Never have I been pleased to be proved so wrong as I was on 9 June 2017. Corbyn halted the Tory juggernaut in its tracks and confuted his numerous critics and sceptics, including me.
Personally, I voted Labour more in hope than in expectation: I live in one in (what was) one of the top ten marginals in the country, where a switch to the Tories could have provided May with the mandate she sought to impose a hard Brexit. And, no less importantly, I respected and liked my own hard-working Labour MP, with a long history of service to this constituency. I voted for her, in spite of my doubts about her titular leader. I expected at the most for my vote to count locally but to do nothing, in the wider scheme of things, to change the final result: a Tory victory.
Well, I was wrong – mostly. While I now have much more hope, I still have some doubts. So here I set out my the lessons I have drawn from this and then conclude with a few of my still-extant reservations.
First of all, Corbyn’s critics had plenty of reasons to doubt him. We need not repeat these here but people with memories extending back just a few months will recall the Tory victory at Copeland by-election, a long-held Labour seat, and the disastrous local council election results. As recently as April and into mid-May, when the polls began to narrow, the omens looked ominous. Then the tables gradually turned: May called the vote as a presidential style plebiscite on her leadership and it backfired. A woman whom many joke would like to take us back to the 1950s campaigned as this was an election fought in the 1950. May’s arrogance and hubris pitched in into a pit she had dug for Corbyn.
Battle-tested, May turned out to be a much weaker campaigner than Corbyn. The wheels of the May bandwagon came off in spectacular fashion. Few – if anyone – foresaw this before the calling of the election. In part, Corbyn’s prospects were rescued by the follies and blunders of his opponent. She patronised the young and pissed off the old. But it would be churlish to deny that his campaign was superior, qualitatively better than his opponent. He did not run a weak campaign that looked better just because his opponent ran a feeble one. He ran a superior one and the Tories never adapted in the face of Labour’s nimble ground-based insurgency, instead relying on the Daily Mail and the Sun’s indiscriminate aerial bombardment to do the work for them. They failed. But, as the example of Ruth Davidson proves, some Tories have a more intelligent appreciation of political realities. They could turn the tables in a future contest.
So that brings me to the first lesson: the Tory defeat was in large part due to contingencies like leadership and campaign style. A better leader and campaign could have delivered it for them. We know this because a de facto parallel election was being fought in Scotland, led by a different Tory leader, who fought an insurgency against an incumbent SNP nationalist party who, like the Tories in England and Wales, felt entitled to rule. The Scottish dimension of this contest and its implications have been neglected by the commentariat of the London based press although there is an interesting discussion of this here. In short, Scotland shows two things: the Tories can produce unorthodox leaders who can appeal across party lines and present a ‘detoxed’ Tory brand. However, there is no sign of their being able to pull this off from their current likely contenders for leadership at Westminster. Fortunately for the Tories’ opponents south of the border, Ruth Davidson looks set to remain north of the border, to harry the SNP.
What about that old, hoary wisdom that Labour could only win elections on the centre ground? Well, where is – or was – the centre ground? The answer to that is where Tony Blair and his acolytes thought it was, squaring the circle by improved public services and assiduous efforts to assuage and reassure middle England that this could be done without tax and spend – at their expense. Add to that social liberalism and Europhilia to appeal to the metropolitan elite but tough on criminals and asylum seekers to appeal to the working-class base. We were told that only upon this ground could Labour fight and win elections – any deviation from this would spell electoral doom. In defiance of what was taken as common sense, Labour’s manifesto deviated from the Blairite script and, though its radicalism was exaggerated, it moved into territory that was supposedly located at the base of an electoral cliff. But Labour did not go off a cliff. It was the Tories who nearly went over the edge and it is May who is clinging on by her fingernails.
So has the conventional wisdom been overthrown, then? Yes and no. Yes, the Blairite prophecy that moving to the left would doom Labour has been confounded. That is not to say that Blair had no reason to think they way he did. Milliband’s manifesto was to the left of Blair’s three offerings and he lost. Blair assumed that a further deviation leftwards would produce a greater defeat. But the obvious answer to that was that Milliband did not go far enough. Not in terms of actual policies: Corbyn’s offering is not much more radical to Milliband’s. The key difference was tone. Corbyn ran on an explicit and unapologetic anti-austerity platform while Milliband equivocated. Corbyn made the right call: the message resonated not just with his passionate supporters but also among many in Tory heartlands: the well-heeled bourgeoisie of Kensington plumped for Corbyn. Canterbury turfed out a true-blue incumbent of 30 years (and after the Tories had held the seat for 160 years) and installed a single-mother on his former patch.
