A descent into chaos
What does the future hold beyond Brexit and Covid?
The heavy impact of the pandemic is a world-wide phenomenon. But this is also an historic period of disorder in democratic societies, particularly during the last few years in the United States and evident in Britain also. Worse, its deepest causes remain largely unacknowledged in political debate and are not a matter of party nor of conventional “left” and “right”. For all democracies are saddled, to a greater or lesser degree, with the fetishizing of market-freedoms by most so-called “conservatives”, and of freedom-of-choice in moral conduct by most so-called “progressives”, each of them civil society’s wreckers.
It has made free-marketeers on the one hand and brigades of moral free-wheelers on the other into unwitting comrades-in-arms. For both object in liberty’s name to the limits and the laws which protect the civic order from self-destruction. In Britain, Owen Jones and the Institute of Economic Affairs have more in common than either of them might think.
But who knows what levels of conflict and social dissolution are yet to come from the espousal of ever-wider choices in the market and in the moral sphere, or from the promotion of multiple minoritarian interests in diversity’s name? Moreover, with rising rates of crime and falling standards of education in Britain — not rising standards of education and falling rates of crime as the Guardian has for years asserted — and with orders of chivalry now awarded, by a monarch, for riding a bike and kicking a ball, what will remain for future generations to inherit?
True, “connectivity” by electronic means has brought humanity the possibility of communication on a scale never known before. But between them such giants as Amazon and Facebook — their owners two of the richest individuals on our ravaged Earth — have also inflicted great harm on real community and true belonging.
They have served us in the pandemic but have reduced the need in normal times for resort to the public space and square, made human interaction increasingly isolate, diminished participation in civic life, and led uncountable numbers to “meet”, speak and listen, to work and to play, to sell and to shop, in a deepening limbo.
Free speech is the freedom most subject to limitation at the hands of supposed libertarians
For the “Amazon Marketplace” is not a place, a “chat-room” is not a room, and the voices and images on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and the rest remain those of ghosts, of Plato’s shadows-on-the-wall. Moreover, as national and local belonging wanes in a dissolving social order, the sense of individual entitlement, felt above all by the isolated and by deracinated youth, gains ground. And although a sense of duty to others has emerged from the shadows in the corona crisis, feckless self-assertion oblivious of the common good lies close below the surface. Long-lost now are what George Washington called the “obligations of a state of freedom”. It is an alien notion today.
Instead, the “libertarian” of our times is quick to see in such obligations threats to liberty itself, or at best regards them as subordinate to the assertion of one’s rights in the land of the free; a Guardian writer even asked, “What are your new rights during England’s lockdown?”. Indeed, the lockdown has been regarded as tyrannical and oppressive by many on both right and left — increasingly meaningless terms — with market-interests on the one hand and habits of moral licence on the other dictating recoil from the disciplines of it.
There are crazy paradoxes in this. A “Tory” who objects to restraints on the freedom to do whatever is in the interests of the market — and even praises “greed” — is anything but “conservative”, while a rebel who refuses a mask would seem to value “liberty” more than life itself. Similarly, a so-called “progressive” who sees demands for personal restraint as authoritarian or “right-wing” is neither “socialist” nor even social. It is also an elementary truth that if each is free to do what he or she chooses, whether in the market or in the moral sphere, the strongest and the least moral will in general prevail.
Facing up to the free society’s real condition also has a hard time of it when the mere desire to win approval commands so much of political debate. Moreover, free speech is the freedom most subject to limitation at the hands of supposed libertarians, whose authoritarianism and repressive orthodoxies of political correctness are quick on the draw against the free-thinker and the free-speaker. Indeed, to find and retain favour in the public sphere, the terms and tropes of virtue-signalling must now be accepted and adopted on both “right” and “left”, and increasing courage is required to refuse them.
The education system has much to answer for in the stifling of free-thought and expression
But since the word “progress” merely means a “going forwards”, a concept which must change with the times, it should now be regarded as “progressive” to reject most of today’s restrictions upon free-thought and free-speech. Indeed, the journalist Bari Weiss, in resigning from the New York Times because of her objections to the Orwellian “self-censorship” practiced at the newspaper, with its “predetermined narrative” and “laundry-list of right causes”, merited the support of all free-thinkers, whatever their political or personal beliefs.
Equally deserving of support were J.K. Rowling for stating an elementary physiological truth about the female of the human species; Suzanne Moore who was driven by colleagues’ pressures to resign from the Guardian for questioning neo-feminist dogma; and Will Knowland, sacked by Eton for his now eccentric suggestion in a video-lecture that it is biology that makes males what they are.
Indeed, the education system and especially higher academia have much to answer for in the stifling of free-thought and expression about the human condition, and in contributing to the new orthodoxies of word and mind. Moreover, university vice-chancellors and college principals are rarely true scholars today, but CEOs of market-driven degree-mills for whom students are little more than customers for qualifications.
Meanwhile, teachers at every level and in all subjects must tread warily if they are not to offend canons of language and belief which betray the spirit of free enquiry upon which the development of thought itself depends. Equally disabling is the sheer pointlessness of much that passes for social and political “science”, and which gives intellect itself a bad name. This problem at least is not new: mere “intellectualists” Francis Bacon in 1605 called such scholars, who “spinne out” their “webbes of learning” like spiders, as do so many “philosophers” and others today.
