Postscript to the October 2007 edition of What’s Left?
Tony Blair: There is global struggle in which we need a
policy based on democracy, on freedom and on justice . . .
John Humphrys (a BBC presenter): Our idea of
democracy. . .
Blair: I didn’t know that there was another idea of
democracy. . .
Humphrys: If I may say so, that’s naïve . . .
Blair: The one basic fact about democracy, surely, is that you
can get rid of your government if you don’t like them.
Humphrys: The Iranians elected their own government, and
we’re now telling them. . .
Blair: Hold on John, something like 60 per cent of the
candidates were excluded.
BBC Radio 4, February 2007
WHEN I published What’s Left? I did not expect to be universally loved. I have lived among London’s liberal intelligentsia long enough to know that while it is hard on others it is always easy on itself, and would not take kindly to a history of how leftish people had ended up apologizing for the ultra-right. The reviewers who praised this book are all over its cover, what surprised me about the critics was their denial. A few said the book was a defence of the second Iraq war, even though every time I mentioned opposition to the war I said the opponents were right in nearly all their arguments but had astonished me and others by their inability to support those Iraqis who wanted something better after thirty-five years of a vile dictatorship.
More common was a transparent shiftiness. All right, critics conceded, a few leftists had flipped over and gone along Islamism and Baathism. But these people were not worth bothering with. No connection existed between the ideological contortions of the extremes and a liberal mainstream that remained wedded to the highest principles. All I had done was use odious but fringe figures to smear decent and moderate men and women, such as themselves.
As an account of my argument, this was partial in the extreme. What’s Left? l ooks at how the Left picked up and then dropped the opponents of Saddam Hussein; why the European Union stood by and allowed Slobodan Milosevic to ethnically cleanse the Balkans; the reasons for the liberal middle class’s disillusion
with democracy and free speech; the instant willingness of respectable writers to excuse Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks; the inability of the British Liberal Democrats and European Social Democrats to oppose George W. Bush while supporting a free Iraq; the growth of polite antisemitism; and the propensity of liberals everywhere to portray a global clerical fascist movement as a rational response to Western provocation.
Say what you will, but these were and are mainstream phenomena. Liberal writers did not examine them and explain why I was mistaken. They just ignored what I had written and hoped that if they insisted on their righteousness with sufficient vehemence, others would believe them – and maybe they would believe themselves.
For denial about what had happened to the liberal-left was not confined to the reaction of a couple of reviewers to one political book. In Europe and North America intellectuals worked ferociously to maintain the illusion that a principled consensus survived the mayhem after 9/11. I can sympathize with them to an extent because although it is essential to realize where the received wisdom is going wrong it is rarely a simple or painless task.
Historians have it easy. They can look back at another time and see the faults in what almost everyone took for granted. In theory, we know future historians will do the same to us and find elements of our beliefs as wrong-headed and narrow-minded as we find many of those of our ancestors. In practice, however, self-examination is psychologically impossible for many.When you live in a consensus, it does not feel as if you have an ideology that needs examining. If the overwhelming majority of people you meet agree with you, your assumptions do not appear tenuous or debatable. They are just there – as natural as the air you breathe and as unquestionable as the weather.
Often it takes a fresh set of eyes to see a stale world anew. In 2006, after two years of living in South America, Martin Amis returned to Britain find a liberal-left wallowing in self-delusion. When asked by the Independent what had shocked him most since he got home he replied
‘The most depressing thing was the sight of middle-class white demonstrators waddling around under placards saying, “We Are All Hezbollah Now”. Well, make the most of being Hezbollah while you can. As its leader, famously advised the West: “We don’t want anything from you.We just want to eliminate you.”’
Critics could say that leftists boasting of their conversion to Islamism were a fringe phenomenon; although they only ever said that when they were cornered. At all other times, they never discussed the movement from the far left to the far right, and their silence implied complicity. In any case, Amis made it clear that he was talking about the mainstream, not the fringe, when he continued that he then went on Question Time, the most popular political discussion programme of the day.
