Friday, 9 December 2016

A Song From Under the Floorboards

The spat between UKIP donor Aaron Banks and media celebrity Mary Beard over the cause of the fall of the Roman Empire (which produced an epic piss-take by Left Outside that, inter alia, correctly noted there was no single cause because there was no single fall) has once again raised the spectre of a new dark age of unreason. What has struck me about this meme over the course of 2016 is the thoughtless way in which the term "expert" has been bandied about, not just as a rhetorical slur by the likes of Michael Gove but as the epitome of beleaguered rationality by liberals. Banks's claim that historians don't have a monopoly on history is a classic populist manoeuvre, which Beard was wise enough to agree with, but I also suspect he knew that questioning the value of expertise was the sort of thing that would reliably wind up her liberal supporters, many of whom appear to consider the knowledgeable and qualified, from climate scientists to Supreme Court judges, as a persecuted minority in need of protection and solidarity. I'm surprised there hasn't been a campaign to adopt an expert for Christmas.

In fact, we're all experts to a degree, in the sense of having access to local or tacit knowledge. The problem with institutionalised expertise is that it suggests a categorical difference - an epistemological class system, if you will - and one that is made through the narrow and flawed mechanism of formal qualification. You'll note that I didn't introduce Beard as a professor of Roman history, the point being that she can also legitimately claim a degree of expertise in the ways of the media (something that she is quite well aware of). Similarly, the introduction of Banks as a "donor", rather than an expert in commercial insurance, recycles a media trope in which the funding of politics outside the narrow centre, and particularly by the nouveau riches, is deemed suspiciously transactional or destabilising. Among the cheerleaders of first the SDP and then New Labour, David Sainsbury was more likely to be introduced as a thinker, though his money has had a greater indirect impact on British lives than his negligible "thought".

The idea that experts are an endangered species - that we are likely to see their euthanasia before than of the rentier - is absurd, but no less ridiculous that the hyperbolic claim that we have entered an era of "post-truth politics". Like the voguish concern over "fake news", this suggests a remarkable ignorance of the history of both politics and the mass media. The promotion of feeling over facts is as old as the Enlightenment itself, while we really didn't need to rediscover the Frankfurt School to recognise that politics deals in imagined communities and symbolic discourses. To my mind, what is most depressing about the post-Brexit / post-Trump angst is the degree of emotionalism displayed by liberals as they loudly insist on the virtues of reason while confessing themselves appalled by the irrational behaviour of the common sort. To Paul Krugman's confusion we should now add Martin Kettle's condescension: "People who once carried our hopes have increasingly embraced other causes". The bastards.

Pankaj Mishra has often been sceptical of liberal claims, but he is also a friendly critic who has long earned a crust in the liberal media. In a long (and rather confused) essay for The Guardian, entitled "Welcome to the Age of Anger", he exhibited this liberal fascination with emotion and the unknowability it gives rise to: "we cannot understand this crisis because our dominant intellectual concepts and categories seem unable to process an explosion of uncontrolled forces". Mishra taps into the liberal fear, crystallised at the turn of the twentieth century, that democracy gives voice to atavistic desires and hatreds that are as incomprehensible as they are uncontrollable: "It is a moment for thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, who warned in 1915 that the 'primitive, savage and evil impulses of mankind have not vanished in any individual', but are simply waiting for the opportunity to show themselves again. Certainly, the current conflagration has brought to the surface what Friedrich Nietzsche called 'ressentiment' – 'a whole tremulous realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in outbursts'".

The connection he makes between the liberal worries of a century ago and today is evident even in those aspects of social life, such as the ubiquity of the market, that we can confidently say are more recent: "Today, the society of entrepreneurial individuals competing in the rational market reveals unplumbed depths of misery and despair; it spawns a nihilistic rebellion against order itself". Here you see the more modern language of Foucault yoked to that of Dostoyevsky. Homo oeconomicus meets the Underground Man (which is not a bad synopsis of the film Taxi Driver). Mishra's turn to the literature of a century ago is a rebuke both to the post-1989 delusions of globalised liberal democracy and to the neoliberal notion of the rational utility maximiser that came to the fore in the 1970s, but it is also an attempt to reframe contemporary events in the language of classical liberal anxiety, which first and foremost means occluding the working class (the Freudian pathologising of Trump - the imputation of incestuous lust, the coprophagy, the "Daddy will save us" meme - is another example of this turn away from rational engagement to the delights of disgust).

