The response from the liberal Left to Brexit, Trump and other ‘strong men’, authoritarians and demagogues, has been about ‘fightback’, ‘resistance’, ‘regrouping’. Movements, demonstrations, petitions declare that liberal America, like liberal Britain, will not surrender to the misogynistic, racist, homophobic, Islamophobic juggernaut. The politics of hope will take precedence over despair; optimism of the will is in the air once more.
The people who claimed they no longer recognised their country only the day before yesterday are now in the ascendant: they feel ‘empowered’ by the prospect of the nation’s sovereignty. It is now the turn of another segment of the population to admit themselves disoriented, bewildered, alienated.
The problem for discomfited liberals is that their opponents have a more plausible story; rich narratives of countries ‘taken over’, changed beyond recognition, culture diluted and populations mixed. Taking back control, defining our borders, the nationalistic sentiment, xenophobia and nostalgia - what a potent appeal all this has.
There is no countervailing narrative to equal or resist the regression to isolation, insularity and what is now called ‘nativism’. In other words, there is no alternative myth effective enough to combat the new supremacism, allegedly of the left-behind, but in fact of their new mentors the super-rich who promise them other enfranchisements than voting for traditional discredited political formations.
There is no wishing away the illiberalism and intolerance which have unfurled over much of the world; and even if it is momentarily defeated in France or Germany, this does not mean that it has run its course, or reached its fullest span
Of course, the Left had its great myth, both powerful and plausible in its day. But that myth has been forfeit, overtaken by the altered sensibility of the working class, the eclipse of manufacturing industry and the vicissitudes of globalism. For a long time this same story afforded a certain shelter for liberals - social injustice, fair partnership between labour and capital seemed reasonable and attainable goals; and against a long reign of capital uncontested, it also offered a political home to principled middle and professional classes, which made common cause with the workers.
But that alliance is broken. The ‘split’ in Labour is the unmaking of the coalition between eclipsed liberals and rising working class organisation which reached its high point in 1945, and has been in a state of decline ever since that halcyon moment. The ‘settlement’ proved as perishable as most other political alliance, no settlement at all in fact, since the erasure of industry and the global expansion of a single economic system has demobilised the ghost-army which was to have ensured that capital would never again (sad, breakable avowal) have the people at its mercy.
It is a savage irony that Labour, which was the dominant partner in the union between radicals and reformists, should so suddenly have been reduced to factions which reveal once more the fragile fault-lines of a party which was only a provisional coalition; the more so since it is the ‘masses’ who have defected rather than their social superiors, who have been the main force behind a gentrification of radical politics.
A conservative project
If there is anything more depressing than the rhetoric of rolling back the Trump/Brexit, fascisant, xenophobic wave that is the contrived cheerfulness assumed by some, unwilling to concede that recent changes are more than a ‘blip’ in popular consciousness, a minor aberration in the long story of progress of which they see themselves both legatees and trustees; like the inheritors of a philanthropic fortune which they are bound to spend on perpetual improvement of the estate.
The talk of ‘reclaiming’ the tradition of tolerance, openness and liberal thought is the language of restoration. In other words, it is a profoundly conservative project, because it seeks a reversal to what has happened, and wants to put back in place a status quo ante which appeared, for a long moment, enduring, but which in fact was demolished in the twinkling of an eye.
It is not that those values have perished, or that ideals of social hope, fairness and decency are vanished from the world (although there has been no ‘market’ for idealism in a ‘real world’ brought to such perfection that it is no longer in need of any improvement). It is simply that those values are not there to be ‘recuperated’ or ‘recovered’, as though temporarily mislaid. They have to be struggled for in renewed effort and pain; since their establishment is never definitively won, but always fought for afresh. There is no wishing away the illiberalism and intolerance which have unfurled over much of the world; and even if it is momentarily defeated in France or Germany, this does not mean that it has run its course, or reached its fullest span.
But it suggests the version of these renewed hopes, which will emerge with time, will have a different aspect, because arising out of an altered social context. It will not necessarily be found in wishful coalitions of Greens and radicals and ethnic and religious minorities and LGBTQ etc, although all these groups may well contribute to a new paradigm. Easy aggregations are contrived and unrealistic: the power of Labour lay in its unifying myth. No such story informs the desire of those who would see coming together of resistance to the great juggernaut of injustice and cruelty and exclusion that is rolling across the earth; because such a project must transcend resistance.