‘A woman in the audience, her voice quavering with self-righteousness, presented the following argument. Since it was America that supported Osama bin Laden when he was fighting the Russians, the US armed forces, in response to September 11, “should be dropping bombs on themselves!” And the audience applauded. It is quite an achievement. People of liberal sympathies, stupefied by relativism, have become the apologists for a credal wave that is racist, misogynist, homophobic, imperialist and genocidal. To put it another way, they are up the arse of those that want them dead.’
So they were, and so they remain to this day, as any honest examination of mainstream liberal culture would show. To stay only with the BBC, in the first Question Time after 9/11, a section of the audience screamed down the attempts by Philip Lader, the former US Ambassador to Britain, to express his condolences for the dead of New York and Washington and left him close to tears. Even at that early stage, his abusers were convinced that America had it coming and radical Islam was nothing more than a rational reaction to Western policy. A follow-up programme dumbfounded ministers in the 2005 Labour government. When one of their number, Hilary Benn, a palpably decent man, whatever members of the publicthought of his politics, tried to say how much he admired those Iraqis who daily risked the lives of themselves and their families in the unequal struggle to build a new society, the audience booed him. When a slimy tabloid journalist giggled about the failure of Iraqi democracy, the audience cheered him on.
Meanwhile so consistent was the pro-Islamist party line in the BBC’s drama it seemed as if a politburo had taken control of the arts department. The 2006 series of Spooks showed Islamist suicide bombers taking over the Saudi Arabian embassy. Nothing too far fetched in that, real MI5 agents were running themselves ragged as they tried to close down terror cells. The BBC’s novel twist was that its fictional MI5 agents discovered that the Islamists were Mossad agents in disguise. Was the BBC agreeing with Mohammed Atta’s father and saying that Islamist terrorism was a Jewish conspiracy? Up to a point it was. As the Guardian’s critic put it, liberal broadcasters were positing ‘a kind of moral equivalence – albeit a qualified one – between the legitimate if not always overly legalistic secret security service of a democratically elected government
and stateless Jihadists whose aim is the destruction of everything they don’t believe in’.
Even children were not spared. The BBC’s reworking of Robin Hood turned the Sheriff of Nottingham and Guy of Gisborne into pastiches of George W. Bush and Tony Blair. The actor playing Sir Guy explained that in the twenty-first century version of Sherwood Forest, Robin returns from a war in the Middle East to find Nottinghamshire controlled by an unpopular leader who has imposed heavy taxes and a climate of fear. The story is about ‘the perpetuation of terror’ in which Robin and his men are the terrorists, he said. ‘It’s in the Sheriff ’s interests to keep fear of the outlaws alive so he can control the populace.’
Did the BBC mean that Robin Hood and his Merry Men were Osama bin Laden and his Merry Islamists? Or that the Government was inventing a non-existent Islamist threat to justify placing the British under the iron heel of the national security state? Possibly both, but I doubt it worried about the contradiction. When a consensus takes hold, believers do not feel the need to think about what they say. The assurance that all their right-thinking friends agree with them produces a bad case of verbal diarrhoea in which sufferers blurt out half-thought-out declarations and accusations without worrying about how they will sound to those outside the consensus, because they do not believe that anyone worth thinking about is outside it.
I have quoted a few of thousands of examples from the BBC because its most strident opponents do not pretend that its staff are anything other than conventionally minded members of the middle-class mainstream.
But if you are still not convinced that there is more to be worried about than a few loons on the fringe, allow me to hand you over to a group I suspect we are going to be hearing a lot more from: British Muslims who converted to Islamism and came out the other side to tell their stories.
