Posted tagged ‘ideology’

Left or right, and does it matter?

January 3, 2017

Here is a policy document by a British political party: suggesting that people should vote for it because it would ensure ‘fair conditions in industry’, the better representation of women in Parliament, ‘increased prosperity’ and ‘better wages’, the abolition of slums, better ‘maternal and infant welfare’, ‘shorter working hours’, equal pay for equal work, ‘decent homes at economic rents’. So, which party was advertising all of these progressive policies? Well, it was Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. Ask anyone at all, and they will tell you that Mosley led a bunch of ultra-rightwing extremists. But look at these policies, and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party could sign up to all of them. Of course I am not suggesting that today’s Labour Party is fascist, and indeed Mosley held all sorts of racist views that would be anathema to any true member of the Labour Party – but he did describe himself to his death as a man of the left.

When I was beginning to form my own political views in my teens, with the Cold War in full swing, identifying the left and the right was simple enough. The left supported or to a degree tolerated the Soviet Union and/or Chairman Mao, believed in the common ownership of key industries and services and argued for workers’ rights in their struggles with big business. The right supported the United States and NATO and believed in the value of free trade and capitalism and individualism. You supported one or the other of these positions, and that was it.

But the certainties of the Cold War world have been turned upside down. The USSR’s successor, Russia, now has as its admirers a mixture of old left nostalgia addicts, but also Donald Trump and what the media like to call the ‘extreme right’, such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France. The latter, a little bit like Mosley’s fascists, mix anti-immigrant rhetoric with vague policies suggesting social concern; and for former (or nostalgic) communists, it has substructures that will sound comforting and familiar: a ‘politburo’ and a ‘central committee’. And its senior politicians are every bit as opposed to ‘neoliberal’ policies as the most committed member of the traditional left.

If the dividing line between left and right is geopolitical, then goodness knows how you would classify today’s politicians and parties: Putin, Trump, Farage, Assad, Le Pen are all on one side, but what side is that? And what about Angela Merkel, is she left or rightwing? If it’s all about economics, then how do we handle globalisation, freedom of movement (for workers and refugees), international trade?

In fact, the dividing line between ideologies is now almost certainly globalisation, though it is hugely complex. In America the so-called ‘Alt-Right’ movement shares with various voices of the ‘left’ a dislike of military interference in other countries, but more significantly than that wants to protect traditional cultures, and in particular the perceived (or claimed) ‘white’ history of the United States. Migration rather than economics is the new battlefield in the fight for votes. But it is really hard to identify the combatants, because the causes range from what is really just racism, to the fear of losing one’s culture, to a rampant nostalgia for some perceived golden era in which everyone kept to their ‘own’ places, to the suspicion that migrants take jobs or depress wages.

I am, though in no party political sense, a liberal. I believe in freedom and tolerance, in enterprise and innovation, and in fairness and justice. I believe that this outlook has brought progress, prosperity and enlightenment when it has been allowed to flourish.  But I am increasingly concerned that this kind of manifesto has almost no committed defenders in the global theatre of politics (though in Scotland I may not be so alone).

I doubt that the old left-right taxonomy still has much meaning. But I fear that the absence of any clear political direction will make this world a much less pleasant and a much more dangerous place. In the past, much of the key ideological debates came from the contributions of academics: Hayek, Friedman, AJP Taylor, Hobsbawm. Where are we academics now, in this new world of ideological disarray?

How politicians resist scholarship

February 17, 2016

One thing to watch closely in the current US presidential election campaign is how some politicians adopt an ideological approach to what one might call the current state of informed knowledge. This is the case in particular in the approach of many Republic Party candidates, who as has been documented insist that they hold the truth on certain issues even in the face of different academic consensus. This leads them to argue against evolution, climate change and other conclusions of the academy, in terms that suggest that knowledge and science can never trump ideology. It is reminiscent of the rule of Stalin in the Soviet Union, who famously sent the scientist Alexander Chizhevsky to a labour camp, declaring that his research on sunspots had ‘taken an unMarxist turn’.