Without a deeper underlying force that can produce the same faith which held together the disparate faction of a dissolving Labour movement or dematerialising socialist project, the delusive lure of search for arachiac ‘purity’ - of ethnicity, language, faith or nation - will not be stayed; unless, that is, it expresses itself in some nihilistic conflict that lays waste cities croplands and waters of the world, and humanity, appalled (again) at its own capacity for destructiveness, looks with horror upon what it has wrought, and in a brief moment of remorse declares it will at last learn the lessons of that treacherous instructor, history, and never again resort to such folly.
This is why bogus alliances, false friends and temporary common causes will not avail against the fables told by the great storytellers of national redemption, ethnic purity or homogeneous faith.
The mythology game
The creation of an equally powerful myth (myth, not necessarily in the sense of falsehood, but meaning an empowering belief, a mobilising spirit capable of reviving defunct idealism and defeated visions of a living alternative) is the work confronting the scattered radical forces. The problem with myths, of course, is that it is precisely the consequences of their realisation that we are repudiating, the sombre romance of those who have dealt in various purification rituals. And we have had plenty of them, as the malignancy of Nazism and Communism attest, with their appalling violence, with which rabid nationalism and resurgent religious fantasy threaten the word once more. How to tell a temperate story that does not exclude, and does not claim final, definitive goals; a story coherent and plausible that does not threaten others in the course of its realisation? A more modest myth than any of those which have hitherto tormented the world and demanded their tribute of human sacrifice to their truth; a provisional myth open to a revision and modification in the light of experience; a more gentle and persuasive tale. The problem is, it is not in the nature of human belief to be moderate - they demand epic struggle between good and evil, reductive confrontations that depend upon victor and vanquished.
This laborious and intensive project will deter many, and make them turn back to that consoling actuality of a ‘real world’ which is itself the most elaborate construct of fantasy. When visions of the better world are all franchised by global capitalism, where will the space be found to formulate alternative concepts of society, well being and prosperity?
The politics of hope are no longer a matter of compulsory optimism; wishing for what is irrecoverable is nostalgia at best, pathology at worst. The promoters of ‘hope’ have skipped the most vital stage in bringing it about, namely the energy and effort required to make credible what they imagine can be conjured out of the darkness by magical thinking. The story is wanting: all those on offer, however true, are abstract and too distant from the lives of the people to be convincing. The planet in peril? Yes, but we have to live today. Growing inequality? Yes, but we have to live today. Hope is inscribed in the iconography of global wealth, even if the production of that wealth jeopardises the future of humanity.
A language of liberation awaits reclamation: archaic, rusty with disuse, unintelligible in a capitalism which offers, well, the world; indeed the world, its riches, diversity and beauty all melted down like the plate of impoverished nobles, and served up in the form of money which can buy everything, except the treasures demolished in its making. How much harder is such an undertaking than anything offered by our politicians who flourish a certain figure - so many billions - in answer to all complaints, desires and longings of humanity!
If this sounds discouraging, it cannot be more so than the unintelligible lure of socialism in the middle of the 19th century, before it animated an unawakened working class; when liberation was still unheard by the enslaved of imperialism, when emancipation was an idea to strike terror into the lives of women sheltering behind pompous and bewhiskered Victorian husbands.
We already live in a world of plenty, if human resources are allied to such material resources as are vital for survival rather than excess. Our powers lie neglected. Somnolent for want of use in our thrall to an earth ransacked for all that can be transformed into monetary transaction; while disproportionate wealth is appropriated by those for whom it answers no need other than the exercise of dominion over others.
It will not be the nostalgics of industrial socialism, not the enfranchised of technology which will liberate humanity from fear, stress, economic violence and the threat that even the leashed freedoms we enjoy may be abridged at any moment ‘in the national interest’ or for the sake of a ‘security’ that secures nothing but the safety of wealth and the safeguard of power; while popular enfranchisement remains as remote from realisation as when ruling castes withheld the vote from all but the most privileged.
(Jeremy Seabrook is an author and columnist who lives in London. His most recent books are The Song of the Shirt: Cheap Clothes Across Continents and Centuries and The Refuge and the Fortress: Britain and the Flight from Tyranny. He has been described as ‘one of England’s most imaginative and creative writers reminiscent of George Orwell’ by the Guardian newspaper)