The reluctant socialist: A (sort of) book review

Posted: 10th August 2012 by Get No Happy in Angry Rants, Politics, Reviews

I’ve always had trouble defining where I sit politically. I used to consider myself a libertarian, until the obvious dawned on me about 5 years ago that in order for all people to individually  reach their full potential it was important their parents spent money on baby food and books rather than heroin. It’s a constant amusement to me that the form of society expounded by the US Tea Party, one where every ones success or failure depends entirely on their own efforts, inherently requires a  socialist society to work. Nevertheless I still dislike the attempt to absolve the slovenly and criminal of all responsibility for their actions and have no problem with the idea of the latter being horsewhipped through the streets mounted on a cart pulled by the former in a macabre but utilitarian form of exercise. I also believe, that with very few exceptions, society on it’s own fails no one; it’s a reflexive relationship. No council builds a ‘sink estate’ or a knife-saturated comprehensive, the people who live and go there do that.

And in his defence, fire is kinda awesome

If only the school hadn’t been flammable, this poor tyke could have received an education

I think the thing that annoyed me most after the riots was listening to chavs with no education complaining about not being offered the ‘jobs they wanted’, when a few years previously I was a double graduate with published scientific papers happy(ish) to apply to any crappy job I could find. Basically life isn’t fair and you have no absolute right to a PlayStation. This, and a general believe that nuclear weapons aren’t inherently bad, that the police are hear to protect us rather than act as the iron fist of an oppressive shadow government, and that one always has some personal responsibility should make me a natural Conservative . However the problem is there seem to be only two sorts of Tory these days; the snorting aristocrat who still bemoans the fact King Charles lost the Civil War and King George lost the Colonies, and the neo-liberal Republican-type who wish to  dismantle the state so they can sell contaminated milk to school children because arsenic has a higher profit margin as a preservative, and neither of these particularly appeal.

You should see what they decided NOT to include

…and we’ll call it ‘Mother’s Friend’

Equally, like most people (or at least the people you meet when you’re achingly middle class and over educated) I’m very liberal in the individual freedom and equality sense, which conservatives generally aren’t. I genuinely don’t care who you take home in the evening, their skin colour nor which particular deity you shout exhalations to before the swing gives way under the weight of your urine soaked furry suit. Indeed, in my more sober moments I even accept that the right of “Gavin from Stockport” to both hold his asinine, ill-informed and hyperbolic opinions and to ‘contribute’ them to the BBC comments section without a visit from the local commissar is probably better than the alternative.  Also, as social psychology experiments go, treating women as equals for the past few decades has been pretty successful.

I'm sure the sat-nav said "straight on"

well… within a statistical margin of error

Nevertheless, I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of being ‘left wing’.

As well as the unnerving and unwavering support for the USSR, there was also the the inherent anti-Americanism (especially following 9/11), the incessant championing of the idea we live in some sort of fascist state, an environmentalism based on some hypothetical eden-esque prehistoric past and an aversion to anything that resembled ‘Western’ ideals resulting in a sort of racialist relativism  unwilling to extend the concept universal human rights (and responsibilities) to people that aren’t white.

This is on top of the blanket absolution of all criminal behaviour by anyone below the median income line. For an ideology that campaigns against (rightly) the ‘blame the victim’ response to say sexual assault, they seem awfully willing to do this when the perpetrator is poor and the victim has (had) an iPad. This was especially evident in the riots last year, where despite all evidence to the contrary (for instance the targeting of local shops and houses, running from rather than confronting police, the fact Waterstones was hilariously left untouched) these were seen as class warfare rather than opportunistic looting. More generally I always find the continual call for ‘more education’ around things such teen pregnancy and health to be both patronising and, ironically,  elitist: I mean you can’t expect someone without a degree in Marxist Theory to look after themselves can you?

Basically to me, being truly left wing means behaving like an hypocritical idiots. It meant venerating tyrants and being so wound up in post-modern relativism that I’m fairly sure many have drowned due to the belief that oxygen-dependent respiration was nothing more than a pervasive falsehood perpetuated by oppressive bourgeoisie science to keep the proletariat from a new life of freedom and prosperity under the sea.

