Are all political beliefs ultimately selfish?
Thomas Prosser’s new book argues that there are elements of self-interest and altruism in all political ‘isms’
What’s In It For Me? is a survey of contemporary political movements and beliefs. It is very up to date – Covid-19 and Brexit get plenty of mentions – and its central question concerns the extent to which political beliefs and affiliations correlate with self-interest. Prosser examines five forms of belief: conservatism, national populism, liberalism, the New Left and social democracy. His own overt preference is for the last named of these, though modified by addressing the concerns of conservatism and national populism.
One might infer from the existence of chapters entitled, “Are conservatives bastards?” and “Are Brexiteers stupid?” that this was a highly polemical work, but that would be unfair. Prosser offers a balanced account and the purpose of those headings is to satirize the venom in much contemporary debate, particularly online. I think the author is right to do this and I am embarrassed to say that I once believed that offering people nearly infinite opportunities to express their opinions would prove to be a good thing.
This is a lively, balanced and very contemporary account of political ideas
So, this is a lively, balanced and very contemporary account of political ideas. Prosser concludes that there is a good deal of self-interest involved in the assumption of all political beliefs, but that there are also altruistic forms and cases of them all. And I am sure he is right, for example, to see the contemporary New Left, exemplified by Podemos in Spain, La France Insoumise in France and Corbynism in England as manifestations of the failed clerical and lower managerial classes. He is also right to stress that the lower classes (refreshingly called by that name) no longer have a political movement. In short, if you accept the validity of this kind of discourse, this is an insightful and updated survey of political beliefs.
My problem is that I find it very difficult to accept the validity of this kind of discourse. Long ago, when I taught politics, we used to debate the value of an “isms” course in which one would carefully explain “conservatism”, “liberalism” and so on as coherent bodies of thought capable of generating a number of political parties and movements which could be understood as essentially the same phenomenon. The three “New Left” cases mentioned above would serve as an example. The trouble with this approach is that it generally misleads more than it enlightens.
This contemporary account of the isms is a gallant effort, but its genre is based on a mistake
Since I regard myself as a conservative, let me start with conservatism. I wrote a book expressing my conservative views nearly four decades ago. It wasn’t a book about conservatism, but an expression of my own views which I thought would inevitably be recognised as conservative. In the long period since I have been asked to read or review many books on conservatism and I have usually considered them to be entirely wide of the mark. This is no different; the author tells us that: “It is . . . thus difficult to reconcile Brexit with conservatism.” What! As with many statements made in this genre the opposite sounds at least equally plausible. Historically, conservatism has defined itself as a defence of existing practice against proposals for change, particularly those based on “abstract” principles. It has an overt concern with tradition and identity including an almost mystical reverence for “our ancient constitution”. It is difficult to think of anything more repulsive to conservatism than a proposal for an “ever closer union” between twenty-eight countries with disparate political traditions.
Having said that, I have to comment on the unavoidable fact that around a dozen successive Conservative leaders stretching back well over half a century have to different degrees accepted or enthused about “Britain’s place in Europe”; Edward Heath being the purest case of enthusiasm. I can offer three explanations and one very important inference. The Conservative Party was infiltrated from the 1920s onwards after the schism in the Liberal Party by business Liberals with a considerable concern for making money and very little interest in ancient constitutions. They became a dominant or near-dominant element of the party. In any case the project of opposing forms of socialism became so urgent in the twentieth century that such issues as membership of the EEC/EU and NATO had to be suborned to it (which is no longer true). And finally, Conservatives as a governing clique show the same psychotic features as all governing cliques which include a concern for international power and a place on the international stage taking precedence over the need to run a country properly. So just as most C
hristians spend their lives doing very unchristian things, most conservatives in power do very unconservative things.
The new ism on the block would appear to be populism. When I say “new” I must acknowledge that “populist” was always in casual use, normally to describe a policy or politician aiming for electoral success rather than long-term aggregate benefit. Also that historians know “populism” as a translation of narodnichestvo: the nineteenth-century movement which put great emphasis on the virtues of the Russian peasantry. But the idea that “populism” is a major force in western politics dates only from 2016. In 2019 I attended a large gathering of social scientists and the respectable left at Nuffield College, Oxford and they talked about nothing but “populism”. It was all about “combating” it; there was no attempt at clarifying what it meant and no reference to the history of the term – let alone any recognition that being anti-populist might also be anti-democratic. But if the meaning was unclear, the tone of the debate was clear enough: it was blind panic by a governing class that no longer felt in control.
And as for “liberalism”: in France it means love of the capitalist market whereas in the USA it means exactly the opposite. In this country the only political party which labels itself as liberal seems as far from “classical” liberalism as it is possible to get. Not only do they seem unenthusiastic about free speech, but they embrace international forms of governance to a greater degree than their rivals in defiance of John Stuart Mill’s arguments that only an independent nation state can maximise the possibilities of trust, freedom and accountability. I blame T. H. Green and his Hegelian mates sending liberalism in the Anglophone world down the slippery slope of embracing the state’s role in enhancing “positive” freedom.
In short, this contemporary account of the isms is a gallant effort, but its genre is based on a mistake.
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