It won’t do to explain all this away by claiming that Labour was lifted on the back of bribes to the young to abolish tuition fees and hand outs from the magic money tree. Even before Brexit and the most recent election, I wrote before that there were signs that Tory efforts to push through harsher and deeper austerity were beginning to encounter political limits, as the cuts began to devolve on the working poor, with reservations about Osborne’s tax credit cuts being expressed in unexpected quarters, such as the Adam Smith Institute.
In other words, the political consensus that the Tories forged in 2010 that austerity was a regrettable necessity was already beginning to fray before 2017. It seems that the failure of May to respond to this growing public dissatisfaction and to offer any way out from a seemingly endless dark tunnel of austerity played straight into Corbyn’s hands. As Professor Tim Bale of University College London, commentators became so fixated on the culture wars that Brexit exposed that we forgot that the economy was in fact important, ‘especially when it largess is so unevenly distributed.’ Eve The Sun’s Friday editorial conceded that, though it was disheartened by the result, voters had sent the Conservatives ‘deafening’ messages: ‘That young people need a better deal. That Britain wants more spent on health and schools.’ Where the Sun showed some insight, the Daily Mail was obtuse. Its Colonel Blimpish editorial blathered on about the young not living though the dark days the 1970s, forgetting that for today’s young, the 70s are as remote in time as the Second World War was for today’s forty and fifty somethings when they were growing up in the 70s and 80s.
Another setback for received wisdom: Corbyn’s former effusive stances on immigration and freedom of movement did not seem to tell against him in the working-class heartlands of the north. There was some swing to the Tories in the North East and the West Midlands but the predicted mass defection of the white-working class never materialised. He managed to build a coalition of working class Leavers and middle-class Remainers. In part this was achieved by some Delphic utterances, conjuring a soft Brexit stance that avoiding antagonising Labour Leavers by refusing to oppose it but appeasing middle-class Remainders by opposing a hard Brexit. Whether this stance can be maintained in power without making some painful compromises remains to be seen. There is no doubt that one of Corbyn’s unexpected achievements was to combine the socially conservative working class with the liberal middle class, to forge a coalition that saw off both UKIP and Tory challenges in its heartlands while making encroachments in previously true blue territory, winning seats not even Blair won.
On the other hand, the conventional wisdom still stands, in some ways. Labour did not win the election. Technically, it was a defeat. It is still not in power. May won a greater number of votes than Blair did in 1997. Even if this Tory minority government were to fall, a minority Labour administration would nit necessarily be in any stronger position to enact its legislative programme.
In achieving what it did last Thursday, Corbyn and his advisers paid a back-handed tribute to Blairite impression management by working on Corbyn’s strengths and playing down his weaknesses. No one can fail to notice he looks a lot smarter in 2017 than he did in 2015. Impressions count and so do perceptions and his campaign team bent over backwards to portray him as some avuncular English eccentric and making policy shifts to neutralise Tory strengths – accepting Trident and promising to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence. It’s telling that Labour felt it needed to avoid being ensnared on issues like Trident and other issues on which most voters have no strong ideological views. It spoke up in support of the police and intelligence services in the wake of the Manchester and London Bridge terror attacks – not usually constituencies for which the hard left has tended to support.
Labour’s campaign was a lot slicker than 1983’s when Michael Foot (Labour’s last, truly authentic leader) made no concessions to image management or on softening demonstrably unpopular policies like unilateral nuclear disarmament and paid the price at the polls.
Finally, there is the observation that the one who appeared to deviate most from the centre ground was May – with her pitch to the hard Brexit right. The Daily Mail’s front cover of a glass-eyed May, announcing the election, over the headline ‘Crush the Saboteurs’, no doubt was meant to strike terror in her opponents’ hearts. This it did do – and convinced many people that the Maybot was power mad. We can credit Paul Dacre with helping produce last Thursday’s result.
Which brings me to one conventional wisdom that has been well and truly dethroned – but this one features mostly on the left: that the Daily Mail and The Sun that decide the outcome of elections and not the electorate. This election showed it was the electorate that called the shots. The Tory tabloids did their worst, as they always do, and failed to get the result they wanted. The rants from Corbyn supporters against the ‘Mainstream Media’ (MSM) on social media were always self-defeating and I was never convinced that Corbyn’s supporters really believed it. If the problem with his electability was on account of the masses being brainwashed by the MSM then what was the point of campaigning and trying to persuade anyone? In any case, the relationship between what papers people read and how they vote is anything but straightforward.