If you won't abandon the dogma of Western science, then drowing is really your own fault

“up on the shore they work all day, under the sun they slave away”
… You’re not even trying…

Why am I saying all this? Well, the following are to two book I wish I’d written: “What’s Left” by Nick Cohen, and “The Fallout: How a guilty liberal lost his innocence” by Andrew Anthony. Both are written by two people who considered themselves for many years to be left-wing revolutionaries, the latter going so far as to take part (albeit as a farm hand) in the various South American revolutions, who are incensed that a movement that once championed equality and freedom now finds itself acting to prevent these things. They both explain far more eloquently than I ever could the trouble I’ve always had in identifying with the modern left wing.

Of the two, “What Left” is much more thorough and global affair and acts a potted history of the insanity he feels took over the left following the glory days of the sixties. Some of it was familiar to me, such as the the admiration of the USSR and refusal to accept the views of those escaping from it, and the rather disgusting “they had it coming” attitude to any bombing in Israel and in the aftermath of 9/11, and the failure to stand up for freedom of speech and expression in the face of religious fundamentalism. Perhaps more shocking were the reports from what was happening at the general discursive level, with high profile liberal intellectuals of the day willing to sacrifice Human Rights at the alter of cultural relativism . Equally shocking was the way, following the invasions of Iraq, the left abandoned individuals and movements in Iraq it once supported, because these people were quite content with the fall of Sadam. Instead they decided to take the side of religious fundamentalists, clearly the natural ally of liberalism, who were busy racking up sectarian kills like they were aiming for the top of a Call of Duty scoreboard… Because, yaknow, fuck America!

Once again my inability to grow a beard will come back to haunt me

Liberating us from the hegemony of a democratic, secular, artistically and scientifically creative Superpower since 2001

This is certainly the more academic book, focusing as it does (as mentioned briefly above) on the philosophical wrangling and reactions of the left wing intellectual elite rather than ‘the man on the street’ as it were. It’s also more vitriolic, there’s a real sense of anger from someone who’s watched his ideology go from demanding freedom and equality to actively (in his eyes) acting to suppress those ideals. “The Fallout” is a much more autobiographical and personal affair. There’s less emphasis on the wider ideological debates taking place within the left, and more on the reflections of someone looking back on the mistakes he made; from the guilt of mocking a Black MP for not being ‘black’ enough and questioning an  East Berliner about why they had fled from a superior system of government, to the impotent rage of being told his anger at a recent burglary showed he had sold out because “burglary is just another form of wealth distribution” and being lambasted by former friends for suggesting Enlightenment values of freedom of speech and religion should be something the Left should support.

Now I don’t agree with everything either say. Both supported the invasion of Iraq and do so with a certain moral self-righteousness; “why would you not stop the over throw of a vile dictator?” being the main point. It’s an interesting perception of the world that probably deserves more discussion, but just to make two points that both authors seem to ignore, 1) real social change only comes from within,  the interplay between shifts in social/cultural norms and in-group/out-group dynamics means change can’t be (easily anyway) imposed by an outside force, and 2) because of this, exporting Enlightenment values at the barrel of the gun just makes them look like the cultural-specific beliefs of an invader and thus undermines their spread. Their attitude is a little like the charity worker asking how you can say you can’t afford a donation while wearing clothes not from Primark. Technically true but in reality rather facetious.

Nevertheless they’re two great books that raise important questions about how as a society we should be and how, be in form of bomb-making militants or Creationist lobbying, all the values we claim to cherish are under attack while their natural defenders have left the battlements for a light lunch. I think I’d suggest “What’s Left” just because it is a little more global in its scope and academic in it’s musing, but as I say, both are worth a read.

The problem is, after generally agreeing with both these books (and the equally excellent “Where have all the intellectuals gone?”) , it must mean I’ve become a socialist… Bugger

It's this or vote for Ed Milliband

I guess there’s only one thing for it



  1. The midnight commentator (wot comments at midnight) says:

    I wish to say odious things without fear of reprisal.