Most of the print media, as the Bari Weiss case illustrated, has also been failing in its duties to provide a measured, rational and objective account of the current state of things. With a mix of sensationalism, indecent relish for disaster — the worse the better — click-bait trivia and impoverished language, even the “quality” press in Britain has gone steadily down-market, a just phrase, while vulgarity now knows few bounds. “I am writing this in my knickers” can therefore be an article-title in The Times, the “Thunderer” of a past age.
And as civil society dissolves around us and the disorders of the public domain increase, Covid or no Covid, the press continues to address the most trifling needs and anxieties of the isolate reader on what to wear, how to look and so on. We can even be told in the Guardian, as if we did not know, “how to eat a fried egg sandwich”. At the same time, endless “columns” of self-important opinionation and pontification, perhaps this piece included, compound the incoherence and speak to us from the columnist’s own solitary void.
At the heart of much of this is also plain ignorance. Without real knowledge of Marx’s work a “conservative” columnist can therefore idly dismiss an unacceptable argument from the “left” as “Marxist”, while to the pseudo-“progressive” the appeal to “duty” suggests that “fascism” is on the advance. Moreover, neither “right” nor “left” now gives coherent and informed thought — or any thought at all — to what the title “citizen” should mean, and this at a time when the free civic order is in deepening trouble.
The symptoms of it are almost too obvious to rehearse. They include the unfitness for high office of most of the leaders of Western democracies; the burden of the great harms done to civil society by the privatisation, or theft, of so many institutions that should have remained in public hands; the deepening of inequality and deprivation; the precedence given to personal rights over public duties; and the grandiose (but often empty) schemes for social and economic revival that are driven by private interest masquerading as concern for the public good.
It is at this awkward juncture in Britain, with the status of parliament and the political class reduced, the disunity of the United Kingdom increasing, and with sometimes bitter disorders in the streets, that the terms “left” and “right” have decreasing meaning for much of the electorate. At the same time Keir Starmer, saddled with the partial Trotskyisation of the Labour party under Corbyn and without sense of direction, has failed to find his way to a politics that is neither Corbynite nor Blairite.
Lost in a no man’s land — oops, sorry! — it led him to express timid regard for “patriotism” and “family values”, both of them taboo on the “left”, to assert that the “foundations of society” had been “weakened” and to call for a “moral crusade” against inequality, while at the same time promising a “strong partnership” between Labour and “business”. It was a medley of positions each of which had its own validity but which could not have been translated into coherent party policy. But the prospect of Labour’s return to office, with or without Starmer, is now a remote one.
Moreover, with “socialism” now held in almost universal discredit for reasons both just and unjust, the “labour interest” has itself become harder to define in practical political terms. For the “working class” is hydra-headed, while many of its notional members are predisposed to vote for the “right” on such issues as migration, as they have done in the United States, Britain and elsewhere, and are likely increasingly to do so in times when traditional community is everywhere dissolving.
In other respects, too, the political ground in Britain is shifting, forcing changes of direction on all sides. In response to the coronavirus, it has thus driven a “free market” Tory government towards quasi- “socialist” policies for the management of the national economy in an effort to repair the harms done to it. In addition, all parties are now having to take account of the privileging — in correction of past injustice — of gender and colour as criteria for favour and advancement, a cause which helped carry Biden to victory in the United States, but portends new conflicts to come. In Britain other discriminations such as anti-Semitism — an historic indicator of moral disorder — flourish, while the non-woke must hide their beliefs or find themselves out of a job.
At the same time, political correctness continues to dodge the most important and complex issue of the day: the revival and advance of Islam. Following an historic pattern of conquest, this advance has come at an inconvenient time when free societies, as the crazed Trump grasped, have been losing their sense of identity and direction. Despite its sectarian divisions, Islam has not. Instead its disciplines, in sharp contrast with the free society’s incoherent mixture of licence and dogma, are the source of Islam’s strength, however objectionable the rationalist may find them.
And although the wishful thinker may believe otherwise, there is a battle under way which Gibbon would have understood, a battle being fought on many fronts and with many kinds of weapon. Nevertheless, in the teeth of the evidence, a mixture of self — censorship (once more) and head-in-the-sand benignity continues to block awareness of the true scale of Islam’s challenge to the non-Muslim world. “Is there a battle?”, the late Bernard Crick — a professor of politics and admirer of Orwell, the supreme truth-teller — asked me when my book The Losing Battle with Islam was published in 2005. Of course there is a battle, and in Britain as in other free (and too free) societies knowledge of what is afoot, and preparedness for it, are necessities that transcend party-belonging.
Much more than the economic impact of the coronavirus, serious as it has been, will therefore have to be faced up to in failing free societies during the coming period as their institutional crises deepen, and the rule of law becomes harder to maintain. Above all, many universal truths will have to be re-learned, including the elementary axioms that there can be no liberty without order, and that citizens have duties as well as rights. For unless a new and hard-headed political realism begins to take hold of public affairs, and commonality takes precedence over diversity, history tells us that extreme Reaction — whose representatives stormed the US Capitol — will teach our disabled democracies increasingly bitter lessons. It lies in wait in a discontented Britain also, should Brexit and BoJo fail.
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