A place of politics, culture (!!) & random subjects from Airstrip One. Noel hopes it will be of interest and/or use to all sorts of voyagers in cyberspace!

My Photo
Location: London, England, United Kingdom

The Voice Of 40-Something Cynical Optimism!

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The death of left-right politics? Here's hoping!

A one-time drinking partner of mine (Rob, if you're reading this- get in touch, mate!) once astutely commented that no-one is totally left or right-wing. That was about 15 years ago when the world was a lot more black and white in my minds' eye than it is now. Although I think I'm on "the left" somewhere I cannot abide a lot of so-called "socialists." You should support a party or ideology to the extent they support the issues or causes you feel strongly about. If that leads to you having unusual political bedfellows so be it. For instance, on the European Union I've got a lot of time for the likes of Conservative (or ex-Conservative) MPs like Richard Body, Bill Cash & Richard Shepherd. Furthermore, on issues like Iraq, ID Cards and "Faith Schools" I am totally opposed to what an ostensibly "socialist" government is proposing. Conversely, on more than one occasion I have heard "right-wingers" express their admiration for Tony Benn and condemn the "McDonaldisation" of Britain.

With politics throughout the Western World in complete flux since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc all sorts of interesting phenomenon have appeared. For instance, the "Pro-War Left". Too many ex-Marxists (ie Christopher Hitchens, Norman Geras, David Aaronovitch) post-September 11th have embraced war. I seem to remember that Benito Mussolini was a devout Marxist until World War One came along. First time as tragedy, second time as farce, to coin a phrase. It is interesting that Neo-Conservatism has "left-wing" roots as well...

The neoconservative temptation beckoning Britain's bitter liberals: For leftists divided by Iraq, tomorrow's launch of a rightwing political society could be a transforming moment
David Clark, The Guardian, Monday November 21, 2005

The idea that foreign policy would come to dominate the political agenda to the extent that it does today would have seemed implausible a decade ago. With the cold war over and the end of history proclaimed, it was time to concentrate on bread-and-butter issues such as jobs and education. Bill Clinton famously won the presidency by exploiting the popular perception that George Bush Sr devoted too much time to international affairs. The Conservatives, of course, tore themselves apart over Europe, but that merely served to illustrate how out of touch they had become. The war on terror has changed all that. Today it seems that foreign policy once again has the power to transform the political landscape.

One organisation that certainly hopes so is the Henry Jackson Society, due to be launched in London tomorrow. At first sight this seems an eccentric initiative. The late Henry "Scoop" Jackson - US senator and would-be presidential candidate - was never a household name in this country. Politically, he was a conventional New Deal Democrat, a staunch trade unionist and a committed environmentalist. Yet the society that bears his name consists mainly of intellectuals and politicians of the free-market right, such as Andrew Roberts and Michael Gove. So what explains this apparent example of political cross-dressing? The answer is that Jackson was also a leading liberal cold warrior and figurehead for what became known as the neoconservative movement.

It is common outside America to regard neoconservatism as synonymous with the Republican right. In fact, its roots lie mostly on the left. The original neoconservatives - also nicknamed Socialists for Nixon - were anti-communist leftists and liberals who became alienated from the Democratic party when it endorsed the anti-Vietnam war candidate George McGovern for president in 1972. Appalled by what they saw as the refusal of liberals to defend their values and confront totalitarianism in the guise of Soviet power, the neoconservatives drifted to the right, contributing to a broader political realignment that swept Ronald Reagan to power.

Many took jobs in the Reagan administration and found a permanent home in the Republican party in the process. While some embraced the neoconservative label, others rejected it and insisted that they remained liberals. A smattering supported Clinton in 1992, while "Scoop" Jackson himself was a loyal Democrat to the end. To this day the neocons even retain an outpost on the left in the form of Social Democrats USA, one of America's two affiliates to the Socialist International.

