Monday, April 17, 2006

Sounds so good in stereo

I probably shouldn't go to National Trust houses. Visiting one this afternoon I was accosted by an attendant, who wanted me to know that the strip of linen in a glass case on the wall was a garter which had been worn by Charles I. As I walked away, I couldn't resist giving a quick finger-across-neck gesture, although I felt childish immediately afterwards. At least I didn't do it to her face.

Fortunately I think I'm reasonably safe with regard to the criminal law. Contrary to some readings, the Terrorism Act 2006 doesn't actually make it illegal to glorify political activity which involves carrying out or threatening personal violence, violence against property, economic disruption or a denial of service attack (otherwise known as 'terrorism'). It makes it illegal to glorify activity of any of these kinds in such a way that members of the public could reasonably be expected to infer that what is being glorified is being glorified as conduct that should be emulated by them in existing circumstances. So I think Garry can relax - as indeed can I, as long as I don't say anything about the current Royals. (Update - on second thoughts I'm not so sure; see the comments.)

Anyway, there was one genuinely interesting exhibit in among the rich people's playthings and copies of Old Masters: an early-nineteenth-century broadside ballad dedicated to the theme that British people wanted "King, not Consul" - more specifically, George III and not Napoleon. It seemed that what was particularly objectionable about Napoleon wasn't the fact that he was a foreign ruler - and thus could only come to power by defeating the British armed forces and overthrowing the British government - but his religious faith, or lack of it. Napoleon was as happy to negotiate (from a position of strength) with Muslims in Egypt as the Pope in Rome: at worst he was a Muslim himself, at best he was a slippery and untrustworthy atheist. From the second verse of the broadside:
No Corsican despot in Britain shall rule,
No avowed devotee of the Mussulman school
Reading these lines I was suddenly reminded of the tone of the Euston Manifesto:
We decline to make excuses for, to indulgently "understand", reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy

We reject the double standards ... [of] finding lesser (though all too real) violations of human rights which are closer to home, or are the responsibility of certain disfavoured governments, more deplorable than other violations that are flagrantly worse.

Terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology is widespread today ... like all terrorism, it is a menace that has to be fought, and not excused.

the reaction to the crimes of 9/11, the excuse-making for suicide-terrorism, the disgraceful alliances lately set up inside the "anti-war" movement with illiberal theocrats ... Leftists who make common cause with, or excuses for, anti-democratic forces should be criticized in clear and forthright terms.
The difference between the Left that I identify with and the Euston signatories seems less a matter of policy than of perspective. I look at the British government and I see several things that alarm me deeply: for example, the Terrorism Acts (2006 and 2000), the Iraq invasion, control orders, ASBOs, the creeping privatisation of health and education, an excessively friendly relationship with Berlusconi's Italy, a far too friendly relationship with Sharon's Israel and a downright subservient relationship with Bush's USA. The Euston signatories, apparently, look at our government and see a democracy - what's more, a democracy that's under threat from enemies of democracy. Which means that, before we get into the details of what a Left project might look like in current conditions, there are hard questions to be asked. One hard question in particular: which side are you on? Do you want to be ruled by a Corsican despot, or don't you? You don't? Well then, you'd better stop complaining, and support the only people who are in a position to protect you. God save the King!

Back in Euston (surely not the Head of Steam...) the point is not to support democracy as a principle but to oppose selected opponents of democracy - and support the nations which also oppose them. It's a retreat from politics into patriotism, essentially, sketchily covered by gestures towards universalism. (Like all terrorism, it is a menace that has to be fought, for example. Unlike the drafters of the Terrorism Act 2000, the authors don't pause to define terrorism, which is probably just as well: I'm not sure there is a definition which would make that statement valid.) As I wrote earlier, "Taking up the cudgels for one relatively undemocratic status quo against another is a mug's game"; in practice it may be locally appropriate or even necessary, but it doesn't follow that we should treat it as a political principle. Unfortunately, the drift from tactical accommodation to statement of principle seems hard to resist.