Knowledge, as long as it is critically evaluated, should of course always trump bias and prejudice, even if that prejudice wears the cloak of political doctrine. It is why the Republicans’ approach must be resisted, as should all attempts to sideline science, including attempts for example to declare that genetic modifications are always wrong irrespective of evidence. Politics should not determine the direction of scholarship or its conclusions.

Political professors

December 1, 2010

Some years ago when I was Head of a university department I received a letter from the father of one of our students, complaining about one of my colleagues. The lecturer in question had, in the course of his lectures, allegedly told the class repeatedly that only socialism provided a satisfactory answer to society’s political, economic and cultural issues. My correspondent claimed that the lecturer had on several occasions urged his students to read books by Karl Marx (though these were not directly relevant to his course), and that on one occasion he had urged the class to vote for the Labour Party in a then imminent election. This, he suggested, was unacceptable conduct for a lecturer and an abuse of his position, and he demanded that I take action.

On investigating I found, as you might expect, that there was some disagreement about the facts, but the lecturer agreed that he had argued that socialism provided a satisfactory political frame of reference and had urged the students to read more about it; he said he had done this because most of them appeared to be largely ignorant of any political perspective other than a free-market capitalist one. He denied ever having urged anyone to vote Labour, but conceded he had mentioned that this is what he himself habitually did.

I should perhaps emphasise first of all that I do not accept, as is sometimes argued, that universities are full of left-leaning academics who indoctrinate their students. I suspect that the distribution of political opinions is much more balanced, and may even lean somewhat towards the centre-right position in politics. The question however is whether an expression in class of a political opinion by an academic – whatever that opinion may be – is acceptable. Needless to say, this is connected with questions of academic freedom, though it is more complex than that. Indoctrination – if there were such – cannot simply be justified in that way.

In the event, I did not find that my colleague had done anything that was clearly unacceptable, though he may have sailed close to the wind. On the whole, I would take the view that where a professor states his political perspective they will be able to alert students to their own potential bias and invite the statement of balancing views. But that may not be terribly relevant if your subject is organic chemistry. And what if the statement of political views takes the form of advocacy, or might to listeners appear to take that form? Is it acceptable for an academic to seek to persuade students of the merits of partisan political views? Or is it even acceptable to argue for a particular ideological position without reference to parties?

I am not sure what the answer to this is, even today. I am uneasy about political advocacy hiding behind academic freedom, but then again I would regret a higher education culture in which academics were constantly having to self-censor; students are mature people who should be able to handle political, philosophical, economic and social views. After all, should we have told Hayek or Hobsbawm that their views had no place in the academy? I don’t think so.

The re-birth of the left/right divide?

May 23, 2010

Occasionally in this blog I have expressed some sentimental regret about the disappearance of ideology as a driver of political debate. It sometimes seems to me that when we had the Cold War and the accompanying competition between fundamental policy perspectives it was easier for the wider population to be engaged in the bigger political questions. Back then, or so the nostalgic instinct in me feels, people were interested in how society might be improved (though they might differ on the prescription) where today they get edgy about the outcome of the latest series of ‘the X-Factor‘.

However, if ideology looks like a corpse, there are a few people giving it a hard kick in the hope that it may be resuscitated. For example, have a look at this conference on Marxism planned for early July. Yes, it’s sponsored by the Socialist Workers Party, who are not exactly the proponents of subtle political argument,  but it has gathered an interesting array of speakers. Some of them will have their feet high up in the air, but it should still be fun. If I had the time I’d almost be tempted to go.

And across the Atlantic that old warhorse of the in-your-face right wing, Newt Gingrich, has been telling the Fox News man Glenn Beck (no lefty either) on the occasion of the annual knees-up of the National Rifle Association (oh heavens, the combination of all that) about his new book, To Save America. And why did he write it? Let the man speak:

‘I mean, I thought after Reagan defeated the Soviet empire and tax cuts led to economic growth and believing in America led to the most dramatic period of positive progress, I really underestimated the depth of the Marxist, secular, socialist mindset in the academy and in the bureaucracy and in judgeships and in the newsrooms.’