In his memoir, The Islamist, Ed Husain marvelled at how the Labour government, the liberal media and supposedly antifascist leftists had aided movements that represented everything they purported to be against. He described how he broke with the gentle religion of his parents when he was a teenager and joined a mosque in the East End of London dominated by Jamaat-i-Islaami, the south Asian sister fellow organization of the Muslim Brotherhood. They immersed him in the totalitarian thought of Jamaat’s founder Abul Ala Mawdudi, and of Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood’s theorist of total jihad against a world sunk in paganism. On his bedroom wall, he stuck the motto of Jamaat and the Brotherhood:
Allah is Our Lord
Muhammad is Our Leader
The Koran is Our Constitution
Jihad is Our Way
Martyrdom is Our Desire
He moved on to the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which wanted a theocratic empire, and used the indifference of Hurd and Major to the massacres of Bosnia’s Muslims to nurture the ideas of ‘jihad, martyrdom, confrontation and anti-Americanism’ in the Nineties. On every step of his journey, he found the forces of the liberal mainstream melting before him.When he organized students in London colleges, he found intimidating liberalacademics a simple task. They did not know how to respond to the ever more provocative demands of the Islamic societies he set up. Multi-culturalism can only work if public institutions are secular spaces where all are welcome and sectarianism has no place. However, the university administrators’ commitment to liberal secularism was undermined by the worry that it was racist – ‘Islamophobic’ – to confront extremists; so they backed off from the necessary confrontations and allowed the Islamists free rein. ‘
Our magnetism and vitality drew people to us,’ Husain remembered. ‘A visible Muslim presence everywhere, women veiled, ubiquitous posters of Islam and the student population, almost without exception, under our control.’
Just before he released The Islamist, Husain went back to his old mosque. ‘In the bookshop, I bought an updated copy of Qutb’s Milestones, published not in Riyadh but in Birmingham…with chapter headings such as ‘The virtues of killing a non-believer’, and ideas such as ‘Attacking the non-believers in their territories is a collective and individual duty’. Just as I had done as a sixteen-year-old, hundreds of young Muslims are buying these books from Islamist mosques in Britain and imbibing the idea that killing non-believers is not only acceptable but the duty of a good Muslim.
Husain was shocked that Jamaat and the Muslim Brotherhood were the allies of the leaders of the nominally left-wing anti-war movement, although readers of this book will not be. More telling, was his description of how the Labour government turned its back on moderates and treated members of Jamaat and the Brotherhood as the legitimate voice of British Islam; invited them into Whitehall to guide government policy and to Buckingham Palace to receive knighthoods, even if they had said that they supported the murder of Salman Rushdie. Labour, like many who voted for it, was anti-racist and anti-sexist, yet when confronted with the Muslim versions of the European far-right parties it strived to accommodate them.
A second British refugee from Islamism remembered the contempt with which his former associates held the leftists who tried to appease them. Hassan Butt, who had been a recruiter for jihad, described
‘how we used to laugh in celebration whenever people on TV proclaimed that the sole cause for Islamic acts of terror like 9/11, the Madrid bombings and 7/7 was Western foreign policy. By blaming the government for our actions, those who pushed the “Blair’s bombs” line did our propaganda work for us. More
important, they also helped to draw away any critical examination from the real engine of our violence: Islamic theology.’
He explained that theology succinctly:
What drove me and many of my peers to plot acts of extreme terror within Britain, our own homeland and abroad, was a sense that we were fighting for the creation of a revolutionary state that would eventually bring Islamic justice to the world. The foundation of extremist reasoning rests upon a dualistic model of the world.Many Muslims may or may not agree with secularism but at the moment, formal Islamic theology, unlike Christian theology, does not allow for the separation of state and religion. There is no rendering unto Caesar in Islamic theology because state and religion are considered to be one and the same. The centuries-old reasoning of Islamic jurists also extends to the world stage where the rules of interaction between Dar ul-Islam (the Land of Islam) and Dar ul-Kufr (the Land of Unbelief) have been set down to cover almost every matter of trade, peace and war.What radicals and extremists do is to take these premises two steps further. Their first step has been to reason that since there is no Islamic state in existence, the whole world must be Dar ul-Kufr. Step two: since Islam must declare war on unbelief, they have declared war upon the whole world. Many of my former peers, myself included, were taught by Pakistani and British radical preachers that this reclassification of the globe as a Land of War (Dar ul-Harb) allows any Muslim to destroy the sanctity of the five rights that every human is granted under Islam: life, wealth, land, mind and belief. In Dar ul-Harb, anything goes, including the treachery and cowardice of attacking civilians.
WHY COULD not liberals stand up to the nightmare of sexism, racism, homophobia and tyranny this psychopathic ideology brought? Why did they deny its existence and pretend that its massacres and repression were somehow understandable protests rather than a single-minded effort to implement an apocalyptic creed?