It is all very well to be ‘advanced’ or ‘enlightened’, to snigger at Colonel Blimp and proclaim your emancipation from all traditional loyalties, but a time comes when the sand of the desert is sodden red and what have I done for thee, England, my England?
- George Orwell, April 1940

It seems the time has come for Norm, Nick and friends. At least they're in good company.

Small update (18/4)

Over at Crooked Timber, Marc Mulholland has an interesting angle:
The problem, I reckon, is the very vague formulation of the concept of agency. Classic manifestos identify a historic force (class, nation, the free-born or whatever) and pledge allegiance to it. For ‘Euston’, the agency seems to be ‘actually existing’ pluralist democracies as projectors of state power and example. But there is no examination of why governments should be privileged over, say, national communities, market-orientated civil societies or class alliance configurations as carriers of the democratic ethos.
I think this is backwards: I don't think the concept of agency is vague, or indeed that it isn't the starting point of the exercise (in the classic manifesto style). What the Eustonistas have done is precisely to identify an actually-existing (ha) historic force and pledge allegiance to it, then dress the whole in statements of liberal principle. That's why the end result reads so oddly ("straight-forward neo-cons do this kind of thing a lot more effectively", as Marc says).

10 Comments:

Blogger Chris Williams said...

Given the Eustonites devotion to new moral war, surely they met in the Rocket?

On the other hand, round there I eat in Lord's and drink in the Prince of Wales, so who am I to carp?

18/4/06 00:25  
Blogger Simon said...

I asked one of the attendees which pub it was. He didn't squeal, but did say they were upstairs in an establishment without real ale.

18/4/06 01:35  
Blogger CuriousHamster said...

You may well be right. My reading of it was based on the fact that I wrote "Sometimes it is necessary to take decisive action against an objectionable government".

The bills says an offence has been committed if someone publishes a statement and "at the time he publishes it...is reckless as to whether members of the public... could reasonably be expected to infer that what is being glorified is being glorified as conduct that should be emulated by them in existing circumstances."

Could it be argued that my statement (in the present tense) was reckless as to...? After all, I've described Blair's government as objectionable on any number of occassions.

Not, I now hasten to add, that I actually do want to encourage that sort of decisive action in this case. Obviously. That, I suspect, might be the flaw in my dastardly scheme to become a dangerous law breaker.

On the EM:
"It's a retreat from politics into patriotism, essentially, sketchily covered by gestures towards universalism."
An outstanding summary.

Garry

19/4/06 00:23  
Blogger Paulie said...

"Taking up the cudgels for one relatively undemocratic status quo against another is a mug's game"

'Relatively'?

You're right about the obsession with democracy among the EMers. It's a bit like, say, being obsessed with the view that a fair trial is the best way of dispensing justice.

A surprising number of leftish critics of the EM have been eqivocal about the values of liberal democracy. I suspect that, when it is boiled down, that exposing this equivocation is the reason the EM was drafted in the first place.

19/4/06 00:40  
Blogger Phil said...

Garry - you've got a point, I missed the 'reckless' qualification (a.k.a. the "mind how you go, sunshine" clause). Nasty.

Paulie - my perception is that the Euston manifesto isn't obsessed with democracy as a political principle. It's obsessed with opposing enemies of democracy, but that's a very different position - and puts you in very different company.

As for 'relatively undemocratic', as a socialist I'd say that any system in which the means of production aren't democratically controlled is relatively undemocratic. Even leaving economic democracy out of the picture, I think a system in which the support of 22% of the electorate gives the leadership of a political party a five-year mandate to pass whatever laws it feels like leaves something to be desired. (See also this post at S&M.)

So, yes, I decline to give wholehearted support to the British state as an incarnation of liberal democracy; if that was the trap the Euston drafters were trying to set, congratulations, they've caught one. What shall we play now?

19/4/06 08:05  
Blogger Paulie said...

Phil,

I still don't understand your reticence. You said...

"...any system in which the means of production aren't democratically controlled is relatively undemocratic."

Relative to what (or what, that is, and has existed for any length of time)?