So can we hope that stuff like this will reignite the ideological engine of political debate? Alas, I doubt it. If we have to rely on the Socialist Workers Party or Newt Gingrich to lead the new movement, we’ll end up with debate as pantomime, with cartoon characters hitting each other with big clubs rather than intelligent people engaging in competitive analysis.

Just a few months ago I attended a gathering at which a senior Irish politician predicted with some enthusiasm that, after the bankers and property speculators had nearly brought capitalism to its knees, a fiery rivalry between ideological positions would return. As far as I can see, that’s not happening, and I doubt it will. But if it doesn’t happen in society, maybe it should in the universities, which should always be clearing houses for arguable concepts and propositions. We should be pushing the idea of principle (rather than opportunism) as a foundation for policy, or of the benefits of a coherent frame of reference in political discourse.

Having at one stage in my life been strongly driven by ideology, I don’t think I could myself return to that; but I would find a wider political debate based on something more fundamental than the desire to manage as best we can to be refreshing.

Re-discovering community

December 11, 2009

As I have mentioned before in this blog, I moved to Ireland with my family in the early 1960s, when I was seven years old. We came from a heavily industrialised region of Germany to rural County Westmeath, and one of my earliest memories of that time is of the strong sense of community: there was a feeling of togetherness and of a common life and common interests that, at least at that young age, I had not been aware of in Germany. Of course an active community can also be claustrophobic, and in 1960s/1970s Ireland you became most aware of it when you realised you could do almost nothing that would not become public knowledge within hours. And of course we also know now that the community of the time was concealing some terrible secrets. But it also provided many supports and comforts.

Later I moved to Dublin, and Dublin itself moved into an age of growing prosperity and aggressive materialism, and the sense of community was much less apparent. And yet it could make an unexpected appearance occasionally. I remember, just after I took office as President of DCU, visiting Ballymun (the outer city district just North of DCU, which for a couple of decades had been a centre of urban blight, high rise apartments, bad services, crime and deprivation); what struck me more than the poverty and the rampant social problems was the amazing diversity of voluntary social organisations and societies.

And now, as we have lost our recent up-start prosperity, what appears to be happening is that we are witnessing a return of community ideals. Some recent market research discovered that advertising that makes at least an oblique reference to community values and activities resonates more with potential customers than that which addresses just the consumer-related benefits. Also, organisations that depend on volunteers to run their often charitable activities have witnessed an explosion of offers of help.

It seems that material adversity is bringing out the people and putting them in touch with the community. But there may also be other things at work. Consider, for example, the apparent decline of email as a communications method of choice; this is not a sign that people are returning to writing letters on vellum paper with quill pens, but rather that email is perhaps seen as too private and individualistic, and that communication through social networking sites and applications is attracting younger people in particular: the concept of community for the digital age.

The idea of the community has also been harnessed for social theory and semi-ideological purposes. The German-Jewish sociologist Amitai Etzioni was one of the founders of the ‘communitarian‘ frame of reference, which influenced a number of politicians, including Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Another noted academic with communitarian ideas is Harvard professor Robert Putnam, who has been influential amongst some politicians in Ireland.  Although it cannot be said that this has become an ideology, nevertheless it has contributed to an interest in the community as a basis for social and economic policies. And it has reinforced the idea that aggressive individualism, unimpeded by any recognition of society, will tend to unravel after a while.

So as we try to make sense of all the events of the past two years or so, it seems that our sense of the community is being re-awakened. That cannot be a bad thing.

Finding a political perspective

December 6, 2009

In previous posts (for example, in this one) I have reflected on the decline and virtual disappearance of ideology as a basis for political discourse. However it has recently seemed to some people – but not, I have to confess, to me – that the economic developments of the past year or two might herald the return of a more pronounced left-right divide in politics and, perhaps, a vigourous debate on whether capitalism could survive the crisis which had engulfed banking in particular.

An interesting and articulate contribution to this debate has just been published, in a book entitled Transforming Ireland: Challenges, Critiques, Resources. Edited by Debbie Ging, Michael Cronin and Peadar Kirby (the first two of whom are DCU staff, while the third is a former DCU colleague now in Limerick), the book argues the case for social solidarity as a frame of reference for analysis and ultimately action, and suggests that a fascination with markets over the past decade or two has generated increased inequalities and social problems.