The founders of the Henry Jackson Society are aware of this history and hope to turn it to their advantage by drawing parallels with Britain. Just as the Vietnam war was a catalyst for the division of American liberalism and the ascendancy of a new conservative coalition, they hope that the schism on the British left over Iraq will form the basis of a similar political realignment and a new governing consensus of the right. The decision to appropriate Jackson's legacy and the appealing tone of the society's founding statement ("There are limits to the market, which needs to serve the Democratic Community and should be reconciled to the environment") are intended to ease the glide path for progressives who might be tempted in that direction.

This is unlikely to take the form of parliamentary defections, though Gisela Stuart, one of only two Labour MPs to sign up so far (the other being Denis MacShane), might be one to watch; in the spirit of Socialists for Nixon, she endorsed George Bush's re-election campaign. But an effect of this kind is not the main point of the exercise. The neoconservatives of the 70s were significant because they changed the intellectual climate in ways that benefited the right, not because they switched party. Indeed, the fact that a number of its leading figures remained liberals, at least in name, was a considerable plus. One thing that their background in radical politics gave them was an appreciation of the purpose and nature of a hegemonic project.

Looking at the state of British politics today, it is not far-fetched to imagine something analogous happening here. The Iraq war has created feelings of bitterness that will not easily go away, and the effect on the political debate far beyond foreign policy has been pronounced. It is now quite common to find former stalwarts of the liberal commentariat celebrating the primacy of global markets, urging a return to selection in education, denouncing multiculturalism and calling for the election of rightwing governments in foreign countries.

More to the point, it is possible to detect in their writings the same disgust with the liberal mainstream that animated the original US neoconservatives. John Kampfner, of the New Statesman, provoked howls of outrage a couple of years ago when he described a number of leading liberal supporters of the Iraq war as neoconservatives. But if we strip the term of its pejorative connotations, the experience of America 30 years ago provides a valid comparison.

Can anything be done to prevent this schism becoming permanent? The first thing to say is that these putative British neocons sometimes have a point. The left can be reluctant to assert the superiority of liberal democracy, thereby laying itself open to the charge of moral relativism. Those who preach critical engagement with the more moderate currents of Islamism often fail to remain sufficiently critical in the face of reactionary and illiberal opinions. Some with a simplistic, Manichean worldview tend to look like the mirror image of George Bush, disagreeing only about who is good and who is evil.

But a lasting split can only be avoided if the spirit of self-criticism becomes mutual. Liberal interventionists who supported the invasion of Iraq may have been sincere in their motives, but they can no longer pretend that it has been anything other than a disaster in its practical consequences. Islamist extremism isn't flourishing primarily because of liberal indulgence, though examples of this can certainly be found. It is flourishing because, in the eyes of most Muslims, the west is associated less with freedom and democracy than with white phosphorus, Abu Ghraib and Ariel Sharon. In this, the agency of unipolar American power in the hands of a hard rightwing president has proved to be fatally compromising.

Efforts to heal the wounds created by Iraq must be a common responsibility of the liberal left. The coming end of the Blair era, together with the eclipse of the Bush presidency, provides an opportunity to disengage from the occupation and take a new direction in the fight against terrorism around which liberals and progressives can unite. To squander it would be to play into the hands of those who want the next era of British politics to be a Conservative one.

David Clark is a former Labour government adviser

As mentioned above one member of the Henry Jackson Society is NuLab MP Denis MacShane, mindlessly pro-EU ex-Minister for Europe, who likes calling anyone opposed to the EU as a xenophobe (if not out and out fascist/racist) and was a supporter of the abortive coup against Hugo Chavez in Venzuala in 2002 (supporter of the EU and military coups, eh Denis? Oh, you're one of those "friends of democracy", are you?).

