Is the British Left Defunct?

My recent post, I Never Left The Left, The Left Left Me has had a lot more hits and generated more discussion than I’d expected. John Brissenden left a thoughtful, fairly lengthy comment that I wrote a very lengthy response to; I thought it would be useful to share John’s and my reply as a new post, and invite further comments. This subject (the loss of civil libertarianism on the left) has been on my mind for a long time, and I wrote the original post to begin the process of defining what I think the left should become (or alternatively, what should replace the left). Myself and John appear to agree on many/most things – this is written in the spirit of friendly debate… so if you feel like commenting please keep it friendly!

John’s comment:

Moronwatch, I write this as a fan, so you know, more in sorrow than in anger and all that, but I’m struggling to see anything here beyond the anguish of someone on the hyphenated Left.

The gist of your post seems, from the title onwards, to be hankering after some non-existent Golden Age of the Left, and therefore inherently conservative. Anyone on the Left (a usage I personally hate, incidentally: can’t we just call ourselves socialists?) must, by definition, want to see a fundamental shift in existing relations of power. Yet, in your criticisms, as I read them, of positive discrimination and of “political correctness” – and I assume you’re familiar with Richard Herring’s take on all of that – you seem to be arguing for the maintenance of those existing power relations which suit you.

I don’t know your ethnicity, but I’m guessing from your comments that, like me, you are a white male.

The freedom of speech which you claim is under attack from the left is a privilege. And it is a privilege which you would not enjoy to the same extent were you a woman, or for that matter, a person of colour. I remember an occasion when you and I, trapped within patriarchy as we are, went to defend a woman on Twitter who had been attacked as being “fat” by some corpulent Moron. So I know you know what I’m talking about, and I further assume that you are aware of the horrific abuse that women who express opinions no more controversial than yours or mine face when they express those opinions online. You will also be familiar with the fact that people who happen to possess a vagina are subjected daily to ridicule, abuse, unwanted and often disgusting sexual advances, quote apart from more severe forms of abuse and discrimination.

So the freedom to make jokes about rape has to be considered in that context. And, as far as I am aware, no one prevented Richard Herring or anyone else from making such jokes. The simple fact is that they’ve had their freedom of speech. And others have the same freedom to call them out on it, as long as the power relations I have described persist.

Now, if you were to say that there is a tension between a class analysis and what has become known as identity politics, I’d agree with you. As Tom Waits says, human beings are just monkeys with guns and money. We’re all just trying to work our way through this mess. But that is not the same as saying that those who are working, through their daily lives, to confront and change a bewilderingly-complex system of inequitable power relations have suddenly “left” you. As long as those power relations persist, you and I don’t get to make that judgement unless we’ve decided that current power relations are just fine the way they are. And I don’t think you have decided that.

My response:

Hi John,

Thanks for the contribution.

I don’t think I’m remembering a Golden Age. The left I grew up in was frustrating and often even reactionary for a number of reasons. There were the so-called “Communists”, who were so right-wing that many of them joined the SDP when it broke away from Labour, leading to a big collapse in CP membership long before the Berlin Wall fell. There were the trade unionist Old Labourites, who were working class and for social equality, but often socially conservative. There were the pro-terrorism groups of the far left. And so on…

Yet, Labour and the broader left in general had two features that seem to be largely missing today: namely, a deep belief in civil liberties, and close contact with Britain’s urban, working and poor people. As I was getting tired of activism for various reasons (post-miners’ strike), smart suits and posh accents were suddenly becoming the standard Labour look. There was a very abrupt change in style, a decade before Blairism. If you want to look for a Labour era to be proud of, look to Roy Jenkins’ social reforms in the late-60s, dealing with the death penalty (abolished), abortion (legal), gambling (legal), homosexuality (legal), etc. – that, and the Attlee government reforms of the 1940s, are the two moment in recent history for the British left to be proud of.

I voted Labour till 2001. The Iraq War and secret support for rendition and torture, meant that many senior Labour figures were/are war criminals or guilty of crimes against humanity. Not just Blair, but Brown, Straw, David Miliband, Reid… many of these people’s supporters are still at the top of the party. Is the harbouring of people who may be guilty of such crimes not enough to convince you that Labour is a dead force for progressivism? The only senior Labourites to resign were Robin Cook and (belatedly) Clare Perry. There have been a number of “last straws” for me: the Iraq War; the introduction of detention without trial and the attempt to extend it to 42 days; support for the human rights abuses known as the war on terror; continuation of immensely draconian drug policies; turning a blind eye to a rise in police brutality and their impunity; ASBOs; increase in prison population; the draconian “extreme porn” possession law; the failure to invest in what working people need most: housing and transport… the list could go on for a long time.

When the Tories came to power, Ken Clarke, to his great credit, tried to deal with the failed policy of locking people up in prison. When a Tory Home Secretary is more progressive than any of his Labour predecessors, hasn’t Labour died as a progressive force?

