Forget the left, the issue is freedom
'The pendulum is swinging, comrades!' declared an over-excited Mark Seddon, editor of the Labour left paper Tribune, at a rally on the fringe of the Labour Party conference in Blackpool in September. Labour members had just elected Seddon to the National Executive Committee, along with Ken Livingstone and two other members of their Grassroots Alliance, against the express wishes of Tony Blair and the New Labour leadership.
Seddon thinks it is a sign of a left revival. Others appear to agree with him. From the other end of the traditional political spectrum, Janet Daley used her column in the Telegraph to welcome the election of Seddon and alleged 'Trot' Liz Davies as signalling a return to the politics of left versus right, a victory for 'honest, adversarial debate about political priorities', over Blair's 'new politics of Lib-Lab, centrist, sort-of-leftish, tell-us-what-you-want, no-risk Third Way government'.
A cynic might say that, if Daley's (sometimes astute) judgement is here clouded by nostalgia, Seddon's is surely blinded by self-delusion. The fact that maybe 60 000 embittered supporters of Old Labour, including some from the old right like Roy Hattersley, voted for the Grassroots Alliance against Blair's modernisers, hardly signals a political sea-change. In the real world the left made no impact on government policy at the Labour conference. Within a week of Seddon's rousing Blackpool address to the comrades, Blair had appointed Michael Heseltine to a top government job and a Guardian/ICM opinion poll indicated that just eight per cent of people now think that New Labour is a left-wing party.
But never mind all that cynicism. Let us take the claims of a left revival at face value for a moment. (After all, with the recent electoral victory of Germany's Social Democrats, 13 of the 15 European Union members are now run by apparently left-leaning governments.) Is this anything to get excited about? What does it mean to be 'left wing' today?
Many prominent voices on the left are now the most pro-censorship (ban 'hate speech' and porn), the most pro-militarism (bomb the Serbs), the most anti-science (stop genetic engineering) and the most anti-sex (of the heterosexual, penetrative variety) in public debate. As James Heartfield explains elsewhere in this issue of LM, their distinctive contribution is always to be the fiercest opponents of individual freedom.
Across Europe and North America there is no hint of liberation, emancipation or self-determination in the politics of the left class of '98. All of their instincts are to interfere, to regulate, to repress. The left imagination is now the place where grandmotherish puritanism meets political correctness. You can call that left wing if you want, but you might just as well call it Kevin.
It makes no sense to talk about a return to the politics of left and right, because neither of those camps bears much relation to what it once was. Both have lost the will to hold the line on their past principles. A Labour prime minister whose cabinet includes ex-CND members now revels in the role of the West's most strident warmonger against an Iraq or a Serbia. Meanwhile a Conservative Party leader proposes replacing the Tory-dominated House of Lords with a chamber elected by the great unwashed.
So where does the left end and the right begin? Parliamentary politics has become a kind of shapeless blancmange of the ever-expanding centre ground. It cannot be easily squeezed back into the old pigeonholes.
Other commentators have noted the demise of the left-right divide. Too many, however, have seen this as a consequence of a broader 'end of ideology' in the post-Cold War world. They imply that the old polarities have converged because the major issues have been settled, and that there are no more 'big ideas' around which the battle lines can be drawn.
Far from it. There are still big issues to be fought over, and a battle of ideas to be won and lost. The difference is, however, that the questions which impact on society now, the issues which trouble people today, can no longer be understood in the traditional political vocabulary of left and right or working class and capitalist.
What were once major social issues of contention have now become begrudgingly accepted as facts of life. Complaining about unemployment or poverty, for example, is now on a par with moaning about the British weather; everybody can repeat the mantra, but nobody expects it to make any difference. Meanwhile, things which would not have been considered politically important in the past have become the big issues of the changed times in which we live.
Perhaps the most significant change is the dissolution of the line between public and private life. As a result, people's personal affairs and problems - to do with such matters as health, safety, the family and all things emotional - have been promoted to the top of society's agenda. The focus of public discussion has moved away from the boardroom and parliamentary debate, towards the bedroom and the confessional press conference.