Ressentiment, as originally theorised by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, was a response to the destabilising impact of industrial modernity on the marginal bourgeoisie, not the proletariat. It is a condition associated with the socially insecure and the declassé, such as the penurious ex-civil servants and thwarted students of Dostoyevsky's 1860s. Mishra goes further back to Alexis de Tocqueville's 1830s criticism of American "meritocracy", which is a thinly-disguised fear of universal suffrage: "The rage for equality is conjoined with the pursuit of prosperity mandated by the global consumer economy, aggravating tensions and contradictions in inner lives that are then played out in the public sphere". What is notable here is not the commonplace observation that capitalism is destabilising, nor that this effect is amplified by globalisation, but the suggestion that a popular "rage for equality" is also to blame. If right-populism seeks to constrain globalisation and equality, and if left-populism seeks to restrain capitalism and globalisation, liberalism believes that all three must be restrained (i.e. scrupulously managed) by the qualified.

Mishra is astute on the failings of the liberal establishment: "Our political and intellectual elites midwifed the new 'irrationalism' through a studied indifference to the emotional dislocation and economic suffering induced by modern capitalism. Not surprisingly, they are now unable to explain its rise". He is also right to dismiss the voguish calls for a centrist nationalism, and its associated disavowal of identity politics, as nostalgia for a "time when paternalistic white liberals occupied the vital centre, little disturbed by the needs and desires of history's forgotten, humiliated and silenced people". But his diagnosis ultimately dribbles away in a wishy-washy call for "a richer and more varied picture of human experience and needs" based on a "greater precision in matters of the soul". Given his reliance on late 19th century thought, I half feared he was about to recommend Theosophy. This inconclusive end should be a clue that surrendering to the dark force of unreason is a dead end, even if it offers the erogenous pleasure of victimhood in the manner of Mary Beard's supporters.

To understand shifts in the popular mood it is always wise to first proceed on the assumption that they are rational. The fact that liberals are so easily spooked suggests that their own faith in rationality is fragile, though perhaps this is because they secretly believe that only a chosen few are really capable of rational judgement. It also means that they fail to appreciate just how hegemonic liberalism is, notably the idea of progress. It is the fear that progress, in the sense of "getting on", is over - that our children and grandchildren will lead poorer lives - that animates much of the current dissatisfaction. It is in this ironic sense that many people have understood the phrase "the end of history". Martin Kettle says "The most important political lesson of my lifetime still feels to me to be the fall of the Soviet Union". What he and many other liberals cannot seem to get is that for most working class people in the West this was one of the less significant events of the last 30 years.


  1. For most working class people in the West this was one of the less significant events of the last 30 years.

    If we narrowed that down to "working class people in the West with any interest in socialist politics", would that still hold, do you think?

    1. For many, yes. For example, in the UK I suspect most working class socialists would consider the abandonment of council housebuilding and the defeat of the miners to be more significant, and they probably felt that at the time, not just with the benefit of hindsight.

  2. "To understand shifts in the popular mood it is always wise to first proceed on the assumption that they are rational. The fact that liberals are so easily spooked suggests that their own faith in rationality is fragile, though perhaps this is because they secretly believe that only a chosen few are really capable of rational judgement."

    I like this.

    To elaborate, the problem that liberals have is that their "rationality" is too narrowly defined - they are failing to see outside of their box, that others could have a rationality that they do not share. That could be a wilful failure - because it's against their interests, a lack of imagination or an attempt to maintain their closed shop on rationality. Or any combination of those three.