retain some unlovely rhetorical habits (and modes of thought) from the far left, and these are worth looking at in some detail. They of course specialise in over-the-top denunciations. They have a pronounced liking for Stalinist-style amalgam arguments and guilt by association. It’s worth remarking at this point on their affinity with the Alliance for Workers Liberty, the former political home of some of the most prominent Decents. As anyone who has been to an AWL weekend school can testify, the AWL contains many pleasant and intelligent people. However, their charm is slightly reduced by their habit of calling you an anti-Semite every ten minutes. The Decents recycle this, while throwing in terms like “pro-fascist” and “appeaser” for good measure.

5. One rhetorical trope worth identifying in particular is what I term “Chomsky in your head syndrome”, as although Noam isn’t the sole target by any means he’s the most prominent one. Sometimes this is rooted in dishonesty (I’m looking at you, Oliver), but very often it’s a result of cognitive dissonance. It seems to be taken as read that it’s fair to make up an outrageous position and impute it to Chomsky, even if Chomsky is on record as saying the exact opposite, on the general moral grounds that these outrageous positions are just the sort of thing a reprobate like Chomsky would say. Todd Gitlin has a rather nasty variation on this, which is to ascribe these positions to unnamed “Chomskyites” and thus associate them with Chomsky without the hassle of actually attributing them to Chomsky himself.

6. Justin makes the correct point that, by self-identifying as “the left”, the Decents are positioning themselves as the furthest leftward point of acceptable discourse. There is a parallel to this with their position on criticism of Israel. Prof Geras is often accused of hypocrisy because, while he allows in principle that criticism of Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitic, in practice he tends to assume (or at least insinuates) that it is. It’s not necessary to cast Norm as a hypocrite here. It’s probably more correct that he sees himself as being the dovish extreme, and it’s only criticism more strident than Norm himself would make that enters the realm of Singling Out.

7. The problem of agency Justin identifies is an important one. It’s worth noting that the Decents are not an activist tendency. Some have never been activists. Some haven’t been activists for thirty or forty years. Although they proclaim their allegiance to the Labour Party, which doesn’t require its members to be either leftwing or active, few are even members of Labour. We are talking here about pundits. This leads us to that fascinating grammatical construction, the Decent We. The Decent We is not the same as the Royal We. It’s more like the Football Manager’s I. When Alex Ferguson says “I’ll see if we’ve got that”, he really means “I’ll send a minion to see if we’ve got that”. Likewise, when a Decent says “We must invade Country X”, he really means “The state must invade Country X on my behalf”.

8. Like any good sect, the Decent Left has an apostolic succession, with St Orwell taking pride of place. It also has an elaborate demonology – although there are perpetual Big Demons (Noam Chomsky, George Galloway, er, Douglas Hurd), particular venom is often reserved for those who the Decents used to be in agreement with. Ask Johann Hari.

9. The particularly venomous nature of Decent discourse of course has a lot to do with the bad training many of them received on the far left. It’s also not unrelated to their basis in punditry – if you don’t intend to do anything (vide the Spartacist League), there’s an inbuilt tendency to rhetorical inflation. This also has something to do with the fact that the Decents are a closed milieu and much of their stuff is for internal consumption. Something else that follows from that is what military theorists call incestuous amplification. That’s a fancy way of saying that, as Jim Cannon used to put it, if you stick a small group of like-minded people in a room together they can talk themselves into just about anything.

10. If you’ve ever been in the Socialist Workers Party you will be aware that that outfit has positions on every subject under the sun. Think of the most esoteric subject and I guarantee that, if the party doesn’t already have a position, Renaissance Man Chris Harman can think one up over lunch. Likewise, the Decents, who are supposed to define themselves around Iraq and Afghanistan, have their own analogue of Harman, namely the Scoop Jackson Society, a collection of indentured nerds at Cambridge. The function of the Scoopies is to furnish Decency with ready-made party lines on far-flung corners of the globe like South Ossetia and the Kurile Islands. Why the Decent Left should actually need positions on South Ossetia and the Kurile Islands is beyond me. Likewise, they share with Trotsko-sectarian discourse a fondness for retrospectively taking positions on historical events.

11. The Decents sometimes describe themselves as liberals, but they have fundamental philosophical differences with liberalism. Real liberals are usually, philosophically speaking, Deweyite pragmatists. The Decent Left, on the other hand, share with most of the far left a sort of crazed positivism mixed with a strong streak of magical thinking. The positivism is more interesting in that, when the likes of the Dude or Wheen describe themselves as defenders of the Enlightenment, they aren’t wrong. This is a worldview informed basically by Descartes, Hobbes and Locke, or what Strauss would term first-wave modernity. It matters little that those guys got a philosophical hiding from Rousseau, or that Rousseau himself has long since been superseded.

12. This positivism accounts for Decency’s strident scientism (which does not necessarily imply any knowledge of science). It also helps to explain their preoccupation with French postmodernist thought. After all, postmodernism is simply the latest variant on the age-old problem of philosophical scepticism, and the one thing you should know from philosophical history is that fervent believers in a system tend to get very irate when confronted with scepticism. The delicious irony is that the Dude’s critique of religion is itself reliant on sceptical thought from 300 years ago, now elevated into “The Enlightenment”.