If you have reached this far, I hope you feel that you have read a book rather than a theoretical pamphlet with a formal statement of its premises. However, perhaps the closing pages are the place to draw together the reasons for the liberal-left’s predicament that come out in the narrative.
On the rare occasions mainstream commentators discussed it, they breezily said that if leftists seemed to be heading to the far right occasionally, they were simply reacting against the catastrophic Bush administration. This was a part of the answer, but could not be the whole truth. It did not explain why Western liberals and leftists could not oppose Bush while supporting those who shared their values in the poor world and took no account of the treacheries within leftism long before Bush came to power. To understand that long betrayal we have to look for deeper causes.
1.Socialism for Shoppers: The Rise of Consumer Leftism
It is hard to define what it means to be left wing in the twenty-first century. Generally, people who say they are on the Left favour higher rates of taxation and the provision of public services by state monopolies, and are wary of private corporations and financial markets. Yet when their social democratic politicians take power they often turn to the market for solutions to the practical problems of running modern societies. They recognize that socialism in its extreme and moderate forms has gone. Parties of the Left in the democratic world are everywhere cautious and flexible, and can no longer inspire enthusiasm for state control because they no longer believe in it – and nor do most of their supporters when they are honest with themselves. Political writers have discussed the death of socialism and the triumph of market liberalism at length, but few have noticed a morbid consequence.
In the twentieth century, many on the Left were willing to support or minimize the crimes of the communists. To condemn Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, say, but ignore the victims of the Soviet Union and its satellite states was one characteristic double standard. To demand that the West scrap its nuclear weapons while implying that the Soviet arsenal was purely defensive was a second. In a usually ill-defined manner, they did not believe that communism was wholly rotten and that the progressive rhetoric in communist propaganda was all lies. Bar a few exceptions we discussed, however, they were resolute in their opposition to the fascist tradition.
In the twenty-first century, with socialism gone, the main threat to the status quo comes from Islamists whose attitudes towards women, Jews, homosexuals and free thought do not even pretend to be progressive. Indeed, in Iran, Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip and everywhere else they take power, they persecute leftists. Yet people who call themselves left wing cannot bring themselves to oppose them.
Far leftists go further and are open in their support for jihadis. The apologias from some liberals are so comprehensive that they must also support radical Islam in their hearts. Far leftists have to head to the far right because there is simply nowhere else for them to go now that the revolutionary guerrillas and communist regimes of the twentieth century are history. A love of violence and hatred of their own societies – well merited or otherwise – leads them to conclude that any killer of Americans is better than none.
To explain the catastrophic collapse of their hopes they have revived the false consciousness conspiracy theory, which has been present in socialist thought since the early defeats at the turn of the twentieth century, and given it an astonishing prominence. They hold that the masses rejected the Left because brainwashing media corporations ‘manufactured consent’ for globalization. Democracy is a sham, the political parties are all the same and human rights are meaningless. What fools call freedom is a smokescreen to hide the machinations of the real rulers of the world. The theory of false consciousness is very close to the antisemitic conspiracy theory of classic Nazism. Indeed its adherents often topple over into the antisemitic conspiracy theory of classic Nazism.
These may seem like fringe developments but the new ideology that emerged in dark, barely noticed corners of the Left fitted the consumer society well. Because there was no coherent left-wing political programme the most unlikely people could affect a leftish posture.
If I were a socialist writing fifty years ago, you might have read me and found yourself agreeing with a proposal I was making. But because I believed in socialism I would have to interject and say that I also wanted the nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy, penal taxation, stronger rights for trade unions and workers’ control. If not you, then other readers would have backed away at that moment, muttering that my ideas would lead to disaster. Modern leftists do not have to risk alienating readers with proposals that might be uncomfortable. They rarely have proposals for a new ordering of society. They are merely against the West in general or America in particular, both of which, God knows, provide reasons aplenty for opposition. The collapse in ideology also explains the general inability to support feminists, democrats and leftists in the poor world. If you do not have a positive programme yourself, how can you see strangers as comrades who must be supported? These betrayals may be scandalous but they chime with the psychology of consumerism. Shoppers have little time for Auden’s flat ephemeral pamphlets and boring meetings. They are commitment-phobes, with no appetite for the hard slog and the long haul.