Another area of possible "left-right fusion" is the connection between Libertarianism and Greens. On the face of it, this appears a daft proposition: Libertarians (anarcho-caps) are pro-growth and pro-technology, the Greens anti. However, groups like the Libertarian Alliance can be split into those who think that corporate big business is un undoubted Good Thing, and those who see Corporate Capital as the antithesis of the free market. Once you have Libertarians who believe that Small Is Beautiful and War Is The Health Of The State you are not far from Green positions. Also so much that Greens criticise about modern "industrial society" (although I live in a deliberately "deindustrialised society") such as motorways, airport expansions and nuclar power stations were only possible through "state socialism for the rich" ie corporate welfare no true believer in the free market should stand for.

Kevin Carson believes that a Green-Libertarian meetings of minds is possible:

One of the most promising political developments in recent American history, in my opinion, was the attempt of Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess 35-odd years ago to build an Old Right-New Left coalition against the corporate state. The libertarian socialist faction of SDS and the radical libertarian caucus of the YAF, together, were a big part of that effort. From the late 60s into the early 70s, Rothbard was writing for Ramparts and Studies on the Left, and quoting New Left historiography of corporate liberalism from the likes of Gabriel Kolko and James Weinstein. His journal Left and Right was created to explore issues of concern to that left-right coalition. And the first year's worth of The Libertarian Forum was full of all sorts of heady discussion in the same vein.

In a way, the friendly relations between the Libertarian Party's Badnarik and the Green Party's Cobb in 2004 seemed like a partial revival of that old coalition; the two were backslapping each other through the whole third party debate on C-SPAN, and Badnarik earlier praised the Greens for their decentralist values and their departure from conventional state socialism.

It would be a match made in heaven, as far as I'm concerned. My own general reaction to both parties is that the Greens are right about most of the things they object to: pollution, labor exploitation, concentration of capital, and the other evils of corporate rule. But free market libertarianism has the answers to what causes those evils, and how to address them. A coalition to achieve the ends of socialism through the means of (as Benjamin Tucker put it) "consistent Manchesterism" would be ideal. See, for example, this essay by Dan Sullivan: "Greens and Libertarians: The Yin and Yang of Our Political Future." For a brief summary of the kinds of anti-corporate radicalism Rothbard and his comrades were getting up to in those early issues of Libertarian Forum, and my ideas for an agenda based on the common ground between radical free marketers and libertarian socialists, you can check out my "Libertarian Forum: A Resource for UnCapitalists?" Here's another one on a possible Libertarian-Green alliance for tax reform.

We could do a hell of a lot worse than a common agenda to (for instance) get out of Iraq, repeal USA Patriot, declare a drug war armistice, radically scale back "intellectual property" [sic], eliminate corporate welfare, and raise the personal income tax exemption to $30,000. As Tom Knapp put it a while back, dismantle big government by cutting welfare from the top down and taxes from the bottom up.

I suppose another possible political fusion project is between Greens and Tories. However, I think Zac Goldsmith, editor of the truly wrist-slitting Ecologist magazine (speaking as a Green Party member, you have to realise that saying "the planet is dying",like "capitalism will inevitably collapse" from an earlier age, can easily politically demobilise people very quickly) will be taken for a ride by being put on David Cameron's committee to re-examine Tory Party policy on the environment. In the interesting interview below, Mr G attacks the Greens for not having a proper leader (something the modern Tory Party knows all about!) but I think the Greens are open to new ideas and attracting the politically disaffected in a way the Cons never will. Join the Greens Zac- I want to buy your sister Jemima a drink if nothing else!!

True-blue green: Stuart Jeffries meets the Tory hopeful and environmentalist Zac Goldsmith
The Guardian, Saturday December 3, 2005

Zac Goldsmith was chatting to the chief buyer for a supermarket chain recently. He was happy to learn that customers preferred English apples to those flown halfway across the world. What a marvellous saving in aviation fuel this trend could provoke, he suggested. The buyer shook his head. What Goldsmith didn't understand was that, before the apples arrive on our supermarket shelves, they are flown to South Africa to be waxed.

