I admire John Gray and his somewhat cynical writing on political philosophy. Having heard him speak and briefly spoken to him he is evidently a man of erudition and humanity. But when he writes on ‘Progressivism’ and Labour’s election defeat in his January New Statesman essay ‘Why the left keeps losing’ something seems to have gone wrong. If one of his students had presented this to him a few years ago for assessment, it is difficult to imagine that it would have passed muster as an example of effective reasoning.
Gray’s Attack on ‘Progressivism’ and Labour
John has shifted the focus of his recent attacks on ‘liberalism’ to something that seems broader and vaguer: ‘progressivism’. It’s never entirely clear what defines this evil for him, but apparently British institutions outside government, including schools and universities, are its vehicles. ‘Progressivism’ can evidently encompass both ‘liberal centrism’ and ‘Corbynite leftism’ in the Labour Party.
One immediately feels some contradiction here and this sensation is magnified when it Professor Gray accuses these institutions and their ideology or ideologies of the idea that ‘the West is uniquely malignant, the ultimate source of injustice and oppression throughout the world’. Indeed, they apparently believe that ‘the values that have guided human civilisation to date, especially in the West, need to be junked’. Do the British establishment and ‘millions of graduates’ really will the destruction of their own society and values, or has John found himself an enormous straw man to set alight?
Whilst both the UK and the US can be said to have been
slow in initiating forceful measures to deal with the Coronavirus epidemics in
their countries, the UK government under Prime Minister Boris Johnson has now,
albeit not always with the necessary clarity, announced shutdowns of most
social-mixing in Britain. Only ‘essential workers’ – a term yet to be
satisfactorily defined – should be leaving their homes except for shopping for
necessary goods, healthcare access or for suitably distancing exercise. There
are problems in obtaining adequate protective equipment for front-line health-workers,
but central government do seem to be making some effort to address this.
Unfortunately, in the US, the leadership vacuum in the
shape of Donald Trump is more interested in spreading misinformation and
bigging-up his own desultory (frankly negative) role in efforts to combat the virus
and its consequences. Any effective efforts to counsel isolation of those with
symptoms and general social-distancing, and to provide additional equipment and
space in anticipation of the inevitable rise in the number of cases needing
hospitalisation, have been taken by State governors, and mainly Democratic
ones. Worse still, Trump is now touting the idea that ‘the cure is worse than
the disease’ and that such restrictions as there are should be relaxed after another
two weeks to allow business (and from his point of view the stock market) to recover.
Apart from the fact that cases and deaths will almost certainly still be rising
at that time, the degree of complacency this signals is likely to be extremely
damaging to ongoing suppression efforts in the United States.
Some of the most important information about the Coronavirus (Covid-19) epidemic is to be found not from medical knowledge or in the lab but from basic mathematics. The key to understanding this behaviour is in the mathematics of exponential growth. What does this mean? There are two ways in which regular increases of anything can occur – either by constant addition – arithmetic growth – or by constant multiplication – exponential growth. We can illustrate the difference by starting from 1. If there is daily arithmetic growth of 2, then on the second day the total will be 1 + 2, so 3, on the third day the total will be 1 + 2 + 2, so 5, on the fourth day 1 + 2 + 2 + 2, so 7, and so on. If there is daily exponential growth of 2, then on the second day the total will be 1 × 2, so 2, on the third day 1 × 2 × 2, so 4, on the fourth day 1 × 2 × 2 × 2, so 8, and so on. The difference is in the sign – a plus sign in the case of arithmetic growth, a multiplication sign in the case of exponential growth. As is made clear by Chart 1 below, although the arithmetic growth gives higher totals initially, exponential growth very quickly afterwards leads to higher and rapidly increasing values.
Epidemics cause exponentially increasing numbers of
cases because for every person who is infected, that person can in turn infect
another. The number of people each infected person in turn infects every day multiplies
the number of cases. If we start off with one person who then infects one
other over 24 hours, and these two each infect another over the following 24
hours, and all four infected each in turn infect one other the next day, and so
on, then we have the daily exponential growth of 2 we described above. This
might be quite an extreme epidemic, but in any case where the number of new
infections is increasing each day, the growth will be exponential, rather than
The media, social and otherwise is now rife with analyses
own included) of why Labour lost the 2019 election so badly, and what the
Party should do about it. A common theme revolves around the loss of
‘traditional working class’ seats in the English North and Midlands, and how
Labour has moved away from their ‘socially conservative’ and ‘communitarian’
values. These values evidently led many of these constituencies to vote in
favour of Brexit in the 2016 referendum, which further alienated some of their
voters from Labour’s soft Brexit and second referendum stance. If this analysis
is correct it leads to some serious soul-searching within the Labour Party.
So there we have it. The polls were right, and produced the electoral results that could have been anticipated from them. To the extent that is a surprise it is only because of the unexpected result of the 2017 election and the rarely-fulfilled dream of some substantial tactical voting. Of course Scotland is a rather different story, and one that looks likely to run and run.
As far as England is concerned, Labour seem to have been
caught in a Brexit trap – divided both within and without by the either/or
nature of the question. It could neither fully embrace what was always primarily
a right-wing nihilist project, nor fully reject a referendum result that was
backed by many in ‘working class Labour heartlands’ – irrespective of which
side actual Labour voters had supported in that referendum. At least the
Conservative majority gives that issue some clarity; whatever Brexit brings
over the next five years – and it is unlikely to be anything particularly good
– it will be entirely at the doors of Boris Johnson (if he survives without
terminal scandal) and the Tories.