Even leftish conspiracy theories do not feel as absurd as they once might have done. In the age of globalization, people who are prosperous and free can still feel that vast powers beyond democratic control run the world.
The result is that almost anyone can strike a leftish pose now. When I go into the homes of the richest people I know, I see Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore on their shelves and think, ‘Why am I surprised? Of course, they read them. The Left is no threat to them any longer. Being a leftist carries no costs.’
2. Multi-Culti Going Faulty
Whoever said of the late twentieth century that ‘the Right won the economic war but the Left won the cultural war’ deserves a prize. Just as market liberalism triumphed in economics, so social liberalism triumphed in wider society. It was routine for each side to accuse each other of hypocrisy. ‘How can you support social liberalism but not economic liberalism,’ conservatives asked leftists. ‘Well tu quoque and vice versa,’ leftists replied.
Although the extraordinary success of campaigns against sexism and racism vastly improved the lives of millions of individuals, the accusation that leftish liberals were hypocrites because they favoured cultural but not economic liberalism was not always right. Post-modern liberals developed an identity politics based on group definitions that was antiindividualist in its assumptions. They treated women, members of ethnic minorities, gays and others as members of blocs with communal interests. Their simplifications were not always pernicious – a campaign to tighten the law on domestic violence, for example, is a campaign for women, not this or that woman. But as we saw in Chapter 4, post-modernists took the liberal idea of tolerance and pushed group-based identity politics into an extreme relativism. I am unqualified to discuss their philosophy, although I instinctively feel it is wrong, but a child could understand their politics, which is why they had to hide them in such convoluted prose. They held that it was racist and culturally imperialist to criticize ‘the Other’ even when ‘the Other’ was engaging in the repression of women, persecution of homosexuals and denial of democracy. Groups or cultures were treated as hermetically sealed boxes that did not have internal conflicts, and whose discourses could not be criticized with universal concepts and standards. The one exception was their own culture, which they dismissed as repressive even when it upheld the rights of women, homosexuals and lived by democratic norms.
A stance against ‘the West’ or ‘the hegemonic’ absolved all sins. When the Islamic revolution in Iran began its persecution of leftists, the nominally left-wing Michel Foucault said Europeans should not condemn because Iranians ‘did not have the same regime of truth as ours’. His betrayal has run through post-modern politics ever since. Today’s Iranian feminists may hold the same beliefs as Western feminists but they are not admirable fighters for universal values against the prejudices of a misogynist autocracy but embarrassments who are failing to fulfil their allotted cultural roles.
As John Maynard Keynes might have predicted, strange ideas that began in the universities in the Seventies were everywhere a generation later. Cultural relativism explains why a Labour government embraced the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-i-Islaami, and why liberal academics refused to confront Islamists on the campuses. As seriously, the emphasis on difference and the denial of universality in post-modern multi-culturalism made a virtue of segregating immigrant communities in Europe. One British Muslim who came close to becoming a terrorist said:
the result of 25 years of multiculturalism has not been multicultural communities. It has been mono-cultural communities. Islamic communities are segregated. Many Muslims want to live apart from mainstream British society; official government policy has helped them do so. I grew up without any white friends.My school was almost entirely Muslim. I had almost no direct experience of ‘British life’ or ‘British institutions’. So it was easy for the extremists to say to me: ‘You see? You’re not part of British society.You never will be.You can only be part of an Islamic society.’ The first part of what they said was true. I wasn’t part of British society: nothing in my life overlapped with it.
Official indifference to the treatment of women inevitably followed. Parents pulled Asian girls out of school before they could take the examinations that might lead to an independent career. ‘Honour killings’ were all too frequent and forced marriages were commonplace. Politically correct state authorities decided to print official literature in translation rather than teach immigrants English. The thought that a foreign wife who could not speak English could be trapped at home with a brutal husband with no means of calling for help or breaking free and forging a new life did not occur to them.
If white-skinned women had been murdered, raped, battered and denied education and independence because of their sex, liberal England would have screamed blue murder, but because the victims had brown skins it maintained a polite silence and felt very liberal when it did so.