So Labour did not meltdown. Its core vote did not desert it. Corbyn confounded his many doubters. While he did not snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, he certainly denied it to May who started this contest 10 feet tall but has now shrunk to the size of a political midget. Even if Corbyn never becomes Prime Minister, he has earned himself a place in British political history. That said, the story is by no means over and it is quite unclear as to whether he is going to write a new chapter or just end up as footnote. What his supporters do over the coming weeks and months may well decide that.
His success, remarkable as it is, will not suffice to see him into power. He needs to persuade more of his opponents to ‘lend’ him their votes. That was a phrase used by May, in appealing to Labour voters. It showed shrewdness in political awareness, if not in political execution. But she understood that any democratic politician needs to appeal to those who do not necessarily like or trust you. Corbyn has succeeded in getting many former Tories to lend him their votes. They may well take these back. He is not owed votes and those that have voted for him are not guaranteed to give them to him a second time, if another election is held in the near future. His supporters need to understand that getting people to vote for him is not akin to religious conversion.
That means toning down some of the triumphalism that we have seen among his supporters over recent days, especially the assumption that Corbyn is owed power. It does not follow that because the country voted to clip May’s wings it is now ready to give Corbyn the mandate he wants. May won the greater share of the vote and the most seats. Corbyn has to sing for the extra votes and seats before he presses for power. Too premature and insistent on a transfer of power risks falling into the same hubristic pit of entitlement as May did.
As well as that, his supporters need to learn to develop a thicker-skin and accept that criticism – even unfair and one-sided criticism – is part and parcel of the democratic process. They ought to bear in mind Enoch Powell’s aphorism that for a politician to complain about the media is like a sailor complaining about the sea. That means laying off BBC journalists who have displeased supporters. Circulating petitions calling for Laura Kuenssburg to be sacked smacks of a purse-lipped censoriousness and authoritarian intolerance every bit as off-putting as May’s and the Daily Mail’s. Moreover, it means avoiding the temptation to settle scores against opponents – like the head of Unite the Union’s Len McCluskey claiming that Corbyn would be PM if Labour MPs had not tried to unseat him. That is nonsense. Corbyn is not PM because he lost the election. He still needs to convince the doubters out there. As for McCluskey, he ought to reflect on the shortcomings of democratic engagement in Britain’s largest union: he won the recent leadership contest for General Secretary with scarcely 12 per cent of around a million members bothering to vote (and around 5-6 per cent of members actually voting for him). Leave the heresy-hunting and the witch-burning to the likes of the Daily Mail. Do not descend to their level.
This election has shown that the public is prepared to listen to an anti-austerity message. That is a major triumph in itself. It is of course the message the left has been trying hammer home in this country over the last 7 years, till now with not much appreciable success. I suspect that one of the reasons it has struggled to get the message across is the aggressive, confrontational and abusive posturing that much of the left likes to indulge. If Corbyn has done better than many expected, it is because he looks and sounds much more reasonable than a lot of his supporters. Corbyn did the right thing when he rebuked those who took to online abuse of a Woman’s Hour journalist, Emma Barnett, who asked him a question – about the cost of Labour’s proposed childcare policy – that he struggled to answer. Among some of the abuse Barnett received – who is Jewish – were allegations she was a ‘Zionist’. Unless someone can convince me that there is a logical and relevant link between the cost of childcare and the oppression of the Palestinians, then I can only conclude that the use of this epithet was a left-wing version of Trump’s dog whistle politics. If Corbyn wants power, then he will need to intervene robustly to rein in the excesses of his supporters. He will also need to develop more of a ruthless streak and sack the incompetent. Comparisons with Atlee are legion but one thing Atlee would never have done would have been to allow Diane Abbot anywhere near a microphone.
This election has signalled that the public is becoming tired of austerity. The Tories got away with seven years of it because they succeeded in persuading the public that austerity was a regrettable but necessary exercise in balancing the books. But austerity was a highly political exercise and the broadest backs were not bearing the greatest burdens.
It is not enough however to decry austerity’s injustices. If there is to be a viable alternative, then there needs to be economic growth. That means the economy must create more wealth. That can only be done if capitalists generate sufficient profit and Labour must show how it would intend to do this. But much of the left is hostile – or at least, deeply ambivalent – about profit and money making. Put simply, the left has plenty of ideas about how to spend money but fewer ideas on how to make it. Labour would have us believe that its spending plans can be met by soaking the top five per cent of earners, increased corporation tax and a crackdown on evasion. But, as I have written on the NHS, the resource implications of an ageing population and increased life-expectancy are staggering. It won’t be enough to simply throw money at problems to resolve them.
