Our country (2)

Part 2: You may say I’m a dreamer (but please don’t)

I’ve never understood the idea of ‘idealism’ or being ‘idealistic’ (although I’ve been accused of it a few times). To me it seems axiomatic that we start – we all start – from strongly-held beliefs about the way the world is and ought to be, and tend to interpret the world we encounter in the light of those beliefs. Attitudes that pass for ‘unidealistic’ – forms of pragmatism or cynicism – are generally grounded in beliefs in facts about human nature, and beliefs which the cynic holds just as strongly as any Quaker holds theirs. There is such a thing as being unrealistic – assimilating what you see to your mental map of what you expected to see – but it doesn’t necessarily go along with having high ideals: assuming that people are selfish, amoral and stupid may be just as far out of line with reality. (But underestimating people’s intelligence or moral probity doesn’t attract the label of ‘unrealistic’, somehow.)

In any case, being ‘realistic’ is a situational virtue: it’s a matter of partially suspending your prior assumptions, whatever they are, when assessing a particular situation. The problem with critiques of ‘idealism’ is that they implicitly suggest that ‘realism’ is an alternative: a set of ideas, a model of the world, which would be ‘real’. Stating it in those terms shows how incoherent the idea of ‘realism’ is. The map is not the territory, and (as Gregory Bateson didn’t quite say) it’s maps all the way down: when we compare a map with our better and more accurate knowledge of the territory, we’re really comparing a map with a better and more accurate map. A set of ideas can no more be ‘real’ than a statue can get up and walk away.

If ‘realism’ is an incoherent ideal(!), it’s also a seductive one: the nagging impossibility of a perfect map can make us conscious of the imperfections in the maps we use, making it easier to see around the edges of them in a given situation. Since this is more or less the definition of being ‘realistic’, the incoherence of the ideal of ‘realism’ doesn’t stop it being functional in practice. The problems start when we stop thinking of ‘realism’ as a regulatory ideal or an impossible dream, and start thinking of it as something we’ve actually got – or, what’s worse, something that somebody else has got. This is where the critiques of ‘idealism’ become corrosive: when one person’s ideas are declared superior to another person’s ideas, on the absurd grounds of being unimprovably ‘real’. When you’re the realistic one, the result is arrogance and (ironically) a fixation on filtering the world through your prior assumptions, without any attempt to suspend them. When you’re comparing your idealistic self unfavourably with somebody else’s realism, the result is even worse: self-abnegation and a fixation on filtering the world through somebody else’s prior assumptions, assumptions you don’t even hold.

‘Realism’ in this sense was one of New Labour’s great gifts to the Left. Of course, by the mid-90s anyone at all active on the Left would have been quite used to being told that their demands weren’t realistic and that politics was the ‘art of the possible’ – that’s just the language of Labour. But there were at least traces of genuine, situational ‘realism’ in those exchanges: it was true that a Labour government could only do so much, after all, and perhaps it genuinely never was the right time for an all-out strike. What was new about New Labour was the embrace of ‘realism’ across the board: the sense that Left ideals should be abandoned wholesale, because somebody else – starting with the leadership and their friends – had a better, more ‘real’ set of ideals. This kind of critique of left ‘idealism’ had been heard from outside the party for years, to the point of putting successive generations of Labour politicians on the back foot. Bringing it inside the party was devastating: the centre-Left rapidly collapsed into New Labour, largely because there wasn’t much holding it up. As I wrote in 1997:

Curiously, among [New Labour’s] true believers – many of whom seem to be former Communists – the fervour for ‘renewal’ coexists with a passion for ‘realism’: a fierce disdain for anyone advocating reforms which would actually redistribute power or wealth. Ultimately the two enthusiasms seem to spring from the same source: the convulsive, triumphant abandonment of all those things Kinnock and Smith spent years edging away from. It must be quite a relief to admit that you don’t really oppose the status quo – nuclear weapons, privatised railways, 40% top rate of tax and all: it must feel like coming home. What is new about New Labour, in short, is that the party doesn’t plan to change anything fundamental and it admits it. (This combination of ideas also enables the party’s ideologues to claim that Labour’s policies had to change because they were ‘old’: a deeply dishonest presentation of a transformation which was entirely political, and by no means inevitable). Freed from the uphill struggle to build support for left-wing policies, New Labour’s managerial apparat can bring their new brooms to bear on running the country. Labour can then re-emerge as the party of a cool-headed, unillusioned managerialism

What wasn’t so prominent in 1997 – it came to the fore in Blair’s second term – was the other side of the ‘realism’ coin. We should shelve our leftie ideals and think of what’s best for UK plc, the first-term argument ran (realism #1); we need to be successful in the real world, so we should take our lead from real-world success stories like Digby Jones and David Sainsbury. But – the second-term argument added – let us never forget where we came from, the roots of our party and the people we represent (realism #2): let’s not impose our values, our liberal middle-class values, on their authentic working-class values! Realism #2 drew power from the guilty conscience created by realism #1 – if you’re in the Labour party and you’re encouraged to be intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich, you’ve got to feel that there’s been a wrong turning somewhere – but at best it only replaces one cringe with another. And at least the business community is organised and articulate; if you decide that you’re going to take your cue from what the British working class thinks, you’re more or less condemned to treating random vox pops as authoritative, with all the risks of priming and attitude-striking which that entails. (Unless you take the view that the trade unions are an organised and articulate representation of the British working class, but that’s crazy talk – at least, it’s ruled out by realism #1.)

