Kick against the pricks
'How can you say', the outraged American journalist who was researching LM demanded down my telephone in December, 'that the new left is the biggest threat to freedom and justice in the world today?'. Let me, I said, ask you a question in return: who exactly do you think is bombing Iraq as we speak?
Perhaps he had inside information that some relic of America's Christian right had sneaked into the Pentagon to push the button which launched the air war on Baghdad, while the dregs of the Thatcherite right did the same in Whitehall. But so far as I could tell, it was actually the US right's bête noire, the Democrat president Bill Clinton, who had fired those 400-plus Cruise missiles into the heart of Iraq, with the public support of only two other major governments - New Labour in Britain and the Social Democrats in Germany, the powerhouses of contemporary left politics.
The radical activists of the 1960s and 70s used to like the slogan 'What if they gave a war and nobody came?'. Now many of those same people are in government in Britain and elsewhere, and 'they' have just answered their own rhetorical question. The erstwhile peaceniks have enthusiastically prosecuted a war that nobody came out to support anywhere outside of their own political cliques. So why should it be so outrageous for LM to suggest that this 'left' is the most dangerous threat to freedom on Earth?
These days, when I am asked to comment about current events on the radio or television, or by print journalists like my American interrogator, I often find that the interviewers appear slightly miffed by the answers I give them. 'What do you mean', they say, 'you don't support new laws against fox-hunting/grammar schools/genetically modi- fied food/racist chanting at football? We thought LM was on the left!'.
Further confusion has been caused in some circles by LM's decision to co-host the high-powered 'Culture Wars' conference about 'dumbing down', in London in March, where classical music is on the agenda but class struggle is not. Why, they ask, does a magazine formerly known as Living Marxism now seem to spend more time discussing cultural issues than poverty and homelessness?
As editor of this magazine, I am as committed to the cause of human emancipation as ever. But the circumstances in which LM is trying to promote that cause have changed beyond recognition, and our approach has had to evolve to stay in touch. Those who still try to understand today's events in terms of the old left v right conflicts miss the point. When the world has been turned upside down, as it has since the end of the Cold War 10 years ago, politics is no longer what it might appear to be.
People can still talk about left wing and right wing if they want. But what is really 'left' and what is 'right' in a situation where Tony Blair's New Labour government buys Britain's own Cruise missiles and threatens to sell off state schools (two things Margaret Thatcher never dared to do), while Tory leader William Hague claims to support legalising gay sex at 16 and replacing the House of Lords with an elected house of the hoi polloi (two measures the left has not got in to a Labour manifesto)?
Whenever we at LM sit down to consider a question today, we are forced to conclude that just about every issue means something different than it did in the recent past. Politics has passed through the looking glass, and it makes sense to question everything anew, rather than sticking to familiar arguments that may well have been left behind by the times.
For instance, it might seem at first glance that positive changes are afoot in British political life. After all, some of the traditional symbols of class privilege which the left has long criticised - the monarchy, the House of Lords, hunting, etc - are now coming under heavy fire. And at the same time, some of the left's most dearly held principles - such as education for all - are coming very much into vogue.
Look a little more closely, however, at the underlying message of these changes for today, and there is a lot less to cheer about.
In the new 'People's Britain', elitism is out and ordinariness is in. The prime minister describes himself as a 'bloke', liking football now appears obligatory within the establishment, the hereditary peers are for the chop, and even the royals are being pressed to act more like commoners, combining the compassion of Princess Diana and the suburban plainness of Sophie Rhys-Jones.
A welcome and overdue assault on privilege and deference? Not quite. In fact this 'Dianafication' process signals the dumbing down of society's expectations. Instead of setting public standards that others can aspire to, it seems the role of those at the top of society, from cabinet ministers to princesses, is now to lay bare their base private lives and so demonstrate that they are weak and vulnerable 'just like us'.
The message is that we are all in the gutter (or the docusoap) together, all emotionally damaged goods who should not expect too much of each other or of our leaders; citizens of a therapy nation whose role models are recovering alcoholic footballers who talk self-help psychobabble. The lowering of horizons which this levelling down implies is creating an insidious new form of deference - a worship of the banal and the everyday - that can keep us in our place just as securely as the old-fashioned forelock-tugging.
LM has always been entirely opposed to the hereditary principle, the monarchy, and all of the other rubbish of the Middle Ages that clutters up the British constitution. But in today's circumstances it would be foolish to accept the new populist anti-elitism at face value, as some kind of fulfilment of radical ambitions. Take New Labour's proposals to reform the House of Lords.
Of course it would be easy to applaud the plan to get rid of the hereditary peers as a step in the right direction, one which meets a longstanding demand of democratic reformers. But then you put it in the context of politics today: of New Labour's disdain for parliamentary debate; of its love of committees and quangos; of Blair's high-handed presidential style of government; of his 'State of the nation' address, delivered to media friends in the back garden of 10 Downing Street rather than at the Commons despatch box. Why should we believe that anything this government does is really about extending democracy?
The real reason that New Labour wants to reform the Lords appears to be that the second chamber has been causing the government too much trouble. If the supine backbench Labour MPs ever proved as difficult as some of the Tory hereditary peers, it seems safe to assume that Blair's people would favour removing their voting rights as well, and substituting government by a nice little focus group. As Alan Hudson argues elsewhere in this month's LM, the New Labour reform proposals are every bit as undemocratic as the decrepit old institution itself - and all the more dangerous because they are packaged in the egalitarian language of our times.
Look again at the way in which the left's old totem of education for all has become government policy, and similar doubts arise. This is clearly not about spreading the benefits of an excellent education to the masses. It is about pulling down higher education to a kind of lowest common denominator, where nobody really fails - and so nobody excels. At a time when 'access' to education has been made into a sacred cow, as Frank Furedi points out, there is no serious debate about exactly what it is that all of these people are being given access to. At LM we see it as our job to start that debate.
On every front, the apparent fulfilment of radical promises today is far from what it seems. Measures which are widely accepted as steps forward for egalitarianism and openness are undermining some of the foundations of civilised society, from democracy and the legal system to objectivity and science. They are dumbing down public expectations of what it means to be human, denying the importance of the very qualities and aspirations which brought us from the caves to where we are now.
That is why LM attaches such importance to the forthcoming 'Culture Wars' conference, which will deal with all the issues surrounding the debate about 'dumbing down'. Our view is simple: while the culture of low expectations goes unchallenged, and society's horizons are not raised, it is a waste of time anybody banging on about 'real' social problems like poverty and unemployment. Chanting a left-sounding mantra about the bleak prospects supposedly facing us can only seal society's panicky and pessimistic mood as the end of the century approaches.
LM's mission is to go against the grain of these bland and consensual times, to ask the difficult questions and try to call out the embarrassing answers, without worrying too much that we might be offending public opinion or treading on anybody's feelings. In short, as that old-fashioned fictional hero Jesus has it in the King James Bible (a literary classic, since dumbed down in many more 'accessible' editions), our aim is 'to kick against the pricks' - a slogan all blasphemers and heretics might do well to adopt for the new millennium.
Reproduced from LM issue 117, February 1999