Nick Cohen is in town this week to promote his new book, What's Left. I thought this an opportune time to outline my own thoughts on his baby, The Euston Manifesto.
Welcome to Normblog readers! And LeftWrites
As a student during the '90s, one's politics were determined by one's economic viewpoint. Should the means of production be owned by the state or be in private hands. Left or Right, respectively.
The Euston Manifesto contains just one paragraph on economics with the vaguely worded,
We leave open, as something on which there are differences of viewpoint amongst us, the question of the best economic forms of this broader equality. We stand for global economic development.
This reluctance to criticise free trade and globalisation is wise, and the reluctance to embrace capitalism understandable (it is best not to dwell too long on past mistakes). The case for free trade, competition and private ownership of assets as the best way to pull people out of poverty is now proven beyond doubt. Only a fanatical idealist or one totally unaware of the history of the twentieth century could argue otherwise. China's relaxation of rules preventing private ownership, India's shedding of its bureaucratic culture and Eastern Europe's transformation from sclerotic socialist societies into dynamic capitalist tigers has pulled over 600 million people out of abject poverty. Case closed.
Where the Manifesto is on much stronger ground is worldwide human rights. Their starting point is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrining the minimum standards by which we should treat our fellow humans. For
Violations of these rights are equally to be condemned whoever is responsible for them and regardless of cultural context.
we utterly condemn cultural relativism and the patronising racism of many on the Left that the high standards we aspire to in the West are somehow not applicable to those with darker skins.
There are those (especially in our schools) that argue that all cultures are equal, that we mustn't view other societies through our biased Western prisms. These arguments are illogical and racist in the tradition of Kipling's 'White Man's Burden'. Was 19th Century Australian society morally equivalent to that of today? If so, why did we bother fighting for the right for women to vote, for universal suffrage, for tolerance of homosexuals, for religious tolerance, for the rights of Aboriginals to be recognised as equal citizens, for the rights of non-whites to enter Australia. If these two societies are morally identical, then why not just repeal all this legislation?
Over a period of fifty years, whilst academics buried their heads in racial and sexual identity politics, the working class in Britain and Australia came to be seen as a reservoir of racism and homophobia. It morphed from "salt of the Earth to scum of the Earth." The Left no longer champions its own poor, downtrodden workers but looks to more exotic causes such as immigrants, ethnic minorities and foreign workers. Surprisingly, phrases such as white trash, rednecks and bogans are words banded about by the Left not the Right. The Manifesto is clear as to its strong backing for its own working class, regarding democratic trade unions as
the bedrock organizations for the defence of workers' interests
Though the economic debate is lost, the Left has a proud history on social issues. It was activists from the Left that secured the vote for women, it was the Left that championed the cause of gay rights, it was the Left that pushed for better working conditions for the working class, it was the Left that was responsible for the National Health Service, it was the Left that championed free education for all, it was the Left that agitated for the repeal of the White Australia Policy and it was the Left that has campaigned for fairer Aboriginal rights. None of these social milestones came from right-wing pressure groups.
It is this proud tradition of defending the underdog that makes the Left's recent alliances with radical Islam so shocking and saddening. Racism and bigotry have never before existed in Left circles. It is rife today. The resurgence of anti-Semitism (previously a right-wing disease) and the newly-found hatred of the white working class are shameful developments.
Whilst radical Islam's other bigoted bedfellows - hompohobia and misogyny - have yet to be celebrated by the Left, the cosying up to groups that espouse such appalling beliefs make many on the Left complicit by their chosen alliances. Declaring that "We are all Hezbollah" aligns oneself with murderers with an expicit anti-Semitic, misogynist agenda.
But it is easy in theory to be anti-racist, to support universal human rights, to proclaim a love of democracy, to be an agent for liberty, equality and solidarity, human rights, the pursuit of happiness. What is harder and more important is to put these beliefs into practice. Which brings me to Afghanistan and to Iraq.
It was John Stuart Mill who wrote that,
War is an ugly thing but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feelings which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.
Afghanistan was the acid test. I fully understand the reservations of those who opposed the Iraq war. The risks were huge, the threats to our civilisation unquantified, the outcome uncertain. The writers of the Euston Manifesto are split on this issue. But they are not on Afghanistan.
Here was a clear cut case of a need to defend all these noble ideals from a group of fanatics wildly opposed to them. The case for sending troops to Afghanistan to punish the perpetrators of 9/11, to prevent the Taliban from oppressing the impoverished Afghan population and for sending a message to other tyrants that we will defend our values was overwhelming. Yet the Left wavered. What is the point of proclaiming support for all these noble ideals if you are unwilling to defend them. They are then not worth the paper they are written on.
The Manifesto is clear on this issue,
We decline to make excuses for, to indulgently "understand", reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy...like all terrorism, it is a menace that has to be fought, and not excused. If the state itself violates this common life in appalling ways, its claim to sovereignty is forfeited and there is a duty upon the international community of intervention and rescue.
One of the most shocking arguments against the overthrow of the Taliban was the idea that at least they kept Afghanistan's opium production in check. "Never mind unveiled women having acid thrown in their faces; a price worth paying to avoid Western drug users being put in harm's way." wrote Manifesto supporter and author Nick Cohen.
On Iraq, the relative merits of going to war must now be confined to historians. What is far more important is finding a solution to ending the civil war. But sections of the Left seem to revel in the debacle that is unfolding. Surely the proper concern of genuine liberals and members of the Left should [be] the battle to put in place in Iraq a democratic political order and to rebuild the country's infrastructure?
Anti-Americanism has come to dominate the agenda of the Left. British author Margaret Drabble spoke for many when she proclaimed that,
My anti-Americanism has become almost uncontrollable. It has possessed me, like a disease … I detest Disneyfication, I detest Coca-Cola, I detest burgers."
But in all the wars the US became entangled in during the twentieth century, almost uniquely in history no claim for permanent land was ever made. As Colin Powell reminded a sceptical audience,
Over the years, the United States has sent many of its fine young men and women into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our borders. The only amount of land we have ever asked for in return is enough to bury those that did not return.
This lack of imperial ambition, though, has not prevented sections of the Left from declaring it the Evil Empire.
I'll leave the last word to Nick Cohen,
If you really did only oppose the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, not because of anti-Americanism, or insularity, or indifference, but because you thought that as heinous as it was, any attempt to overthrow Baathism by military means would only make matters worse - why were your hearts not heavy with the knowledge of this hideous choice?