13. There is another important aspect to Decent thought as regards foreign policy. That is do-gooding. The most basic feature of the do-gooder is his disregard for the law of unintended consequences. Don’t get me wrong, they understand causality – that if you do A, then B happens – they just don’t consider the likelihood of C, D and E following, never mind Y.

Allow me to illustrate. You could plausibly argue that a US/UK invasion could knock over Saddam pretty easily. But that doesn’t mean you have to disregard the distinct possibility of Iraq descending into tribal-sectarian civil war. Or, to go back to 1999, it was never in any real doubt that the massed forces of NATO could knock over Serbia. A lot of people thought that, to that end, it would be a dandy idea to arm the KLA. Almost nobody – I believe Misha Glenny was an exception – raised the obvious point. Which was, “Well, that’s Macedonia fucked as a viable state.”

Of course, to the convinced Decent consequences, unintended or otherwise, are of little consequence. What matters is their purity of motives. And that’s why I always say that do-gooders in politics are a menace.

Rud eile: I am extremely gratified to see the hit counter climb above 200,000. A big thanks to all readers.

22 Comments

  1. Doug said,

    April 2, 2008 at 3:43 pm

    Why are you so obsessed with these irrelevant nonentities?

  2. Garibaldy said,

    April 2, 2008 at 7:51 pm

    Great piece. In fairness to the delightful Jackson society, I don’t think many of them would regard themselves as on the left, decent or otherwise.

  3. James said,

    April 2, 2008 at 9:02 pm

    Excellent post. It was the way Cohen et al reacted to Hari’s perfectly reasonable doubts that convinced me these people are fucking mad as bats.

  4. Lobby Ludd said,

    April 2, 2008 at 9:41 pm

    “As anyone who has been to an AWL weekend school can testify, the AWL contains many pleasant and intelligent people. However, their charm is slightly reduced by their habit of calling you an anti-Semite every ten minutes”

    Surely not, I thought it was just the errant ‘drunken uncle’ (no names, no pack-drill) who did that.

    You do begin to see the problem, don’t you?

  5. chekov said,

    April 2, 2008 at 9:53 pm

    An interesting question is why Ireland has no homegrown decents? Our ex-leftie right-wing pundits are much more comfortable with slipping on their right-wing dressing gowns, oh and descending rapidly into delusional states (Kevin, Eoghan & John, I’m talking about ye).

    There’s gotta be a gap in the media market here. A decent left winger taking on the straw man wing of the left would be a good passport to a position of prominent punditry.

    The only aspirant that I can think of is Dermot Lacey, but his version of the decent left act is too ham-fisted and obviously self-serving to be sufferable.

  6. charliemarks said,

    April 2, 2008 at 11:12 pm

    Yes, as doug asks – what’s the fascination? Is it merely anthropological?

  7. Mbari said,

    April 3, 2008 at 1:58 am

    Ireland has at least one Decent, Henry McDonald.

  8. splinteredsunrise said,

    April 3, 2008 at 9:21 am

    Well, it’s a bit anthropological. But it’s at least as much for the comedy value, the way we used to get entertainment out of the RCP or the Healyites.

  9. Guano said,

    April 3, 2008 at 9:39 am

    Very interesting and don’t worry about being obsessed with the Decents: I’m quite obsessed with them myself! They’re not irrelevant: a lot of their magical thinking has rubbed off on the Labour Party, they have newspaper columns, they get nominated for the Orwell prize. It’s well worth thinking about the rhetorical tricks that they use (eg the Enlightenment, post-modernism, their use of multiple meanings of the word “liberal”). Keep up the good work.

  10. Madam Miaow said,

    April 4, 2008 at 7:41 pm

    Another excellent post, Splinty. Definitely worthwhile – obsess away.

    Compare the effectiveness of the Tibet campaign with the STWC and over a million dead Iraqis and the possibility of a nuked Iran. What a waste. What a moribund bunch of deadhead fuckwits fiddling with their shibboleths while the world goes up in a puff of sulphur.

    Still, as long as Lindsey get her moment in the spotlight. “Lights, cameras, action. I’m ready for my close-up, Mr DeMille …”

  11. charliemarks said,

    April 4, 2008 at 10:55 pm

    I do love that film… and the idea of Lindsay being in it!

  12. Andy Newman said,

    April 4, 2008 at 11:33 pm

    Miaow

    But partially the effectiveness of the Free Tibet nonsense is because they are singing from the same hymnsheet as the Pentagon and the Whitehouse. What is interesting though is that so much of the left is prepared to sign up for any CIA/NATO campaign as long as the label “national self-determination” can be slapped on it.

    I have another – and this time more substantive – article on Tibet coming up soon.

  13. johng said,

    April 5, 2008 at 11:35 am

    Andy if you know of anyone on the left who has signed up to a CIA/NATO campaign, please let me know. I’d be interested.