Reaction to modern liberal society has apparently been treated as akin to ‘the Inquisition and Islamic State, Francisco Franco and Ayatollah Khomeini, Vichyism and Leninism’. If you make that claim and end by stating ‘[W]e do well to remind our fellow citizens [that] Man [sic] is made for more than this world, and his [sic] final destiny is in the hands of the Almighty’ you might be thought to have given up your own cause. But let us be charitable and (overlooking the implicit sexism) acknowledge that we must accept our ignorance of the universe’s final ends and live only according to the little that we can know.
Sohrab Ahmari’s essay on ‘The New American Right’ in First Things attempts to lay a philosophical base for what he calls ‘Post-Fusionist Conservatism’, but which elsewhere has been referred to as ‘Post-Liberalism’ and in the UK flies under the banners of ‘Blue Labour’ and ‘Red Toryism’, associated with Maurice Glasman and Phillip Blond respectively. The basic premise is that ‘liberalism’, in both its social guise and economic guise has precipitated a society that is ‘fragmented, atomized and morally disoriented’, and in consequence ‘we need a politics of limits, not of individual autonomy and deregulation’.
Ahmari’s call for ‘a public square reoriented to the
common good and ultimately the Highest Good’, is commendable, but leaves open
the question of what and whose ‘Highest Good’ is to be sought. Without revealed
truth (and a single revealed truth at that) this can only be speculative. The
unique selling point of liberalism is that it recognises this and so seeks to
maximise the options for everyone, individually or collectively, to seek and to
find their own Highest Good. Ahmari characterises ‘progressive liberalism’ as
wishing to ‘raze all structures that stand in the way of an empire of
autonomy-maximising norms’, while ‘conservative liberalism’ recognises ‘the
need for some limits’. He rejects both, arguing that ‘freedom requires a moral
and religious horizon…in the state and the political community’. But this is to
bring the subjective and the metaphysical into the objective and empirical; ‘[m]illennia
of religious tradition and philosophical contemplation’ are no better than ‘old
prejudices’ when they lack any empirical foundation or basis in common
experience of the world.
In my last piece on Brexit I somewhat underplayed the role
of a second referendum – suggesting that it would only probably come into play
after a further general election, probably one that Labour won.
Things have moved on from then in that the negotiations
have coalesced into a deal with which, rather remarkably, neither the desires
of the ultra-Brexiteers for a clean break with Europe, nor those of the DUP for
the guaranteed absence of Irish Sea trade barriers, are satisfied. This took
some doing, and now gives Labour the potential role of maintaining a
Conservative government that otherwise might fall – one they will not, and
effectively cannot, play.
Donald Trump is coming to Scotland. He claims a special link to this country due to his Lewiswoman mother, Mary Anne Macleod. How should we respond to his visit – is it really an unacceptable violation of our liberal democratic culture for this American President to visit the UK and Scotland in particular? Is it right to think we should protest against him?
Today Theresa May’s Cabinet are meeting at Chequers (the UK Prime Minister’s out-of-town residence) in an attempt to thrash out a final Brexit negotiating position with the European Union. As they do so, the biggest threat to Brexit seems not to be a realisation of its purposelessness, although that will surely come soon enough, but the process difficulty. This difficulty is entailed by a government reliant for its parliamentary majority on Northern Irish members who as extreme Unionists will not accept any further differentiation between rules and regulations applying between the UK mainland and their own country, as well as on extreme Brexiteers who will not stomach any residual taint of the EU single market and customs union. This sets up an irreconcilable clash with the EU’s shared commitment with its member, Ireland, who are adamantly opposed to any agreed additional barriers between the north and south parts of the island. This opposition is both a matter of historical principle, as well as a practical concern over a reinstated ‘hard’ border being a focus for re-emerging intercommunity violence. Indeed Ireland and the EU both believe, a belief that implicitly is currently shared by the UK government, that the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998 commits all involved parties to the status quo in regard to the Irish border. Continue reading Brexit Endgames→
At the root of the ‘Brexit’ mess is a possibly unprecedented act of self-serving recklessness by the leader of a government in a democracy. It is in large part one which lays bare the sham of the UK’s primary democratic process – its system for electing representatives to its governing Parliament. For some years the electoral prospects and the cohesion of the UK Conservative party have been threatened by a relatively small, but vociferous and unscrupulous cabal of individuals and groups opposed to the idea of mutually beneficial co-operation with other European countries – either because it was a proxy for a mixing of UK (read English) ‘culture’ with that of ‘foreigners’ of different ethnic or religious identity or it was a plutocratic rejection of the co-operation for setting anti-exploitation rules as a basis for national and economic competition, or in quite a few cases – both.
In the winner-takes-all electoral system created by First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) the leaking of Conservative Party support (and even Parliamentary personnel) toward the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) led by Nigel Farage was not an incremental risk but an existential one. The party risked being out of power perhaps indefinitely and even being reduced to a rump of MPs with little compensatory chance of UKIP allies, as the right of centre vote became split, allowing more EU-friendly left of centre parties to dominate. The Conservative Party, having little in the way of clear principles or ideas to bind it, requires the prospect of power and career advancement above all else to unite its members – particularly its Parliamentary contingent.Continue reading The EU, Democracy and Brexit – Part 2→