The conservatism extends to the grassroots. In my first podcast I spoke to well-paid, intelligent, trade unionised, working-class women whose jobs are under attack by Labourites (and also Greens), because they take their clothes off for a living. Some on the left are trying to push prostitution underground, from its current, semi-legal status. The moral agenda once pushed by the Tory blue-hair brigade is now mainstream left-wing orthodoxy. Bare flesh is a menace to society! Does that sound progressive to you? The tragic thing is, that the sexual revolutions that have happened since the 1960s have made Britain a safer place for women than ever before. The “objectification” brigade, far from protecting women, are trying to turn the clock back, putting sexuality back in its secret box (where abuse can take place, unseen by the outside world). The new morality agenda of the left is nothing to do with protecting women from abuse, and everything to do with middle-class people intellectualising their bigoted dislike of working class women who use their bodies to earn money.

A genuinely progressive government today would examine the following issues: Decriminalising drug possession; Regulating drug supplies; Legalising and regulating prostitution fully; Replace the IPCC with a genuinely independent body to hold the police to account; Roll back detention without trial; Roll back ASBOs; reduce prison populations; invest in housing and transport…

As for political correctness: yes, I’m a white (Jewish) male. However, as I’ve blogged previously, I’ve spent much of the past few decades as a minority among black communities. I can attest that there’s a racist minority in sections of Britain’s black communities; unfortunately, today’s left is made up of white, middle-class people who have no direct experience of urban life (beyond Notting Hill or Hoxton, anyway). Not only are they blissfully unaware that racism cuts both ways, but they even excuse black racism as somehow “our fault”. It doesn’t seem to dawn on many of the Oxbridge PC-left, who have little experience of black British society, that black people can be every bit as conservative or bigoted as anyone else. I’ve witnessed black-British racism (usually of the casual type) against West Africans, whites, mixed-race people, Asians and Somalis. The white, middle class left is either unaware of these issues, or afraid to comment; it is left to brave outspoken commentators like Darcus Howe to respond.

I tend not to use the word Socialist much, because in the 150 years or so of Socialism, the word has been appropriated by a huge diversity of people and movements, many of them authoritarian. Since (I believe) liberty has become detached from socialism, I prefer the term Social Libertarian, to demonstrate that the two sides are inseparable. Authoritarianism is THE great danger of the present day, and to me, authoritarians are the enemy of progress, regardless of whether they call themselves socialists or conservatives.

My grandfather’s generation of poor, 1930s East End Jews, saw similar when fascism arose in the East End. None of the main parties (including Labour) took the fascist threat seriously, and many Jews turned to the Communist Party as the only anti-fascist force. Now again today, fascism and police brutality are on the rise, and no mainstream political force seems to understand what’s going on – indeed, they are pandering to the anti-immigration sentiment. I have sympathy for many of the young people who find the BNP or EDL attractive – the far-right, unlike today’s left, knows how to speak the language of today’s urban youth.

It’s time for the rise of a new progressive movement with balls – and I don’t care if that sounds sexist. 😉

I Never Left The Left. The Left Left Me

Clenched fist
Power to the… white, middle-class puritans!

Richard Herring is a favourite comedian of mine. He enjoys causing controversy (as, in my opinion, all good comedians should), and is funny with it. He recently caused a stir on Twitter by writing the following in his regular Metro column:

At one gig, a  woman was loudly  and unamusingly commentating on everything that happened. I said to her: ‘You’re a bit talkative, aren’t you? You’re loquacious. It’s annoying. You’re the one woman in the world where a man would put Rohypnol in your drink and then leave you in the pub.’

Funny? I’d say so, as heckle put-downs go. The people it offended were not my usual targets; they were some of the better known (along with many less well known) voices of the British left. Not only was the joke attacked, but the very right to refer to rape within comedy itself was questioned. I joined in the discussion, defending Herring’s right to free speech (the quality of the joke itself is down to personal taste). To me, there’s only one question that may affect his right to joke about rape: did his comment, in any way, put women in more danger of being sexually assaulted? I would say not.

The tendency for the left to attack free speech in this way has grown hugely since my flirtations with left-wing activism in the 1980s. How did it become so humourless, censorious and (from the perspective of someone who used to feel at home on the left) downright embarrassing?

It’s pretty normal, in my Twitter encounters, for right-wingers to label me a commie or some other meaningless “leftie”-type label. It’s certainly true, as should be clear to regular readers, that my political roots are on the left, and in many ways my views still remain there. MoronWatch arrived on Twitter expecting to find a wealth of deeply stupid right-wingers, and I haven’t been disappointed in that. In my observation, the IQ of the right is undoubtedly below that of the left – and research backs that up. But on some occasions when I tangle with left-wingers, I’m left surprised and disappointed with the lack of thoughtfulness and intelligence that I’d once have associated with them.

The left began from a powerful intellectual base: the progressive philosophers and activists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The progressives analyzed and understood Capitalism better than its defenders did – after all, if you benefit from the status quo, there’s no need to understand the system’s strength or its flaws; you defend it without requiring intellect. Furthermore, and (I think) even more importantly, the left developed the modern foundation of individual liberty that underlies so much political thinking today.