  14. Neil said,

    April 5, 2008 at 3:54 pm

    Do you like Father Ted, Johng? Allow me to recommend the episode where Ted coach’s the over 75 5-a-side. There’s an excellent scene where Ted is forced to explain the use of things like metaphour to his key centre back Father Jim who gets over excited because he tends to take rhetorical flourishes literally.
    I think your posting style could really benifit from this.

  15. johng said,

    April 6, 2008 at 9:19 am

    Yes but rhetoric is important in politics. i’ve been having a not always ill-tempered debate with Andy on China, and was just a little surprised by this. There is in any case no imperialist campaign to join.

  16. Dr Paul said,

    April 6, 2008 at 11:39 am

    Re comment # 1. I think that it is very necessary to deal with Decency, as I think that Decency will become one of the most important ideological weapons of the Western ruling classes, and will be a key backer of any future imperialist war-drive.

    The biggest challenge to the USA’s hegemony is China. This challenge is still in a formative stage, but it is bound to grow. One sure thing about China is that it will not democratise to any real degree: it will continue to be a repressive state in many different ways. And its ruling élite will not make any bones about it either. Therefore, one of the key ideological mobilising factors in the USA’s competition — diplomatic, economic and ultimately military — with China will be the question of democracy, or the lack of it, within that country.

    Decency, which has given up on the struggle to change the world in a socialist direction, views The West as humanity’s highest achievement (albeit with a few rough bits that need tidying up). It posits liberal democracy as the highest possible form of political set-ups, and therefore will defend it against undemocratic states. This means that Decency will take an aggressive stance against any non-liberal-democratic forces that challenge the USA. Decency will be in the van of any Western campaign against China and its allies; Decency will be a key ideological weapon for the most aggressive sections of the Western ruling classes.

    Decency will continue to have two domestic enemies. Firstly, the socialist left, as we consider that socialist democracy is a higher form of democracy than that offered by liberalism, because we oppose imperialist wars, and because Decency thinks that we are putative totalitarians (on the basis that trying to replace bourgeois democracy will merely lead to totalitarianism). The other enemy is bourgeois realpolitik, personified by Douglas Hurd because of his attitude towards Belgrade during the Yugoslav collapse, as such people are accused of putting narrow commercial interests before the greater good of democracy, etc, etc. One can see here how Decency is following in the footsteps of Cold War Liberalism, with the difference that, in respect of its intolerant attitude towards Marxists, it takes on board features of McCarthyism as well.

    Whilst the Euston Manifesto is pretty much forgotten (and barely crawled up Camden Bank in any case), I don’t think that Decency is on the wane; it will continue to grow and to influence Western bourgeois opinion. Decency, rather than old-fashioned racist right-wing politics, will be the chief leitmotiv of aggressive Western foreign policy campaigns. An in-depth critique of Decency, and a strong politically independent campaign by the socialist left against it, are necessary.

  17. Mike said,

    April 8, 2008 at 10:05 pm

    What a disgraceful slur on the Amboy Dukes using them to illustrate your point concerning the indecent left. Have you no shame sirrah?

    Note well that Ted Nugent, formerly lead plank spanker of the Amboy Dukes, quite correctly supports the democratic right of all free people to keep and bear firearms.

  18. splinteredsunrise said,

    April 9, 2008 at 7:30 am

    And on this point I am as one with Ted.

  19. ejh said,

    April 9, 2008 at 9:54 pm

    pointing to Decency’s historic links with left sectarianism, which not only accounts for the zealotry of the “ex”, but also for their importation of some of the least attractive elements of far left discourse

    Of course many of the Decents are people who have changed their allegiances but not their habits – and whose relationship to their “ex” is essentially an obsessive one, whereby everything is viewed through the prism of the wickedness of the entity from which they claim to have freed themselves, although their obsession suggests a different story.

    But then again they’re not alone in that.

  20. tomgriffin said,

    April 9, 2008 at 11:07 pm

    I have written a new piece that might shed some light on the left origins of decency at Spinwatch:
    http://www.spinwatch.org/content/view/4809/8/
    I would particularly draw your attention to this 2002 piece from the New York Times:
    http://preview.tinyurl.com/26zow5

  21. ejh said,

    April 10, 2008 at 7:12 am

    An interesting question is why Ireland has no homegrown decents?

    It is an interesting question (let’s rephrase it so that it says “hardly any” instead of “none”) particularly given that some of the hallmarks of Decency are actually quite thick on the ground in Ireland. Notably:

    (a) a very strong attachment to “modernity”, as exemplified by “the West”, as a condition to which the world and history aspires ;

    (b) an aggressive attitude intellectually to those who do not agree with that proposition, particularly those who have any sympathy for socialist or revolutionary poilitics, and a strong tendency to discuss those people in terms of psychological motivations rather than politics ;

    (c) a background in the aforesaid politics or in factional battles against it. There’s surely plenty of this about.

    Perhaps the answer is that the central event in Decent thinking is the invasion of Iraq and that there was (unless I’m wrong) very little support for that invasion in Ireland, even among the sort of people who in Britain would probably have supported it. Which would change the question a little more. If there was much less support for the invasion – why?

  22. April 19, 2008 at 1:52 pm

    […] as I said recently, it’s just the normal positivist response of getting extremely irate when confronted with […]


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