"Globalisation has changed the way we live massively and not in good ways," says Goldsmith. Since the World Bank was established in 1944, he says, there has been a 12-fold increase in global trade and a five-fold increase in economic growth. "Life expectancy is falling. Three billion people live on less than two dollars a day. Agricultural land is shrinking. Globalisation is responsible for all these things." According to the UN, he says, drought, deforestation, industrial agriculture and climatic volatility are responsible for the loss of 250m acres of fertile soil each year, undermining the food security of 1.2 billion people worldwide.

We are having lunch in a pizzeria in Chelsea farmers' market, a venue Goldsmith chose because most of its ingredients are supplied by an adjacent organic supermarket. "Anything that can be produced in Britain is sold there in preference to foreign goods," he says. The restaurant and shop are owned by a Persian man, who also owns a tobacco shop and a nightclub. Goldsmith, 30, the son of the late corporate raider and Referendum party founder Sir James, is a shareholder in this incoherent portfolio. "It's not really a business thing," he says, lighting a roll-up. Rather, he sees this kind of food as the future. "I get really excited about organic. People love it."

Why, you might ask, should we listen to the anti-globalisation opinions of an old Etonian, poker-playing plutocrat who runs a play farm funded from daddy's inheritance in Devon with his wife Sheherazade, the daughter of the socialite Viviane Ventura, edits a magazine called the Ecologist, founded by his uncle Teddy, and has not unreasonable expectations of becoming a Tory MP.

Goldsmith is more interesting than such a biography suggests. True, he typifies the triumph of the toffs. But he also exemplifies how some conservationists are at heart conservatives."I consider myself and have always considered myself a conservative as opposed to a radical," he says. "I believe in the precautionary principle [the idea that if the consequences of an action are unknown, but are judged to have some potential for major negative consequences, then it is better to avoid that action]. I don't think in terms of left or right politics."

Instead, he brings a venture capitalist's mindset to the question of how to put a green agenda at the heart of British politics. In a leader in the Ecologist before this year's general election, he wrote: "Which of the main parties has an answer to climate change, antibiotic-resistant superbugs, the rural crisis, collapsing fish stocks?" A vote for the Labour party was a vote for the status quo, he said, while the Lib Dems were "an authoritarian party with a big-government, legislative answer to every problem". Which left the Tories, who, Goldsmith contended, had made useful suggestions, such as referendums on local planning issues.

The piece had a personal resonance. "For the last couple of years," he says, "I have been thinking a lot about getting involved in politics." Why not the Green party? "It's not really a serious party. I don't understand them - all this stuff about revolving leaders, some of whom are very talented and others who aren't." Temperamentally, too, this bon viveur is insufficiently ascetic for the Greens. "I hate that kind of green politics that suggests people ought to live like monks. There is a problem with the green movement berating people it needs to have on side. If you live in a system of rampant consumerism, it's pointless to be continually blamed when you can't really do otherwise."

So, instead of going Green, Goldsmith is turning blue. It is a family tradition: his grandfather Frank, who arrived in Britain from Paris with his parents in 1894, became a Tory MP and friend of the young Winston Churchill. He says Sir James would have approved. "He was a very well-organised man," says Goldsmith. "He had a daughter every 10 years." One of them was Jemima, Goldsmith's equally glamorous sister.

You can see why the Tories would want Goldsmith, if not on their front bench then at least wherever a TV camera is rolling. He's young, articulate and the best-looking Tory I've interviewed. And he has an estimated £300m fortune. Why, then, would he want to be associated with a bunch of Tory losers? "I think the party is lost at the moment. The good thing about the Conservatives is that they're thrashing around for an identity and that presents an opportunity for change." Would he like to be shadow environment secretary? "In terms of my own personal ambitions, I don't have any."