Yes, you read correctly: the early left was the standard-bearer for political and individual freedoms. This will confuse many morons-of-the-right, because that’s not the story they’ve been told. The Cold War entailed the telling of a simple story by the US propaganda machine: The Free World vs. The Evil Communists. The loss of the Russian Revolution to Stalinism added weight to the claims that capitalism=freedom and communism=repression. But it wasn’t nearly that simple, then or ever. The first person to call himself a Libertarian wasn’t some tax-hating rich guy, but a 19th century French Anarchist Communist called Joseph Déjacque. The Russian Revolution, destroyed in practise by Stalin and then in memory by Cold War American propaganda was an explosion of freedom in one of the world’s most authoritarian countries. Among many other acts, the revolution legalised homosexuality, with leaders declaring “homosexual relationships and heterosexual relationships are treated exactly the same by the law” – decades before the “Land of the Free” got around to doing the same thing. And even during the Cold War, while the US could boast of better freedom of speech at home than in the Soviet Union (although the differences were exaggerated), it was simultaneously responsible for a massive, global attack on democracy and free speech (one strand of which came back to haunt the US on September 11 2001).

By the post-war period, the left had split into three broad sections: the social democratic, moderate strand that had gained power in western Europe, the authoritarianism of the Soviet Union and its communist supporters, and a libertarian strand led by the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky. Perhaps the Trotskyists were ready to build a global, libertarian left, but Trotsky was murdered in 1940 by an agent of Stalin, and his fledgling movement fragmented into multiple, feuding splinter groups, brilliantly satirised in The Life of Brian. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the remnants of Communist parties worldwide. The formerly social democratic parties embraced “the market” (in other words, the rights of corporations were enshrined above the rights of individuals) and simultaneously became more authoritarian.

What remained of the old left had become conservative, authoritarian, unintelligent and dogmatic and, as I mentioned above, downright embarrassing. In place of free debate, political correctness now rules various subjects unacceptable for discussion, and you can expect lefties to shout you down if you try to talk about (or joke about) Forbidden Subjects. The British left has lost its working-class roots; its commentators are primarily middle-class professionals with no links to urban youth. It’s of no surprise then that the left had no more idea than the right as to why young people rioted last year.

To make up for the lack of non-white faces, the left has spent the past three decades fast-tracking black people into key roles; the result has been that some of the leading black political figures of the left have been incompetent and often self-serving. Their appointment makes the left look more mixed, but leaves it as far removed from racial minorities as ever. The left’s painfully PC views on race have suppressed, rather than enhanced discussion on so many important issues.

Examples of the moronic left-wing attitudes and ideas I frequently encounter include:

  • Karl Marx is no longer a progressive thinker of his day, but a deity whose every word is sacred. In a recent debate about sex-worker rights, I was told that Marx didn’t support them. So therefore it’s not left-wing to support them (what could be more conservative than freezing your ideology in the mid-19th century?)
  • The market is always evil (neatly mirroring the right-wing morons who think the market is always right).
  • Every problem in black communities is caused by racism or is a legacy of the slave trade or colonialism (this pleases afrocentric thinkers, but does nothing to understand or fix real-life problems).
  • Only white people can be racist, because if non-whites people are racist, it’s not their fault – we made them do it by being evil to them. Note the colonial attitude here: apparently black and Asian people are simple creatures who learned everything from us.
  • While women can (of course) hold opinions on everything, female issues are the preserve of female discussion only (I was recently told by an apparently liberal person that I couldn’t judge whether a woman was a feminist or not – presumably because I’m male, although the person refused to clarify).

The left no longer values science as it once did – indeed, its loudest spokespeople appear to overwhelmingly consist of non-science graduates. The irrational hatred of genetically-modified organisms (because they are made by evil corporations) is one example. Never mind that GMOs have the potential to lift millions of people out of starvation; the fact that they were created for profit makes them evil. The PC-left castigates modern society for its environmental destruction and wars, but often idolises primitive “tribal” societies as being “wiser custodians of the planet”. In reality, many primitive societies destroyed their own environments (and sometimes themselves); and violence is probably lower today than at any point in human history. Idolising an imaginary golden past is the definition of conservative, not progressive; today’s left is often deeply conservative.

While attacks on sexual freedom used to come from the right, now they largely come from the left, using the intellectually-vacant excuse of “objectification” – effectively meaningless, but giving so-called liberals a cover to attack the baring of flesh, just as right-wing religious types used to do.

Although I have some nostalgia for the old left, it seems best to put it out of its misery now. Authoritarianism is on the rise, and I see no more sign that the left is deeply opposed to this than I do on the right. A new Social Libertarianism is needed, resting on twin pillars: social justice and individual freedom. Social justice isn’t just a “nice to have”, and neither is liberty; I’m convinced that neither can possibly exist without the other, and that both are vital to prevent a coming economic and social collapse resulting from today’s corporatocracy. The dangers to our freedom today come from an intertwined dual menace: corporations and the militarised state. Like fairness and freedom, corporate profiteering and the police state go hand in hand. The enemies of freedom were once largely found on the right; now they exist across the entire political spectrum. The new political battle-lines are drawn; those who attack a man’s right to involve controversial subjects in humour are the enemies of free speech, however “progressive” or “liberal” they may appear on the surface.