>Not Getting the Euston Line
Having not strongly identified with the left for years without exactly ever embracing the right either, I finally read the much hyped Euston Manifesto – part written in an Irish theme pub I walk past on the way to work – with a mix of curiosity, indifference and detachment. Despite the hype over its supposedly ground breaking qualities and blogosphere origins, I was distinctly under whelmed. It is in essence a more long-winded, inchoate version of the familiar arguments of pro-Iraq war left-wing ‘anti-totalitarians’ such as David Aaronovitch, Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen or Oliver Kamm topped off some more off-the-wall commitments to things like open source software.
Its basic point – that parts of the radical left are willing to make opportunistic alliances with conservative and authoritarian Islamists, backed by a lazy, knee-jerk hperbolic anti-Americanism – seems fairly obvious, but is no new departure – Ghadaffi’s Libya and Saddam’s own regime were hailed by parts of the far left in 1970s as exciting anti-imperialist experiments opening up new vistas for the revolutionary left (Ghadaffi also being later taken up the Third Positionists of the National Front during 1980s) – not to mention gallons of ink split on paens of praise to the IRA in the far left press right into the 1980s. John Callaghan’s The Far Left in British Politics covers it all – and has a few good jokes as well, which is more than the Euston Group can manage – so Respect and the broader trend it represents seem only the latest version of an old story of the marginality and opportunism of the radical left. So far so boring.
More fundamentally problematic though is the Manifesto’s Manichean notion of the need for a rearguard action to save democracy and the Enlightenment against a powerful new threat from ‘totalitarian-type movements’. There, of course, are many stripes of illiberal, semi-democratic, semi-authoritarian and populist movement, some savage, extreme and violent, but no real ‘totalitarianism’ against which the (only slightly sullied) white knights of democracy and the enlightenment now go into action. I guess this might arguably have been the case during the Cold War, when there were a small band of left-wing supporters for the US war effort in Vietnam – a way station for most to full fledged neo-conservatism, but an intellectually defensible position, I guess.
What the Manifesto proposes is also rather unremarkable – an alliance of socialists and democrats to fight for a liberal democratic minimum of human right and democracy. This seems to be a rehashed version of Eurocommunist (and earlier) notions of a Popular Front, this time turned against a ‘fascism’ or ‘authoritarian populism’ defined by radical Islam, Chomsky and George Galloway, rather than Hitler or Thatcher. This mirrors the neo-con construction of a continutation of the Cold War – radical Islam as a ‘New Bolshevism’ to use Margaret Thatcher. Despite some brief nods to economic inequalities in Western countries undermining the meaningful exercise of individual freedom orthe need for development and ‘democratic globalization’, there is little about structures of wealth and power in the Manifesto and its whole framing of politics seems as defined and obsessed by the ongoing Iraq experience as those who whose views it is targeting. Hardly, than a groundbreaking attempt to move on really
‘An opening to ideas and individuals on the right’ is a rather more interesting idea, although here we seem to be taking political realignment or radical centrism, rather than renewal of the left. The obvious problem here is that the Manifesto seems open to neo-con ideas of global democratic revolution from above – and, course some, progressive distinctly non-conservative figures like Václav Havel and Adam Michnik have signed up to this view- but not to those strains of the right that highlight the cultural and historical embeddedness and limitations of democratic (and indeed all) political institutions, and the contradictions between liberal freedoms and mass democracy.
Here, most of all, the Euston bloggers and drinkers seem to overlook the potentially rather sharp conflicts between the views of democratic and majorities and universal liberal human rights and freedoms of minorities, currently being vividly illustrated on the streets of Basra or Gaza with the election of Islamic religious parties. What do you do when the majority doesn’t want the full universal liberal rights that are ‘binding’ on all you? Undemocratically enforce them? This is the obvious answer arrived at by liberals from Mill to Hayek is yes. The obvious means being unelected, entrenched institutions and forms of colonialism. Writers like Mil made no bones about their penchant for liberal imperialism and suspicions of democracy (even in the UK)
Not alas the standard Euston group, who never address this and whose thinking seems so to say blogged down in the politics of the Iraq imbroglio viewed through a hallucinogenic Cold War construction of politics, which sees a new totalitarianism and new fellow travellers, when the realities seem messier, more confused and of course, given blog standard contributions like the Manifesto, not well thought through at all.