So, is he for Davis or Cameron? After all, Davis is - like Goldsmith - on the board of trustees of the Eurosceptic European Foundation. "I've met Davis several times. I don't know Cameron. Even if his views are opposed to mine, I think he is more electable." Surely he isn't interested in Goldsmith's off-message agenda? "Rory Bremner described him as a political iPod on which you could play anything. I hope that is true. I hope I will be able to infect him with environmentalism." He looks glum for a second. "It may be a complete waste of time."

Indeed, Goldsmith is probably more inspired by Ralph Nader than Cameron might like. He is hostile to big government and transnational corporate interests, and friendly towards local free-market systems favoured by rightwing American outfits such as the Cato Institute. It's a philosophy that led him to fund groups taking on GM crops, industrial agriculture and nuclear power, to tilt at the EU and to eulogise Switzerland, where true democracy, he argues, was shown to work last weekend when an anti-GM referendum was passed.

Consider his energy policy. "I believe in decentralising the grid. That way we won't have huge blackouts across Europe." Instead of favouring nuclear power, he is inspired by the renewable energy initiatives of some West Country hamlets. "They have become totally sovereign in terms of energy, running local biomass power plants," he says. But what about big cities? "You could have mini-power stations operating with biomass supplying each street. Not each house - that's fanciful. Depending on which model you use, you can expect all capital costs for such energy to be done in three years. You would have thought the government would be able to deal with banks for capital costs to be shouldered for an energy policy on those lines."

Why can't nuclear energy have a role in Goldsmith's decentralised grid? "It's the precautionary principle again. Blair is taking a huge gamble. The incidence of cancer at Sellafield is 11 times the national average. Security is also an issue: when Greenpeace broke into Sizewell B two years ago it exposed a huge security risk," he says.

The government has also dealt ineptly with energy conservation, he says. "If as much human energy had been put into that as had been put into the Iraq war, there wouldn't be such a panic about the need for nuclear power. We should be pursuing an aggressive policy of energy conservation. I use the example of energy-saving lightbulbs. People wouldn't notice a difference in their lifestyles, but the savings would be immense."

He is despairing of British agriculture. "Our intensive, industrial farms will continue to produce food for as long as they can out-compete increasingly desperate developing countries, but that won't be possible for long. Soon we will stop producing food altogether unless we change our farming policy." Does that matter? "The world is becoming less secure and, as a result, food security is even more important than energy security. It is essential we have a strong, non-intensive agriculture," he says.

When he leaves, I ask for the bill, but he has already quietly settled it. Such noblesse. Such breeding. So I visit the very good organic shop. Apples? To my eye, properly unwaxed. I buy a prepared salad of rocket, corn, radicchio and grated carrot. But it comes from Italy. Perhaps British farming is in a more parlous state than even Goldsmith imagines.

On the shelves at Zac Goldsmith's organic store, Here, in Chelsea

An organic wheat-free bread with caraway seeds from the Terence Stamp Collection (devised because the actor suffered from IBS and wheat allergies), £1.49

Carob drops, a dairy-free and soya-free alternative to chocolate buttons, £2.89. Lovely grilled on non-wheat organic bread. Also available: carob dog drops

Peter Rabbit orange and raisin organic cookies by Buxton. Vegetarian, soya-free and GM-free, with no added salt or sugar, £1.95 for 125g

Hemp-sprouted organic bread, made from an ancient recipe rich in Omega-3 oils, £1.89

Pulse Bioshield, a device for mobile phone users to neutralise the harmful side-effects (including headaches, deafness, memory loss, confusion etc) of so-called electromagnetic smog produced by mobile phones, £10.99

BTW Zac's dad, Sir James Goldsmith, in his 1994 book The Trap described free trade, intensive farming and nuclear power as (I paraphrase) three of the worst legacies of the Enlightenment. He also said that the current global economic system would produce social divisions even Marx couldn't have dreamed of. Is that a "left" or "right" worldview?


Post a Comment

<< Home