Just before he resigned, Tony Blair told the BBC that upholding universal standards of justice and democracy must be an aim of British foreign policy. A man-of-the people interviewer, who was extremely unlikely to have heard of Foucault let alone read him, interrupted with the sneer, ‘Our idea of democracy’. Blair said there was only one idea of democracy, ‘that you can get rid of your government if you don’t like them’. The interviewer replied that Iran, then in a confrontation with the West, was a democracy, and did not seem abashed when Blair pointed out that the religious authorities vetoed candidates and harassed dissidents. From Foucault’s different standards of truth to the BBC’s different ideas of democracy, supposedly liberal or leftish relativists betrayed the very people who were entitled to expect their support, abroad and at home.
3. Liberal Disillusion
The Virginia Woolf type of liberal intellectual has always disliked the working class. Today a far wider nervousness about the ability of middle-class liberals to mobilize popular support for the causes that mean most to them pervades Europe and North America. The centralization of decision-making in the European Union, the fondness for asking unelected judges to take political decisions, the speech codes and the unwillingness of liberal politicians and journalists to tackle hard subjects that might be deemed as racist, all speak to a belief that the working class is authoritarian and prejudiced and not to be trusted.
You can see how my class got that way. Successive Conservative and New Labour governments in Britain and successive Democrat and Republican administrations in the United States had shown that ‘populist’ politics was always popular. Meanwhile the necessary campaigns for equality for women, ethnic minorities and homosexuals carried with them a distasteful and tactically disastrous suggestion that the working class, and working-class men especially, were the most pernicious enemies of the new freedoms.
Beyond a fear that they could not win majorities in open elections, the liberal middle classes across the developed world felt a far deeper unease that history was no longer on its side. Market economies undermined the status and comparative wealth of the public sector managers who dominated modern states at the high tide of social democracy in the mid-twentieth century. Financiers and industrialists accrued fantastic wealth and political status, while the liberal middle classes lingered in jobs their rulers despised for their failure to be market-orientated.
Modern democracy was a system which produced results that no longer pleased them. They were less likely than they once would have been to oppose clerical fascist movements and stand up for the best values of their societies, not dodgy dossiers or privileges for plutocrats but the freedoms the liberal-left once died for, and may have to die for again.
In 1968 at the start of the narrative of this book, no one – not Kanan Makiya and the revolutionary students, nor the politicians, spies and academics who specialized in international affairs – predicted the wars that would follow the Baathist seizure of power or the extraordinary scope and violence of the Islamist explosion that began with the Iranian revolution. From the 9/11 atrocities on, the dimmest citizens of the Western democracies could be in no doubt that forces were swirling around the globe that would murder them without compunction. Yet after 9/11, citizens were not murdered in significant numbers. As I said before, I owe my apologies to the bereaved of the attacks on London and Madrid. But when set against the astonishing scale of the Iraqi massacres or the genocide in Darfur, the rich world could live with these casualties, while all the time knowing that unimaginable violence could be coming not just from foreigners but from neighbours radicalized in unregulated mosques, trained in the badlands of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and coordinated via the Internet.
A frantic desire to appease would be the natural response in normal circumstances, but it became ubiquitous when citizens saw that America and Britain had launched the second Iraq war on the worst intelligence since the US military dismissed the possibility of a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. ‘Surely, this was “our” fault,’ they said. ‘Surely, we were the “root cause”, and, surely, if we admitted our responsibility and changed our ways the psychopath would move on and pick on someone else and we would be safe.’
Fear is the most powerful of human motives, and a willingness to rationalize the irrational is a fatal liberal weakness. Add in the despairing and reactionary turn modern leftish thinking took after the collapse of socialism, the tolerance of the intolerable inculcated by post-modernism and the doubts about democracy in the liberal mainstream, and I hope you can see why so many could not oppose totalitarian movements of the far right or even call them by their real names.
However understandable the denial, it remains as pitiful a response to Islamism as climate change denial is to global warming. Both sets of deniers believe that we can carry on as before living our safe, consumerist lives as if nothing has changed. Neither understands that we have no choice other than to face the threats of our time. Reasonable men and women can disagree about how we face them, but we will not be able to see the world clearly until we have swept away the vast mounds of junk that block our view.