Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Cool Rulers?

"The Blair government has embarked on a more radical program of reform of British institutions than many expected, but it is a program that seeks to cut out  dead wood from both the left and the right; welfare dependency as well as hereditary peers, entrenched anti-business attitudes as well as social exclusion. To the extent that the New Labour project involves demolishing the legacy of World War Two and the post-war consensus, Cool might seem to be an appropriate ‘branding’ for the party. Certainly the Tories appear to think so, and their choice of a new spin-doctor  suggests that the main priority for Tory strategists is not currently to produce vote-winning policies, but to rebrand  themselves as the ‘Naturally Cool Party’. This is not quite as daft as it sounds, since a Tory party with softened social policies might be able to attack New Labour from a libertarian direction - perhaps even by promising to legalise drugs, though we wish lots of luck to the person who first tries that out on the ladies of the Tory conference."
I wrote those words a over decade ago in "Cool Rules" (Reaktion Books, 2000), the book I wrote with the late David Robins. We'd decided to write the book because Tony Blair was at the height of his popularity and the media were full of banal drivel about Cool Britannia: we wanted to point out that on our understanding of the phenomenon of Cool, it was profoundly antithetical to Blair's (and indeed Old Labour's) deeply moralistic project. At that time, when the Tory party was still in the hands of frothing, thwarted Thatcherites, it felt quite daring to suggest that the party might one day outflank Labour on the libertarian wing, but it has come to pass - though not entirely voluntarily, and requiring the assistance of the Lib Dems. (And those ladies of the Tory conference still have to be faced...) This morning I watched Theresa May, the new Home Secretary, on TV news addressing the Police Federation's conference in Bournemouth, and waited in vain for the usual Law 'n Order rhetoric to come pouring out. On the contrary she sounded admirably reasonable and in many respects, yes, to the libertarian left of recent Labour Home Secretaries. 

We consulted many other writers and theorists when we were writing "Cool Rules", and one of those who most influenced our conclusions was Mark Lilla,  Professor of Humanities at Columbia University, New York, via an article in the New York Review of Books (14th May 1998) called "A Tale of Two Reactions". Lilla pointed out a curious state of affairs in the USA whereby the generation who grew up in the 1960s were turning out to be right-wing economically but socially liberal, a combination that American politics at that time was not really capable of dealing with. He posed this as:
"...a question for which neither Tocqueville, nor Marx, nor Weber has prepared us: What principle in the American creed has simultaneously made possible these seemingly contradictory revolutions? How have our notions of equality and individualism been transformed to support a morally lax yet economically successful capitalist society?"
We, obviously, proposed that the attitude we were calling Cool was that glue Lilla was looking for to stick these contradictory revolutions together. Now in the latest New York Review ( 27th May 2010) Lilla has revisited this problem, in a scintillating article called "The Tea Party Jacobins", in which he analyses the mentality of the new US populist Right. You really should try to read the whole of this article if possible, as it is the most lucid account I've found yet of the terrible danger facing Western democracies. He sees the Tea Party/Sarah Palin/Glenn Beck/Fox News axis as a symptom of a complete loss of trust in government in the USA, so profound that it threatens to render the country ungovernable (one only has to look across the Mexican border to see the worst case scenario):
"A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that. This is the one threat that will bring Americans into the streets.
Welcome to the politics of the libertarian mob."
The article is actually a review of five recent books on the US Right, including ones by Glenn Beck and Max Blumenthal. Lilla concludes thus:
"If either Beck or Blumenthal is right about the new populism, then it’s not worth taking seriously. My own view is that we need to take it even more seriously than they do; we need to see it as a manifestation of deeper social and even psychological changes that the country has undergone in the past half-century. Quite apart from the movement’s effect on the balance of party power, which should be short-lived, it has given us a new political type: the antipolitical Jacobin. The new Jacobins have two classic American traits that have grown much more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers. [...]

Survey after survey confirms that trust in government is dissolving in all advanced democratic societies, and for the same reason: as voters have become more autonomous, less attracted to parties and familiar ideologies, it has become harder for political institutions to represent them collectively. This is not a peculiarity of the United States and no one party or scandal is to blame. Representative democracy is a tricky system; it must first give citizens voice as individuals, and then echo their collective voice back to them in policies they approve of. That is getting harder today because the mediating ideas and institutions we have traditionally relied on to make this work are collapsing."
 I share Lilla's sense of urgency about this problem, but I'm perhaps less anxious than he is because I've just witnessed a remarkably mature and dignified transfer of power in our own democratic system. We are not nearly so deep in the mire yet as the US, but who knows whether that will remain true after five years of serious austerity?

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