That means, in reversing austerity, it will be necessary to make compromises. It may be necessary to hold down public sector pay, in return for ensuring that services elsewhere are funded. Doing that means balancing demands and deciding which demands for entitlement should be prioritised. Even in rich countries, there are never enough resources to meet all possible demands. Some rationing of resources is always going to be necessary. It seems many Labour activists deny this but the public does not. But failure to inject some realism in devising an alternative to austerity will mean that the Tories ‘balancing the books’ argument will be all that harder to refute and keep Labour out of power.
Then there is the still-festering question of Brexit. Does the seeming return to the fold of many ex-UKIP voters mean that the Labour’s working class backers are on the same page as Labour’s middle-class supporters when it comes to free movement of labour and immigration? That is not a question that can be answered here. It’s too early to tell. Suffice to say, if the answer is yes – and that would be quite an extraordinary development – then Corbyn has the basis of a possible winning coalition that could seem him in Number 10. But if the answer is no, then this coalition is possesses a possible fault line which may prove fatal to his prospects. The Tories or even a revived UKIP could use it as a wedge to break apart Labour’s coalition. Corbyn will need considerable political finesse to ensure that this does not happen.
In summary, Labour under Corbyn has become an effective opposition. That in itself is a stunning achievement. But can he become Prime Minister? My view now is that he can. But he won’t if Labour and its activists remain wedded to the moral high ground of the politics of protest. For the reasons I have set out above, Labour and Jeremy Corbyn have some way to go yet. But perhaps I am wrong – again.
There you go, they can laugh at us and never feared that some chav would storm the office and gun them down – and then have people like Joe Sacco, Salon Magazine and the Pope implicitly blame the victims. Get my meaning? But perhaps the analogy is not apt? France’s historical record of anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia is not the same as its historical disdain of the English. So, if you want a more apposite analogy, perhaps google ‘Charlie Hebdo Shoah Hebdo, for is lampooning of the links between the commemoration of the holocaust and rationalisation for the victimisation of the Palestinians. This, the magazine did, in spite of the country’s shameful record of Vichy and historical anti-semitism. The magazine feared offending no one.
Dans ce numéro: une interview exclusive de Philippe Poutout, candidat du NPA: “Il n’y a pas de sauveur”. Il revient sur les conditions de sa désignation à la candidature présidentielle, acte ses différences avec Mélenchon, et analyse le “mépris social” donc il est victime dans les médias.
A l’hôpital psy de Ville-Evrard, la quasi totalité des chefs de pôle démissionnent: rencontre.
Charlie était aussi à la première de Golgota Picnic, au Théâtre du Rond-Point: reportage en textes et en dessins.
Enfin, Laurent Léger a suivi à la trace Bernard Tapie, qui disait vouloir se retirer des affaires et s’apprête à investir… à Madagascar.
We are living in a world where it’s no longer ‘the economy, stupid’. That’s not to say real wages, the cost of living, and tax-and-spend don’t matter to people anymore. Clearly, they still do. But they no longer trump nearly everything else when voters make up their minds. Politics has always been multidimensional, of course. It’s that analysts of voting behaviour and public opinion used to be able to conveniently collapse most of these dimensions into the left-right spectrum. Nowadays, that’s becoming harder and harder to do.
In the United Kingdom, as in many European countries, that familiar horizontal axis is now being intersected by another, vertical one. Call it what you will – GAL-TAN (Green, Alternative, Libertarian – Tradition, Authoritarian, Nationalist), demarcation-integration, communitarian-cosmopolitan or simply open-closed – this dimension suddenly seems to matter much more than it used to. Certainly, it helps explain why 52 per cent of those…
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Well, I have just added ‘Brexit’ to my WordPress account dictionary. I am scarcely surprised that the word has yet to enter the English lexicon in all corners just yet; it’s been less than 9 months since the momentous vote on 23 June 2o16.
For many Remainers (another word WordPress dictionary does not recognise), the vote was nothing less than a triumph of vintage English xenophobia, epitomised by the Union Flag, commonly known as the Union Jack. Is it the Union Flag or the Union Jack? The correct name is disputed. The etymology of the word does not concern me here. Suffice to say, I prefer Union Flag, for reasons I will spell out below. Henceforth, all mentions of it will be under Union Flag, shortened to ‘Flag.’
The Flag’s associations are mixed. But for many Remainders of a liberal or progressive political persuasion, they are negative. It’s the badge of far-right.Some people cannot see it without having disturbing visions of shaven-headed thugs, in leather jackets and skin-tight jeans, faces distorted by hatred and fear, laying into a dark-skinned migrant with their bovver boots. That’s not all. For many, it is the symbol of just about every crime against humanity: slavery, the concentration camp, genocide of native peoples, to name just a few.
