Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Tue, 16 Oct 2018, 01:25 PM


Commitment & analysis

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Is political campaigning compatible with the detached analysis required of journalism? I ask because of something David Aaronovitch tweeted about Owen Jones:

He is a tireless political activist in a partisan cause seeking very specific outcomes. Nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't sit at all with analysis. There's no distancing possible. Or contrary information.

This might be true. The danger in Owen's campaigning is that he meets too many people who agree with him which reduces his self-doubt: they say you should never meet your heroes but you should never meet your admirers either.

On the other hand, though, doing so means he meets people outside the Westminster Bubble, and folk on the doorstep and on the streets who tell him he's wrong.

I can't say which mechanism dominates.

What's more, we've no reason to suppose that centrists are any more detached and self-critical than active partisans. As my blog's tagline says, there's a difference between extremists and fanatics: it's possible to be a fanatical centrist and a non-fanatical extremist.

The newspaper columnist who associates with like minds at work and at home is perhaps as prone to groupthink as Owen is. Associating with liberal centre-leftists and liberal centre-rightists does not expose you to a good range of opinion: "we are all different, they are all the same" is one of the more egregious cognitive biases. This might be why many centrists were shocked by Brexit and the rise of Corbynism.

What's more, we all tend to cleave to our opinions once we have expressed them: the danger of doing this was one cease why I ceased to be a sell-side economist. Ego-involvement afflicts us all, left, right and centre.

It takes discipline and mental strength to question one's own opinions and seek discomfirming evidence. I don't see a good reason why these abilities are more likely to be found in the centre of the political spectrum than on the left.

In fact, perhaps the opposite.

We must always ask: if my ideas are so good, why are they unpopular?

We leftists have two replies to this.

One lies in economic conditions. Capitalist stagnation has made people more illiberal and intolerant. I fear that centrist commentators aren't sufficiently awake to this. They don't sufficiently appreciate that economic realities have changed since the 1990s, and this justifies policies which are very different from Blairism. One virtue of Marxism is that it forces us to look at the economic base. You change people's minds by changing their living conditions. Centrists don't seem to me to get this.

Secondly, we have a theory of ideology. Many leftists tend to blame the media. I think they exaggerate: the fact that people supported injustice before the emergence of the mass media suggests another mechanism is at work. That mechanism is ideology: capitalism emergently produces beliefs which sustain the system. Whilst many centrists rightly applaud and use the work of Daniel Kahneman, they fail to appreciate sufficiently that it can be seen in part as supportive of a Marxian theory of ideology.

One of the big challenges we face is how to combat this. I fear that wagging the finger and telling folk they're wrong isn't sufficient.

There's something else. We leftists no longer see the transition to socialism as being achieved by protest or storming the Winter Palace. Instead, we regard it as a matter of interstitial transformation (pdf), or accelerationism - of helping to encourage and expand non-capitalistic forms of organization. For me, socialism is about empowering people in real senses. This is why many of us see Brexit as a genuine dilemma: the voice of the people, even if mistaken, counts for something. This is miles away from the technocratic top-down policies which centrists have often favoured.

I hope that this suffices as a sketch to suggest that political commitment and analysis are compatible. Of course, this isn't to say that they always are in practice. But the notion of dispassionate centrists facing unreflective leftists is surely simplistic.

I know you'll reply that my notions of leftism are idiosyncratic. But are they? Or is it just that they seem so because these ideas aren't often heard in the mainstream media?

* I know. Centrists such as Larry Summers (who re-coined the phrase secular stagnation) and technocrats at the IMF, among other places, have written tons about stagnation and inequality. But this hasn't percolated through to newspaper columnists.

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