Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Sun, 17 Jan 2021, 2:07 PM


On fantasy politics

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One of the great political divisions today is between those who acknowledge reality and those whose politics derive solely from the voices in their head.

After Trumpites stormed Congress earlier this week Ian Austin tweeted that "I don't believe the hard left would have accepted an election defeat" - ignoring the fact that only 13 months ago the left did indeed accept Labour's defeat peacefully.

And then Matt Goodwin tweeted:

Johnson is socially liberal at heart, Trump is authoritarian. Johnson is instinctive free trader, Trump is protectionist. Johnson is pro-migration at heart, Trump is xenophobe.

Again, this is untethered to reality. As mayor of London, Johnson banned alcohol on the tube and tried to use water cannon on protestors; he was a member of the government that pursued the hostile environment policy; and his Brexit deal erects trade barriers. Qanon

We can add to this Andrew Neil's claim that "academia today is often more interested in closing down debate than encouraging free speech", which echoes the right's largely deluded (and certainly hypocritical) obsession with cancel culture; anybody past the age of 21 who's interested in student politics needs to give their head a wobble,

What's going on here is more than just normal political lying, which at least can serve the function of getting one out of a tight spot or advancing a policy you might advocate on other grounds. It's a gratuitous denial of basic reality.

In my formative years, the right wanted lower taxes and weaker unions - demands which had at least some connection to facts. Today, they fantasize about cancel culture and promote Covid denialism; their American counterparts are of course even more barking.

Which poses the question: why is post-truth politics so widespread?

Of course, we all retreat into fantasy when reality is uncomfortable. Michael Oakeshott saw this. In his classic essay, On Being Conservative (pdf) he describes the conservative inclination as being an empirical one:

To be conservative...is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible.

But, he said, "If the present is arid, offering little or nothing to be used or enjoyed, then this inclination will be weak or absent."

And from a rightist point of view, the present is indeed arid. There are, I suspect, three aspects of reality that are forcing many on the right and centre into these fantasies.

Phil points out one - that right-wing politics, at least in its current form, is living on borrowed time:

Conservatism and right wing politics presently constituted are in long-term decline. Social liberalism is the commonsense of the rising generation, and as older people pass on the cap doffing, imperial nostalgia, and anti-social bloody-mindedness is not getting replaced like for like. The consequence is in the medium to long-term the eventual diminishing of the audience for their wares - despite the explosion of rightist outlets and a pantheon full of interchangeable atavists. Banging on about leftists and cancellation is an expression of their terror for an irrelevant future, a manifestation of the threat they feel in their marrow.

A second is that much of the right suffers a cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, they like to think of themselves as freedom fighters but on the other hand hard facts show that it is the left that's on the side of freedom and the right of repression. So-called "libertarians" such as Desmond Swayne oppose drug legalization and the Tory government has pushed through a bill permitting the security services to break the law in the face of opposition from the left. The right's response to this dissonance has been to invent stories of how the left is oppressing them.

Thirdly, (neoliberal?) capitalism is failing. The financial crisis taught us that light regulation does not ensure stability or growth. And productivity - and therefore wages - has stagnated for almost 15 years. Exactly why this has happened is a matter of debate among economists. Possible causes include: investment being depressed by a fear of future innovation; a falling rate of profit; scarring (pdf) effects upon animal spirits of the 2008-09 recession; the long-term effects of high inequality; firms' realization that innovation and investment don't pay; the rise of rentierism squeezing entrepreneurial profits; a slowdown in the rate of innovation; falling productivity of R&D and so on.

The point is, though, that Tories (and centrists like Austin too) are ignoring this debate. As Stian Westlake has said, "the Tories, both in government and more generally, seem to have stopped talking and thinking about economics." Their response to the crisis of capitalism has not been to try and fix it, as Thatcher did, but to deny that it exists - to either pretend that Brexit will unleash a new golden age or to retreat into culture wars.

Now, this is not to say that all Tories have lost touch with reality: Jesse Norman and Neil O'Brien, to name two, are still connected with it. Instead, the point is that the rightists haven't collectively suffered a bang on head. They have retreated from reality because in some respects that reality is unpleasant for them.

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