It’s almost as if the Flag itself has some demonic property; there is almost a terror of those who feel any form of affection for it, for anyone who feels this must be feeling the first stirs of dark impulses that will lead to donning black uniforms, topped by a peak hat with a death’s head badge, along with shiny jackboots. From there, it’s downhill, all the way to the gas chambers.
But the Union Flag is not the same the Swastika (or the Nazi’s appropriation of the symbol). That flag will never lose the stigma rightly attached to it as it is, to borrow a phrase coined by the historian Michael Burleigh, the epitome of an ‘anti-civilisation’, with just about nothing to compensate by way of redemption. By way of contrast, the Union Flag has sometimes been the banner of racism, imperialism and plunder but those things are not the sum of it. It is also the banner under which ideas of freedom from tyranny and human rights have spread around the world, standards by which we judge not only foreign dictatorships but our own country; under which great strides in scientific knowledge have been made, contributing massively to improving the welfare of humankind.
The Nazi Swastika was a symbol of a racist state that by definition excluded certain categories of people – wholesale – from belonging and slated them to be destroyed. The Union Flag represents a civic nationalism that does not – by definition – exclude people who were not born white British/English. In my own office, in a team of 10 administrators working for the state, 6 of us have near-ancestors, one generation back, born outside the UK, from 3 different continents. You would not have found Jews, Gypsies or overt homosexuals working in administration of the Nazi state.
What does all this have to do with Brexit? It is because I fear that the apprehension among Remainers that the UK will be less defined by a civic nationalism and more by an ethnic nationalism may well be justified, in the longer term. The Union Flag will become less inclusive than it is now. The country for which it flies will never be Nazi but it will be more introverted. more fearful of foreigners, more tempted to scapegoat outsiders for the problems that will inevitably persist, and from which leaving the EU will provide no deliverance. It does not have to be this way. The Leaver Daniel Hannan for instance argues that that a liberal, open tolerant civic nationalism can thrive outside the EU. Maybe – the problem is that many of Leave’s cheerleaders do not want to see such a thing.
But this is not about what might or might not happen in the future. This is a backward looking piece in the sense of trying to work out how we got here. The fact is, progressives must bear some of the blame. How so?
First, in denying that the Union Flag can represent a broader, tolerant form of nationalism, they have acquiesced in the far-right’s appropriation of what is supposed to be a national, civic symbol, that does not belong by right to one section of the population. ‘There ain’t no black in the Union Jack’ say the fascists and racists and many progressives agree, albeit not from a shared premise. Given the far-right has been allowed to appropriate it, it scarcely surprising that it has weakened as a symbol of national unity that can transcend division.
This is where terminology gets heated. Try using the term ‘Union Flag’ to a progressive who prefers ‘Union Jack’. The argument will get heated. Why? Because Union Flag is a lot more neutral and inclusive that Union Jack. The Union Jack, for complex reasons that we need not dwell on here, has been stigmatised by all manner of pejorative associations in the way that ‘Union Flag’ has not. The progressive will resist this redesignation, because they see it as dishonest attempt to wipe the flag clean of its imperial crimes. To wipe the flag clean is ensure we forget our crimes, meaning we will commit them all over again. Trying to argue for the Union Flag is like trying to wash clean the original sin. It is not possible because we cannot escape our fallen colonial, racist and imperial nature. Only in this version of the original sin, unlike the original version, it is only white people who are forever damned, as if racism, to take just one evil, is a flaw found among white people only.
But if one can argue that the Union Flag is not the Swastika in a red, white and blue colour scheme, then this progressive way of thinking is a terrible mistake. It deprives liberals with the resources to develop common symbols that can bind a diverse, variegated society. This leads me to a broader observation. We have celebrated every form of belonging and group affiliation except for one, the one held by the majority of the country, and who are still the majority, in spite of the all the changes toward a multicultural society since the Second World War: the white British, or English. Everyone else’s expression of group identity is acceptable but not theirs, stigmatising any attachment to the Flag as an expression of ineradicable bigotry. Is it any wonder that we have seen a backlash?
I hope I am not misunderstood here. I have said before that civic nationalism treats individuals on their merits, not on their group affiliation. I have said that an immigrant worker, doing the dirty, shitty jobs and paying their taxes, deserves more merit than a white, indigenous lager-swilling lout. I do not sentimentalise white working class culture. Not all aspects of it are attractive. Its anti-intellectualism for instance and its occasional propensity to indulge in football hooliganism are features of indigenous culture I do not like.
