Tuesday, May 09, 2006

normblog: Platform seven revises part of the Euston Manifesto :

[Martin Bright is] right: right about what the Eustonians think a left consensus should have 'concentrated' on once the Saddam regime was gone; and also right - unfortunately - that we've given the impression in the manifesto as written that arguments about 'the whys and wherefores of the war' ought to have stopped. We have done, but by a mis-statement of a point meant to be about priorities as if it were about mutually exclusive alternatives. It has not in fact been the position of those blogs which took the initiative leading to the Euston Manifesto that discussion of the origins of the war, or the planning for its aftermath, was somehow out of bounds. ...

The manifesto needs to be amended on this point.

I'd point out though that one of the continuing problems with Eustonian position seems to be that despite this acknowledgement that the question of deceit and malice in the run-up to the war is important, it seems like it's taken to be entirely disconnected from the question of what should happen next : today, tomorrow and in the future. For Norm and co. the liberal-left should still get behind the US-led reconstruction effort because ... well because to the Eustonians it's inconceivable that say anything else, like an Iraqi-led, or Iranian-led reconstruction effort could be better for the Iraqi people. It's axiomatic to them that the US / UK presence doesn't fuel the emerging bazaar of violence and civil war. Axiomatic that political decisions made in Washington aren't still making things worse in Iraq. I don't see we have any guarantees of this.

I stick by my claim that the real problem we face is the global guerrillas analysis. That the nation-state is losing the power and legitimacy to control violence, and instead new networks are spawning, often based on identity groups with a gang mentality. It's interesting to see one of the Eustonian ringleaders, Nick Cohen talking about the recent success of the British National Party in the UK.

I think he makes an excellent point drawing parallels between the white tribal identity of the BNP, the muslim tribal identity of Respect, Irish tribal identity of Sinn Fein and Sicilian tribal identity of the Mafia.

But then his analytic resource runs out of steam. He has no explanation or further ability to understand the rise of these tribes and simply rails against those "lost in identity politics and victimhood" and resorts to name-calling Sinn Fein supporters "doltish".

A robust liberal / left / progressive revival can't come without also being "radical" ie. being willing to drill down and "understand" rather than merely condemn the rise of tribal identity-politics. Eustonian muscular posing and insults are not going to bring it about. It's too easy, as generations of educated, white, middle-class, male progressives have discovered throughout history, to ultimately decide that the best hope of defending the decent moderate progressive values they hold, is an alliance with the tribe of other educated, white, middle-class males. By which time, you're a neocon.


darius said...

"It's too easy, as generations of educated, white, middle-class, male progressives have discovered throughout history, to ultimately decide that the best hope of defending the decent moderate progressive values they hold, is an alliance with the tribe of other educated, white, middle-class males. By which time, you're a neocon."

I think that sums them up Phil. What in the past differentiated Marxist intellectuals from other sections of the chattering classes was their avowal of class politics - they at least had to be seen to be connected to the cause of the oppressed and exploited. Now they've lost the idea of class they're indistinguishable. And no pretence of talking to anyone outside their own circles. Just dismiss the working classes of Barking or Belfast (or Cairo, Karachi, Caracas) as dumb misguided idiots - no need to look at their motivations let alone actually talk to them.

I thought that article Hilan sent round about the world of slums was much more interesting than this Euston stuff. Leftists have retreated to their comfort zone, but there are other more active intellectual movements engaging with the dispossessed. Mainly scary religious fundamentalist ones. If the left has nothing to challenge them it's disappeared up its own arsehole. Or, more simply, they've just switched sides.

phil jones said...

Agree with the point about world of slums and rest of paragraph (wonder if I can find it online to link to). But I think the Euston Manifesto is interesting for various sociological reasons and for drawing attention to the current evolutions of the left.

I started to agree with your distinction between Marxist intellectuals and others, but then I thought that probably Eustonians could say that they are committed to the cause of the oppressed and exploited. It's just that the oppressed and the exploited with the most urgent need at the moment are the benighted subjects of tyrants and member-victims of the new tribalisms.

It's not lack of empathy that distinguishes Eustonians (or the pro-war left, or Tony Blair and New Labour etc.)

I'm even wary of the claim that they don't talk to people on the ground. I bet Nick Cohen has talked with more member-victims of tribalized communities in the UK than I have. So it's not lack of evidence either.

It's lack of theory that I see as the issue. Or rather a lack of commitment to there being a theory as opposed to merely a surface.

This is what sets, for example, radical intellectuals apart from the other do-gooders : a refusal to take the given categories. The radical shouldn't subscribe to a melodrama of popular stereotypes : the idle undeserving drunkard, the poor deserving widow, the perfidious Frenchman and the violent islamist savage etc.

The radical theorist looks for the system underneath. The dramatic structure that links them all together.

I think this gives us another clue about what's going on. And this is where, ironically, I think the Eustonians are most importantly right about something.

These are leftists (ex of organizations seen as more extreme than labour) who are moving to the right. And they, at one point, presumably subscribed to the theory of the left. But then it let them down. They began to find counter-examples or inconsistencies. They saw people in denial. After a while, they lost the theory, and simply got by on empathy.

But as time passes, without theory to question the categories, empathy becomes more and more focused and directed by the mainstream ideology.

Where the Eustonians are right is in highlighting the importance of intellectual openness and flexibility. This is what we need to prevent the rightward movement.

Of course the Marxist theory is "wrong".

But leftist theory should not be dogma but a dynamic tradition, continuously correcting itself as more is discovered about how the world works.

In practice, too many on the left take their theory uncritically when young, and then abandon it altogether as they get older. The Eustonians are like those who were fanatical Copernicans in their youth, but on discovering that orbits are not circular, revert to an Earth centred model of the universe. On discovering that the ills of the world are not due to exactly the kinds of capitalist oppression you thought in your youth, you can choose to revert to a model that people must be "bad" or "doltish"; or you can choose to look at what other shapes the orbits might take.

What distinguishes the Eustonians (even the anti-war ones) is that they've gone in the first direction, jettisoned theory and kept empathy in the service of the popular melodrama. Tyrants and terrorists are "bad". Attempts to "understand" any causes beyond this are also "bad". America is good and noble and we should keep faith with it, regardless of past evidence. (Because moral comparisons between the US and the bad people are odious, right :-) The deserving poor deserve a fair deal. Women are to be treated "as" (if?) equals, but the concept of "woman" is not to be investigated as a construct. Etc. Etc.

darius said...

Not my usual practice to stand up for Marxist intellectuals, but I want to defend my point about class. Simplistically, traditional Marxists were at least committed to the idea that the exploited would be the agents of their own emancipation. So intellectuals who supported progress had to engage in dialogue and work with the working class. (Okay, didn't amount to much in practice, but at least something of the idea was there.)

If you're right and the benighted subjects of tyranny can play the role of the exploited workers for the Eustonists, who's going to save them from tyranny? I guess other 'educated white middle class guys', with bombs. The only agents of change, and so the only people worth talking to (I mean engaging, arguing with, trying to influence and convince of your ideas, etc.) are those in their own circle. A closed system. Outside it the exploited and oppressed themselves have become completely objectified - if not tyrannised victims, they're dolts.

phil jones said...

Yes. I see what you're saying now.