For anyone interested in the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger, and the implications of our recent national prosperity and current convulsions, this book makes interesting reading and provides a stimulating set of analyses and perspectives. Whether the authors are right in  their views may be open to some debate; I suspect that their antagonism to market economics and their belief in the emergence of social solidarity as a new left perspective may not be as readily endorsed by the wider population, who will I imagine be happy enough with the established order if it can re-create economic growth, employment and restored property values over the next year or two; and contrary to the current fashion of economic pessimism, I feel that it possibly will.

Nevertheless, any contribution to the debate is welcome, and one that pushes at least a little for the return of ideology as a driver of thinking will always be interesting to me. I suspect we are actually in a post-ideological world, but a large part of me regrets that and feels nostalgic for the sheer fun that used to be found in political debate, as well as the fact that political strategy is more interesting when it is more ambitious than just setting the numerical target for GDP growth.

At the very least, I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to engage in the discussion of where we should now be going.

The fallen Wall and a search for history

November 9, 2009

One of my very earliest memories is of walking with my parents and older sister on the banks of the River Elbe near Dannenberg in what was then (in the mid-1950s) West Germany. At that point the Elbe marked the border between the Federal Republic of (West) Germany and the (East) German Democratic Republic. The river here is very wide, but as I walked with my parents they explained that the men I could just about see on the other side were armed border guards and that they would stop anyone who wanted to swim across the river. The idea of wanting to swim across this vast river seemed absurd to me, and so I quietly thought of the role of these guards as being one of wanting to help people do what was in their best interests. Probably they thought the same. When just a few weeks later my father explained that one such would-be swimmer had been shot by the guards on entering the water, I did think that their particular service of helping citizens had been taken beyond reasonable limits, and as a three-year-old I changed my views.

But right then, East Germany was haemorrhaging citizens. By the end of the 1950s over two million people had fled their republic to seek a new life in ours. And so in August 1961 the most porous part of the East-West frontier – the divided city of Berlin – was closed with the erection of a wall that surrounded the western enclave. Even then, there continued to be regular (and often ingenious, but also often fatal) attempts to flee from the East to the West, including continuing attempts at the River Elbe where I walked as a child.

Today, November 9, marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall; or to put it more accurately, of the decision by the East German authorities (who were at that point in serious difficulty) to open the wall to informal transit in both directions. Not long afterwards the Wall did come down, and not long afterwards again East and West Germany were reunited. And as we know, the American political economist Francis Fukuyama declared at that time that we had reached ‘the end of history‘: the competition between ideologies was over for ever, and the West’s liberal capitalism had won.

Of course history didn’t end – and for the record and to be fair, Fukuyama has developed a much more nuanced view of international affairs since then, indeed last year he supported Barack Obama’s successful bid for the US presidency. There is, it is true, no longer a recognisable global ideological conflict between a capitalist and a socialist world view; but this has given way to lots of other conflicts, some of them very hard to contain in philosophical terms. The events of September 11, 2001, and what followed them were infinitely more alarming in many ways than the articulated and feared threats of the Cold War that, at least in Europe, never produced any actual conflict. Meanwhile in the states of the former East Germany, which often have had to suffer greater economic and social problems than the former West, a significant minority have started to feel some nostalgia for the old times, a condition that has been called ‘Ostalgie’ (a contraction of ‘East Nostalgia’).

Whatever may be the view of it now, the fall of the Berlin Wall was one of the very greatest iconic moments in history, unforgettable to all those who saw it, even if just on a television screen. Even if it made no clear statements about ideologies, it did declare that attempts by a state to suppress its own citizens could not work for ever. But it did not solve all of Germany’s problems for all time, never mind the world’s. Over the years, governments have increasingly failed to deliver a vision of where they think we should go. Economic boom conditions dulled some of the questions about vision, but they have now returned with a vengeance. So the right mood for the 20th anniversary celebrations of the fall of the Wall is not one of triumph and self-satisfaction, but one of re-appraisal of what western developed countries have been doing, and what they intend to do now.

That’s a job for all of us, and the time is right for it.