But the same could be said for some of the minorities of this country. I dislike the homophobia of Muslim Imams and West African charismatic preachers. I dislike gangsta rap and the celebration of criminality and gang culture. But while it is safe for me to signal my disapproval of certain aspects of indigenous culture that do not match up to progressive principles, it is not so safe to signal likewise for minority cultures. To do so is risk being drummed out of the liberal club, on the suspicion that I am repressing dark urges to click my heels together, fling my right arm in the air, and stock up on Zyklon-B.
Do I need to make myself clearer? I fear that I do. So, just for the record: if I criticise minority practices, I am not saying that I want to see them rounded up or exterminated. Likewise, if I criticise aspects of white, working class culture, I am not saying that I want to see them exterminated en masse. In spite of this, I still fear that my reassurances will only be accepted in relation to the second example, and not the first.
So what am I for? Well, I should hope the thrust of this argument already points to that: a civic nationalism that can incorporate difference, under a shared symbol. A symbol that does not deny difference but does not adopt an ‘anything goes’ cultural relativism, a symbol that does not mistake tolerance for indulgence. A symbol that judges individuals by their adherence to shared civic standards and does not privilege one group over another, or penalise anyone for deciding to leave their group and go their own way. A symbol that allows us to recognise and live with our differences with honesty and respect. A symbol that does not censor or silence the difficult conversations that we need to have with each other to come to terms with each other. We are all condemned to live with one another, Brexit or no Brexit, because we can’t wish for people who think or look different from us to just vanish.
What should that symbol be? Why, none other than the Union Flag, of course.
Over the course of 2016, I lost count of the number of times sage commentators inserted the prefix ‘dis’ before the ‘United States’. Anyone would think that the election of Trump signals the first shots of civil war. One study of US voters’ claimed the US is divided as never before. I wondered just how far back they looked. As divided the Civil War? Or the so-called American Revolution, an event that arguably was as much a civil war as a rebellion of plucky colonists against the Evil Empire (proportionately, more ‘Americans’ fled the new Republic than French fleeing the Robespierre and his gang).
All these claims flying around that American democracy is broken rest on a fundamental misunderstanding about democratic politics: democracies do not seek to create unity but to manage it. The default condition of humanity is not unity but disunity. What democratic politics manages to do, I argued in one of my first posts, is to manage this without recourse to violence or repression and still function to deliver collective goods. Given the schismatic nature of humanity, this on-going achievement, which we take for granted, is nothing short of marvelous and we are too little interested in what works well rather than what doesn’t.
Let’s think about this. During the Cold War, countries like East Germany – or the ‘The German Democratic Republic – regularly held votes where 99.9 per cent of the population approved some measure or another. We knew such results were ludicrous because we know that any complex society made up of people who are overwhelmingly strangers to one another can never attain that level of unity – not on a perennial basis, at any rate.
Yet our own politicians long to attain this happy of state of affairs. Theresa May, in a rather regal address to the nation at Christmas, appealed to Britons to unite around Brexit. Fat chance – one half of the country is at loggerheads with the other half and there is no escaping that. The real test of May’s leadership – which she shows no sign of understanding – is whether she can manage these divisions, not overcome them. Instead of lamenting division we should just accept it and find ways of living with one another, in spite of our differences. In fact, perhaps we should celebrate division. Democratic politics does not seek to manufacture a sham show of unity – unlike autocracies of various stripes. This can only be done under the auspices of a police state. Why would we want that? Therefore, the election of Trump, though I deplore it, does not signal the end of democratic politics in the sense I mean above, the peaceful managing of chronic division.
To my mind, too many pundits – and I am not just talking about the Alt-Right Breitbart news site here – are propagandists and entertainers and ignorant of history. So, turning our attention back to the United States. Just when I was letting my exasperation at the cliche of Disunited States, because of its disregard for historical perspective, get the better of me, I come across this study by Harvard political scientist David Moss, ‘Democracy: a case study’. The blurb states:
“To all who declare that American democracy is broken—riven by partisanship, undermined by extremism, and corrupted by wealth—history offers hope. In nearly every generation since the nation’s founding, critics have made similar declarations, and yet the nation is still standing. When should we believe the doomsayers? In Democracy: A Case Study, historian David Moss adapts the case study method made famous by Harvard Business School to revitalize our conversations about governance and democracy and show how the United States has often thrived on political conflict.”
Yes, spot on! Division is nothing new and the book’s chapter contents discuss 19 case studies of chronic division spanning just about the entire history of the US. Does that mean we have nothing to worry about in the figure of Trump? No, of course not. But this book – which I have not yet read – sounds like that it has latched onto a fundamental truth: democracy – and the world generally – has not ended because someone whose beliefs you deplore has been elected. That is the lesson I am taking away from 2016and I am looking forward to the publication of Professor Moss’ book in February. That alone gives me hope for the coming year.
