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Labour Party Philosophy Politics

Is Morality Relevant to Politics?

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  • Chris Clarke and Neal Lawson debate Labour Party ‘populist myths’ in the latest edition of Prospect magazine. These are based on ideas in Clarke’s book ‘The Dark Knight and the Puppet Master’ and include the ‘Dark Knight myth’ of morality in politics where the left are good and its opponents evil. Clarke also introduces a ‘Puppet-Master myth’ of powerful figures pulling the strings, and a ‘Golden Era myth’ of ‘original socialism’ being ‘polluted by neoliberalism’.

    The Puppet Master and Golden Era stories deserve their own critiques. Lawson himself picks on the latter in regard to the current Labour Party right’s view of the New Labour governments of 1997-2010. I’ve discussed some of these issues on this site. Here I want to focus on the question of whether particular political approaches can and/or should be described in moral terms, and whether there is indeed good and evil in politics.

    No Inherent Immorality?

    The essence of Clarke’s argument, with which Lawson suggests he agrees, is:

    …upper-class people, Conservative voters, private-sector workers or Americans—are not more selfish or spiteful that those it supports. Nor are the methods associated with the right—private ownership, for example—inherently immoral, even if they’re often wrong.

    Lawson’s response to this is in fact somewhat unclear, but he does also say:

    If we want a good society then the only way of getting there is by being good. and then much harder and more necessary is critiquing and replacing systems, so that they bring out the best in people.

    The first point I would make is that, in this era, moral language is largely performative. Unless we are clearly talking from a religious perspective in which a god or gods prescribe what is good and what is evil, then what is ‘good’ is generally what we strongly desire to be the case (whether in relation to ourselves or to society). On the other hand, what is ‘evil’ is that which we very strongly object to – even to the extent of fear or disgust.

    Politics is after all much more consequential than most spheres of human activity. For Clarke to be consistent, then, if he is going to jettison talk of good or evil here – then I think he is going to have to jettison all ‘moral’ discourse entirely from every aspect of our lives. This seems to be going too far in restricting our range of expression.

    Lawson is also inconsistent, because if the left are required to ‘be good’ to build a ‘good society’ then why not their opponents too? Are the right somehow allowed to build a ‘bad society’ without being immoral? Or are they somehow capable of building a good society by ‘being bad’, yet the left lack this capability? This is hopefully obviously absurd and contradictory.

    Bringing Out the Best in People?

    Human society is irretrievably complex. This reflects the complexity of human beings themselves, the complexity of our interactions with each other, and as the climate change crisis demonstrates so clearly, the complexity of our interactions with the material world. Inevitably this means that potential ways of handling our affairs are myriad, likely to be based on uncertain data, and hotly contested. Different sources of data, different interpretations of that data and different perceptions of our own and others’ interests can lead to profound disagreements. These should not attract the labels of ‘good’ or ‘evil’. They should not do so because this is unhelpful in resolving such disagreements. These disagreements can be tackled by sharing information sources, thinking processes and perspectives, and this is facilitated by finding as much common ground as possible in our humanity and desire for a ‘good society’. In this we can perhaps hope to critique and replace systems to ‘bring out the best in people’, as Lawson hopes.

    Unfortunately, both Clarke and Lawson display a certain naivety in that they seem by faith to take these sort of disagreements as the norm. Clarke tells us, in defence of certain groups the left find themselves in opposition to, that they are not ‘more selfish or spiteful’, but of course this is a contingent point. It is not impossible that they might behave more immorally in the political sphere, just that in his view they don’t currently. Is it really true that none of these people are worse than the average leftist? If they are not, what about some others he doesn’t mention? Clarke is not really rejecting morality in politics, just arguing that things aren’t so bad!

    Lawson says of Labour:

    We’d need to be clear that progressive, multilateral arguments on climate change and the regulation of big business are not at odds with liking your country or taking pride in elements of its culture and history.

    Exactly how clear would we need to be? In itself the lack of any positive connection between tackling climate change and disliking your country, and the regulation of big business and rejecting ‘elements’ (?) of our culture and history seems as clear as it could be. Surely to most rational people’s eyes the true connections would run the other way? So why on earth are we in these dilemmas?

    When Can We Talk About Good and Evil in Politics?

    If it really makes no sense to bar us from using the language of morality in politics, then what should be our criteria for doing so? The most obvious political acts to condemn are surely those that are self-defeating, or at least are self-contradictory. Whether an approach is self-defeating depends on the aim of the actors; a dictatorship need pay no lip service to democratic ideals or consent. By culling effective members of society, however, or by undertaking military action it can only hope to win at huge cost, it undermines the state it purports to rule. On the other hand, a democracy that prevents its people from voting or making political speech, or weights access to the legislature according to wealth, defeats its own particular purpose. When a politician or political grouping makes claim to participating in a democracy, yet pursues such policies that undermine it, this is self-contradictory.

    Even in a dictatorship some form of social contract must exist, even if force or the threat of it plays a particularly large part in that contract. A social contract of any type, however unpleasant, cannot exist without some level of transparency. We have to have a fairly accurate picture of what is permitted and not permitted and what the consequences are, or we are not going to be able to keep in line as commanded. Authoritarianism often recognises this by avoiding outright lies – or at any rate not expecting them to be fully credible, rather sowing confusion so that unwanted truths get lost in a fog of disinformation. But a state in which no-one expects the truth from anyone anymore, least of all its rulers, is one in which all social contracts and cooperation become extremely tenuous. Ultimately social and economic breakdown is pretty much inevitable.

    In democracies the social contract relies less on the use of force, but more on an equilibrium of reciprocity. By my conforming with prevailing norms to the advantage of others, others are encouraged to conform to my advantage. Clarity, trust and social continuity are all crucial to maintaining our contract. Lack of transparency, particularly politicians and supportive media sources that lie outright, inequality in the application of norms (particularly those encoded in legal form), and constantly changing rules, are all guaranteed to rapidly undermine the fragile democratic equilibrium. This is self-defeating for politicians and voters who genuinely believe democracy to be the best form of government, and self-contradictory if in fact only lip-service is being paid to this ideal.

    In such cases rational persuasion is no longer likely to be effective, as the common bases for it have been removed. What is required is exposure and denunciation of the contradictions that are undermining the state’s grounding purpose. The ideas being promoted are patently destructive where they are done so in ignorance. If the minority promoting them are doing so consciously, they are pursuing the destruction of our (and their) social contract.[1] In this case moral language expresses with appropriate force, and morality in politics is as real as anywhere.

    Evil Acts

    In summary, we should retain the right to use moral language to describe political acts, but be selective in doing so. Lying, failure to be transparent, unwarranted favouritism or discrimination toward political or social groups and the deliberate promotion of uncertainty and chaos are all elements likely to lead to the collapse of the purpose that national politics seeks to maintain and enhance. These fully deserve to be and should be referred to as evil acts, whoever perpetrates them.


    [1] If the destroyers are in the majority we are doomed whatever we do!

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