I should qualify this with a gambit of my own. I'd suggest that a functioning liberal democracy is probably an essential pre-condition to a functioning economic democracy. And that's one of the main reasons that I like the EM. Many of it's signatories are - like you - enthusiasts for industrial democracy (I'm a co-operator myself).

They reason (like I do) that liberal democracy can be bulwarked by an alliance of socialists and other assorted liberals.

Again, you argue...

"I think a system in which the support of 22% of the electorate gives the leadership of a political party a five-year mandate to pass whatever laws it feels like leaves something to be desired..."

I'd agree. Liberal democracy is imperfect. But remember democracy in it's totality is much more than an electoral system. I'd reform that system, but I'd also want to reduce the level of media concentration, disrupt the work of pressure groups, take steps to raise the quality of journalism, reduce the power that parties have over backbenchers, make civil servants more responsive to elected representatives, and so on. I'd like to change the voting system and I'd like an elected second chamber. I wouldn't even object to an elected president and the de facto abolition of the monarchy.

We all have our own formula for improving democracy. And the current offering may be imperfect - but it's less imperfect than any of the other alternatives on offer at the moment.

Finally, on Stumbling and Mumbling. It's an excellent blog that has really set me thinking lately. I really like reading its posts on Direct Democracy. But I disagree with it as profoundly as almost anything I've ever read on the blogosphere. However, S&M set an elephant trap for someone like myself. It offered a line of argument that I hadn't come across before - and in doing so, it linked to a few lengthy learned articles that deal with an issue that I'm not familliar. I want to offer a good response, but I need to understand those arguments first.

Why am I writing this in YOUR comments box? I should be putting it in S&Ms instead.....

19/4/06 18:02  
Blogger Phil said...

Paulie - I think the British system is quite good in many ways, and there are certainly lots of systems it's better than. But - in terms of political principle - so what? My energies are surely better employed criticising the faults in our system (which might lead to progress) than in celebrating its superiority over other systems. As I say in the post, the Euston Manifesto seems to have begun with a statement of allegiance rather than a statement of principle.

19/4/06 23:38  
Blogger Paulie said...

"My energies are surely better employed criticising the faults in our system (which might lead to progress) than in celebrating its superiority over other systems."

I'd question that as a tenable position for an internationalist. It certainly reduces your ability to argue an internationalist position.

Elsewhere, I've argued that - unless you put criticisms of liberal democracy in context - and are an active proponent of the liberal democracy in the absence of other proven models, then you are left with no-where to go when you come across political movements that really DO want to destroy the very essence of democracy.

I suppose my comment to you here, Phil, is partly a standard criticism made by the 'constitutional' left towards what we would call 'oppositionists'

I find that criticism that starts with "you are bad people and you should change" is taken less seriously than someone saying "the system we have at the moment is not bad by comparison to most on offer - but there are lots of ways that it can be improved - here's one"

I suppose it's a re-working of the 'glass half-full / empty' debate.

20/4/06 19:34  
Blogger Phil said...

It certainly reduces your ability to argue an internationalist position.

In what sense? Internationalism begins from a shared class position, surely? Even a non-socialist internationalist would begin from common humanity, as far as I can see. Both of these starting-points are strengthened, not weakened, by acknowledgement of the flaws in 'our' system.

unless you put criticisms of liberal democracy in context - and are an active proponent of the liberal democracy in the absence of other proven models, then you are left with no-where to go when you come across political movements that really DO want to destroy the very essence of democracy.

But 'the very essence of democracy' is an abstraction which doesn't exist anywhere. (And round we go again...) If anyone tells me that they believe, as a matter of principle, that ordinary people should not have any control over their government, then I'll certainly grant you that they're opposed to democracy. But neither an Islamist nor a Stalinist nor a Fascist is ever likely to come out and say that, because - whatever their beliefs look like to us - that's not what they think they believe. There's no real alternative to judging 'by their fruits' - and being just as critical of the shortcomings of 'democratic' governments as of their 'undemocratic' rivals.

24/4/06 23:56  
Blogger Alex said...

an establishment without real ale.

Well, that explains a lot..

25/4/06 16:59  

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