The British doctor and science writer Ben Goldacre was once asked in a BBC interview whether science is his ‘god’. His face fell into a mixture of incredulity and exasperation, like he was being asked an utterly ridiculous question. He had no easy answer for it, because the format of the interview did not allow him enough time to explain why science is not another form of religion, and because he had no time to ask the interview to explain what he was trying to say by linking ‘science’ and ‘god’ in one sentence.
I think we can have an educated guess of what Goldacre’s interviewer meant: some people worship a god, some worship science. What’s the difference? Anything goes. Whatever works for you. If it makes you feel good, then it can’t be that bad. That the question was asked at all reveals the influence of relativism, a potion concocted by professors in world-class universities, but which has spilled and seeped into the casual discourse of the educated classes. The name this school of thought gave itself was the Sociology of Science. There are stronger and weaker versions. I am going to discuss the stronger version because it seems to have broader appeal among people who have never heard or Paul Feyerabend or Thomas Khun but might use words like ‘paradigm’ or ‘construct’.
The strong school subscribes to epistemological relativism and ontological relativism. Epistemological relativism is a fancy way of saying that there is no one universal way of getting at the truth that is superior to other ways at getting at the truth. The difference between your GP and a witch doctor is the authority their societies confer on them. It has nothing to do with practise – i.e. whether what they do actually works. The assumption is that authority is conferred on someone not on account of having a superior argument but because that person has won a power struggle.
Linked to that is ontological relativism – whether it even makes sense to talk about the existence of objective things. Again, with our example of a witch doctor and GP in mind, one treats the symptoms of spirit possession and another the symptoms of disease, disease caused by things like germs. Are there such things – spirits, germs? Relativists are agnostic.If practitioners say there are, and enough people believe them, then they exist in our heads, at any rate.
So, there is no point in saying that there is a ‘better’ or ‘worse’ way of finding out about what sort of facts there are out there, because there are no such thing as facts. Of course, this claim is a statement of fact. There is no such thing as an objective fact is a statement of fact. We need not dwell on this fatal flaw in the relativist ‘paradigm’ for that is not the point of writing this article. Ultra-relativism has been done to death elsewhere but it still holds a death-grip on the conversation of those who ought to know better and is the source of much muddled thinking among the university-educated.
The ongoing appeal of relativism is, I think, linked to multiculturalism and anti-imperialism. Such arguments seem to promote tolerance and combat cultural arrogance. To aver that one culture is better in finding out what sort of facts there are about the world means that some cultures are superior to others, If so, that is to stigmatise some cultures as inferior. It’s a small step to stigmatising a culture as inferior to that culture’s members as being inferior. From there, an even smaller step to slating individual members of that culture to oppression or even extermination.
There is no doubt that western science served as a handmaiden to imperialism. After all, European seafarers built maritime empires on the back of the compass, which enabled them to sail without sight of land and cross oceans. But this is not a good reason to accept relativists’ arguments. For one thing, it testifies to the efficacy of western science. It worked and it still works. Indeed, 19th and 20th Century Chinese intellectuals,trying to figure out the root causes of their backwardness vis-a-vis the West, fingered the Western culture of science as a key reason. Western science generated useful knowledge, knowledge that could be applied in the real world while traditional systems of could not. Westerners firepower was not physical but intellectual. Hence, China’s headlong modernisation in the second half of the 20th Century was predicated on importing and adapting Western techniques of science. Of course, the great question is whether China can carry on doing this and block out the culture of critical enquiry. That, however, is a question for another day. For now, it suffices to say that to accept relativist principles on account of signalling your tolerant, multicultural credentials ducks the question about whether western ways of generating knowledge are superior or not – in the sense that they work while others don’t.
One can write whole tomes on the relationship between science and human progress but this is out of our scope. Still, this apprehension of the link between upholding relativism and tolerance needs to be addressed. So we should say that relativism does nothing to uphold the progressive purposes it is supposed to serve. It does not respect cultures who are not relativists. The authority of the witch doctor does not rest on relativist grounds. His authority rests because people accept that there is such a thing as spirit possession and that there are ways of finding out how someone is something is so possessed and ways to deal with that possession. To be told that this is just a parochial form of knowing is to do it disrespect because it denies its claims to an objective truth. Spirits are not just metaphors. They are real.