What both these forms of ‘realism’ exhibit, ironically, is idealism in the older, philosophical sense of the word – the belief that ideas have an independent reality and exert a determining influence on society. From a materialist perspective, this just looks odd. Even if we thought that Digby Jones was a hero of British industry from whom we could all learn valuable lessons, it wouldn’t greatly matter what the man thinks – which of us actually knows, and can articulate, how they’ve succeeded in any particular way? What we could learn from would be what he’d done and how he’d done it. Still less should we take our lead, in deciding what’s wrong with the country and how to put it right, from what randomly selected working-class people think. We can find out what they need and what’s wrong with their lives – that’d be useful – but taking what they think as a touchstone of ‘realism’ (the genuine concerns of real British people) just seems like… well, a cringe.

I think, returning to our original sheep, it’s this twofold ‘realism’ cringe that’s at work in centre-left attitudes to racism. Yes, of course we’re all liberal anti-racists – but haven’t we learnt the hard way that sometimes we need to compromise our ideals in politics (realism #1)? And isn’t our liberalism a bit middle-class – shouldn’t we be letting our people tell us about the real problems they’re experiencing (realism #2)? Nothing expressed the double cringe better than Harriet Harman’s bizarre and repulsive 2015 proposal that Labour should listen to Tory voters and tailor its stance accordingly – hadn’t we just learnt the hard way that that was what our people thought we should do? (Yes, that was only last year – July, in fact. Seems like a long time ago somehow.)

Something similar is going on, I think, in those and many other articles about working-class racism. Blaming immigrants for everything might not be terribly liberal, the logic seems to run, but the people doing it are real working-class people, so this is real working-class thought – and how can we stand against that? I would argue, by contrast, that some maps are better than others, and racism and xenophobia are particularly bad ones; they obscure real differences and draw lines where no lines need to be (this isn’t very advanced stuff). As such, discovering that working-class people are prejudiced against incomers is on a par with discovering that they believe in astrology or don’t believe in vaccination. It’s a bad, dysfunctional belief: you work round it when you can; you challenge it when you must (which, admittedly, may be almost immediately); and, above all, you put forward better, more functional beliefs.

Being an old materialist, I don’t expect working-class people in a class society to have the best ideas or the most accurate picture of society. I believe them to have the most fundamental interests and goals – the liberation of the working class is the liberation of all, give or take 1% – but I don’t expect them to know how to realise them; it wouldn’t be a class society if the ideas of the ruling class weren’t hegemonic. The liberated working class, even the working class in struggle, isn’t going to think like the atomised, immiserated class of today. A Left that pays attention to the Gillian Duffys of this world isn’t a Left that’s listening to the working class – it’s a Left that’s lost its own beliefs and ideas, or thrown them away.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t take note of the size of the Labour Leave vote, or the inroads UKIP have made into Labour support, or the rise of racist and xenophobic views among Labour voters – even if all of these things are smaller than they’re made out to be (I’ll come back to that, too). For all that it’s overstated, something has changed over the last decade, and not for the better.

Next: all these racists that are coming in, where are they flocking from?

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4 Comments

  1. Posted 21 June 2016 at 14:32 | Permalink | Reply

    Seems to me that woven into the New Labour “realism” was a belief in stasis. Not only are certain things “realities” – they are immutable. Hence the obsession with what the working class thinks – it’s not “realistic” to think they could ever change.

    (Yet of course, in my own 40 years as a brown Briton, I’ve seen big changes, mostly positive, in the levels of racism.)

  2. Posted 22 June 2016 at 15:55 | Permalink | Reply

    PS I’d be really curious about your reactions to the latest John Harris piece. I’m not understanding all the plaudits it is getting.

    • Phil
      Posted 22 June 2016 at 16:38 | Permalink | Reply

      Pretty awful. If the ‘native’ workforce is steady-state – entrances replacing exits – and if all EU immigrants are of working age, then what Harris’s figures say is that EU immigration before A8 accession increased the size of the workforce by 0.15% a year, whereas since then the rate has been 0.4% a year. As D^2 said on Twitter, 600,000 Poles really is not “a lot”.

      There’s this odd passage where he says that all this immigration was bound to cause problems “in a society and economy as precarious as ours”, and leaves that word ‘precarious’ unexplained – as if Britain just has a low-trust society and a low-growth economy, to go with the wet weather and cups of tea. In effect he’s exonerating the Tories for screwing up the economy, for the sake of making it seem natural to hate immigrants. I suppose nobody likes to think that good honest working-class people only think the way they do because of the effects of a series of viciously cynical political decisions – everyone likes to think that they, & the people they respect, are the master in their own head – but surely that’s preferable to thinking that good honest working-class people are good honest immigrant-haters and that’s just the way they are.

      This bit’s particularly dire: “For many places, the pace of change and the pressures on public services have arguably proved to be too much to cope with.” Love that “arguably” – not saying just saying… And, again, yoking together those two things – actual pressure on services and the vague sense that there never used to be so many of Those People around – as if they were both equally valid. These genuine-concern merchants never think about what they’re writing – or its consequences, for that matter. What does Harris imagine would be the next step in his “working-class revolt”, in the recession after Brexit? Good old Boris has apologised for making a bit of a bosh of the economy – what do we do now?

      • Posted 22 June 2016 at 20:19 | Permalink

        Thanks for this. I view it pretty similarly. Lots of food for thought about what we should do if we do win a Remain victory… right now of course, I’m in the grip of fear that we won’t.

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