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.