Politics with a capital P is passé, politics with a thera-py is all the rage. The model for the new politics of emotion is provided by the USA, which still sets the cultural standards for the rest of the world. In many ways, the ongoing Clinton affair in Washington best illustrates how politics has changed from the era of left v right - especially once it is compared with the last time congress held presidential impeachment proceedings, against Richard Nixon in the early seventies.
Nixon was impeached for the public crime of burgling his regime's political opponents and then trying to cover it up, against the background of the national trauma caused by America's defeat in the deeply divisive Vietnam War. Clinton, by contrast, faces impeachment proceedings for lying about his sordid private life, against the background of widespread public indifference about conventional politics.
The contrasting reactions to these two crises also say a lot about the way things have changed. Nobody suggested to Nixon that, if he were to admit all and apologise to the American people for what he had done, he would be all right. It was automatically assumed that the president, of all people, had to take responsibility for his actions; and if he was guilty, he was going down. Twenty-five years on, the rise of the new emotionalism and therapolitics means that Clinton is encouraged to think he can survive if he pours out his heart on the global counselling-couch provided by the media.
In a world where the private has become the stuff of public life in this way, what relevance could anybody seriously attach to the old politics of left and right or class conflict? Those of us who want to promote the cause of human emancipation today have some rethinking to do.
It is in the course of such thinking that we at LM have come to see freedom as such an important issue of the moment - and to see the 'left' as the biggest barrier to achieving that end.
Freedom and responsibility are two causes with which LM wants to be closely associated today. Not so long ago these were understood as slogans of the Thatcherite right. Changing circumstances, however, have cast them in a different light.
We live in an era of institutionalised irresponsibility, where it seems that nobody can be held to account for anything that happens. Everything is apparently determined outside of anybody's will. Job losses? Blame the hidden hand of globalisation. Inequality? Blame the genes. Bad behaviour or failure? Blame some kind of addiction or medical syndrome, or a history of emotional abuse.
There is no longer necessarily a connection between what you do and the consequences of your actions. For the old right, the trouble with this refusal to take responsibility is that criminals can invent extenuating circumstances and escape proper punishment. But the problem of irresponsibility goes way beyond that narrow obsession with retribution.
The notion that nobody is really responsible for anything undermines our status as autonomous, creative individuals. In the end, if we are all prisoners of processes outside of our control, it becomes impossible to imagine doing anything positive or making much of a difference. People's expectations are lowered to the point where many now accept their status as victims of life to whom things just happen. Not only have we lost the traditional left-wing sense that people could be part of a collective movement for change, but few retain even the right-wing belief that an enterprising individual could do the business themselves.
The religion of irresponsibility breeds a casual, even contemptuous, attitude towards individual freedom. After all, who needs a free society if we are considered incapable of exercising our liberties, except in a petty sense like the freedom to wear what we want? Far more than freedom, what a society of inadequate and damaged individuals needs is help, guidance and supervision from the experts and authorities above. Little wonder that many people are now more receptive to state and quasi-state intervention in their personal and family affairs. Or that they believe even more strongly that other out-of-control individuals need to have their lives closely regulated.
In these circumstances, the 'left' which has come to prominence across the advanced world is one which ultimately is more afraid of other people than it is of the state. That is why it opposes individual freedom and supports intervention at every turn. It is also one reason why I would not dream of calling LM a left-wing, socialist or Marxist magazine these days.
Establishing our right and freedom to live as responsible individuals, capable of taking our own decisions and making our own mistakes, is the prerequisite for achieving anything worthwhile, from self-sufficient personal relationships to a civilised society. Which helps to explain why LM is concerned with the kind of strictly non-left questions addressed in our freedom issue this month.
It is not that we think smoking or pornography is good, or that we believe caesarean sections are bad. The point is that bans and censorship and operations-by-court-order reflect and reinforce the low opinion of people that prevails today: the view that we are essentially incompetent and irresponsible individuals who need to be alternatively nursed and policed through the problems of everyday life.
While such a paralysing view of the human condition holds sway, nothing else much matters. When we get the pendulum to start swinging against that most destructive of contemporary ideas, there will be something to shout about from the top of Blackpool tower.
Reproduced from LM issue 115, November 1998