Moreover, as I have argued in a previous post about cultural imperialism, relativism cannot say anything about cultures that are imperialist and expansionist, cultures like the monotheistic religions, which believe they uphold a universal truths. This blind spot emerges because many relativists are of a leftist political persuasion and the only culture that they can consider imperialist is western culture. Relativists cannot adjudicate between clashing imperialist cultures.
To return to our question, and deal with relativism on its own terms: let’s address this issue with a concrete example: the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. One of the challenges field workers trying to contain the outbreak was convincing people that Ebola was REAL and that there was a right way of understanding it and a wrong one. The right way was that it was a virus, that it was a natural phenomenon. It was a physical condition, blind, impersonal, with no mind of its own. It spread according to natural laws. To contain its spread meant understanding these laws and respecting them. Spells, incantations, rituals and words – none of this would do. Only understanding that Ebola was a real thing would do that.
In combating its spread, epidemiologists traced and mapped its vectors. Microbiologists investigated its properties and tried to crack its genetic code to devise means to preventing and treating it. The pandemic’s containment was predicated on investigation, observation and experiment, proceeding from a mass of knowledge and understanding accumulated over decades of experiment and observation. It arose, in other words, from the scientific method, devised in the west from the 17th to 18th centuries. There were other ways to understand the virus – local ways of knowing – but they simply failed to offer an answer to pandemic. Is this cultural arrogance? No. This is meant as one in the eye for the philosophers in Western universities. It is not an argument that local field workers can or should use because it will go nowhere. This is not a tool to bludgeon people into submission.
For locals’ resistance to was not in itself unreasonable. As the WHO notes re the role the role of traditional healers:
“Traditional medicine has a long history in Africa. Even prior to the outbreaks, poor access to government-run health facilities made care by traditional healers or self-medication through pharmacies the preferred health care option for many, especially the poor. Many surges in new cases have been traced to contact with a traditional healer or herbalist or attendance at their funerals.
After the outbreaks began, the high fatality rate encouraged the perception that hospitals were places of contagion and death, further reinforcing the lack of compliance with advice to seek early medical care. Moreover, many treatment facilities, hidden behind high fences and sometimes draped with barbed wire, looked more like prisons than places for health care and healing.”
In other words, we can accept that the resistance of locals to external intervention was not irrational in the sense of being unfounded in actual perceptions. They noted relatives going into hospitals and not coming out. They were not mistaken in that. They saw that with their own eyes but they drew the wrong conclusion from the facts at hand.
The first step to beat the disease was to persuade locals that Ebola was real and that meant they had to think a different way, including accepting that traditional resources for dealing with death and disease were no match for the threat they now encountered.
If you think that Ebola is socially constructed, that there is no such thing as Ebola, its just a linguistic game, an outcome of a struggle for power among scientists themselves, at the expense of other forms of knowledge, then you are bound to say that it doesn’t matter. But to apply this in the real world is grossly irresponsible.
A separation needs to be made from the intellectual exercise of recognising the superiority of the scientific method in a practical sense and respect for local custom and culture. Superiority here means technical superiority.
To contain the Ebola epidemic, there was no need to overthrow wholesale local customs around life and death or even a supernatural understanding of the world. The issue was convincing people that specific practices – such as washing the corpses of Ebola victims – should be suspended in response to a specific threat. The suspension of such practices is not the same as overthrowing them.
Still, we cannot flinch from one conclusion that follows from the arguments above. It means that local explanations for Ebola relying on magic and the supernatural were flat out wrong. Is this cultural imperialism? Perhaps it is. But a form of imperialism that ends up saving lives has something going for it. Nonetheless, if imperialism it was, then what would cultural relativists have had us do? Refuse to tell locals for example that washing the corpses of Ebola victims meant contracting the disease itself, for fear of causing offence? So, it’s worse to let them do what they have always done and end up dying a hideous and painful death?
The western scientific method is not a threat to traditional culture as such. It appears that locals may have made a pragmatic accommodation in this case but still rely in traditional healers to see them through every day travails. Perhaps though, the result of this accommodation will be to undermine local sources of authority. That raises other questions about whether local customs and cultures deserve to survive, if their adherents no longer consider them credible. There is also the question -which relativists refuse to consider – whether all cultural practices are really worth saving. The belief that albinos body parts have magical properties, therefore justifying the murder of their owner to obtain them, the belief that men infected with HIV will be cured of their condition if they have unprotected sex with virgins; such beliefs deserve to die out.
All these are thorny questions and there are no easy answers. But one thing we can say for certain is that the strong school of the sociology of science doesn’t even ask the right questions, let alone offer any hope of acceptable answers. That much, I think we can safely say, we know.