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Friday, September 12, 2003
Leftist determinism and its practical applications

AFTER THE MURDER of leading Swedish europhile Anna Lindh on Wednesday, I wondered how long it would be before the first columnist or blogger laid the blame for her death at the feet of all eurosceptics. I was pleasantly surprised by the respectful treatment of her death, and have seen little yet to make me change my mind. But if her killer is confirmed as a madman motivated by a fanatical opposition to the single currency, that may change.

One column in the the Guardian today steers fairly clear of such a charge, but shows instead a phenomenon of the left that I find fascinating, which is its ability to divide the future and past into policies it likes and policies it dislikes. The future is multicultural, liberal, socially democratic, high-tax, multilateral, welfarist and so on. The past is associated with the political right in various ways - xenophobic, socially conservative, unilateral, self-help rather than state help. In the Guardian piece, this is not just a feature but the whole of the case. See for yourself if you can find a single actual argument for Sweden's membership of the euro within the column. Instead, what we hear is that:

  • "[T]he No camp looks toward an idealised Sweden of the past"
  • "[T]he Yes camp looks, at least in theory, toward a future Sweden fully integrated into Europe"
  • Eurosceptics represent "the emotional power of nostalgia, the strong attachment to Sweden's unique social achievements and also the xenophobic appeal of reactionary groups"
  • Europhiles represent "engagement" and "vision"
  • Anna Lindh personally represented Sweden's "European future"
  • Sweden as a nation long ago reached "a time when it had to see and embrace a future within the European project"

On and on, this is the stuff you hear. No argument for why the euro makes sense on a political or economic level, no reasons given for why a European superstate planned in the 1950s to meet the economic and military challenges of the time represents "the future" for Sweden. Forgetting the sheer intellectual laziness of not bothering to make a case for the euro and instead just putting together a lot of sentences with 'Europe' and 'future' in them, is it not exceedingly odd to divide political ideals up in this way? Does the left not realise how often what seemed to be the future they proclaimed and desired was nothing of the sort? Surely the 1980s taught them that? Apparently not. The future seemingly bares no resemblance to well ... what happens after the present.

Odder than the inaccuracies of such attitudes are the inconsistencies. I can perfectly understand someone taking a principled stand that women should not have to face the natural consequences of sexual intercourse, and if necessary unborn children in her body should be aborted to serve that principle. But as often as not, what you hear is that conservative and right-wing arguments are "outdated", "reactionary" or "belonging to the last century". Now if it is wrong that women should have to face unwanted pregnancy after having sex, then how can that have been any less the case last month than this month? If it is wrong to have a head of state born into the job, how can it have been right two centuries ago? At what moment in time does a principle stop being right and start being wrong? 8:37am last Tuesday? At what point does a principle that was once just and right become 'outdated'?

It's a sort of extreme determinism, as if the left believes that particular time periods are injected with their own ethical and political principles that do not require rational justification or any argument beyond "this is the future" if they like it and "those are reactionary outdated ideas" if they do not.

It's perhaps reflective of no more than a sloppy relativism common in the modern left to decide that there are no lasting principles and no absolute notions of right and wrong, only the zeitgeist, which they always claim to represent, even if the years that follow, like the Thatcher years, in fact show a comprehensive rejection of such a view.

Whatever the reason for such thinking, the more one looks, the more one sees this feature in leftist writing and rhetoric. If a movement or ideal pops up that they like, it is the future. If they do not like it, it is some remnant of an ugly past. That is the justification for supporting or opposing it. Given the sloppiness of such an outlook, is it any wonder that the left has for decades now been unable to present any serious intellectual challenge to conservative ideas? Could it be that a large part of the reason the right has been winning the battle of ideas ever since the 1970s is that the left is so convinced of its own victory that it thinks merely describing its own way as the future is a sufficient counter-strategy?

Now, apart from the irrationality, the circularity and the relativism of this attitude, one also has to wonder at the implication within that the left believes bad things cannot happen in the future, that somehow the ideas it thinks are bad ones belong only to the past. Conservatives may appreciate this liberal complacency when it comes to their own views. But we have to worry about it somewhat when it comes to those things that unite the modern right and left - above all the preference for a tolerant and free society.

To touch briefly on yesterday's anniversary, the reason 9/11 has been treated as such a turning point by so many from left and right is that it proved there was a real and present danger even to those things that both sides hold dear: to the liberal principles that have been the common ground of Western civilisation since the 19th century. Those frighteningly large numbers on the left (and not a few on the right) who refused to see the reality and the potence of this threat were divided from the more grounded types from both sides who could.

Now if we have a left largely unable to distinguish the future from what they want to be the future, is it any wonder at the total indifference of so many lefties to this threat? In this week's Spectator, Charles Moore touches on one aspect of this in examining fear of Islam. He notes the positive side of the faith - a side best examined by John Derbyshire - but also the problems disguised by politically correct 'Islam means peace' rhetoric. His reservations are noteworthy and important.

[At times] I want to protest at the reluctance of the authorities to punish the outrageous incitements made by Muslims like Mr Omar [who celebrated the anniversary of 9/11], at the rather qualified rejections of them by Muslim leaders, at the pretence by the political parties that many Muslims are politically liberal. I am frightened by a creed which, in its current form, does not appear to have a doctrine of the separation of Church and state, which believes that its law is applicable, as law, in any civil society on earth. I notice a growing anti-Semitism. And I fear that a large Muslim population, added to all the time by an immigration which we neither control nor even properly monitor, is a big sea in which Mr Omar's terrorist fish can swim. What incentive does Britain give for being a Muslim moderate? What price does it exact for being an extremist? Can a society so keen on lambasting itself as racist, exploitative and guilty stand up against a radicalised belief system which endorses that analysis and offers a religious answer?

This is the threat to the future of free societies. Are the left so complacent about the inevitability of their own view of the future that they are unable to see that this as a threat all those who believe in liberty must meet? For an alarming proportion of them, the answer has so far been most discouraging.

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