Russell Brand’s book Revolution has probably received more criticism from the left than the right, despite being superficially of the left. In this, there’s a reminder of a phenomenon that has been present in all modern political extremism and which also defines the various contemporary Islamist movements: the claim of small utopian movements to be perfected forms of broader demographies.
Racial purity movements, like white supremacism, claim to be perfected, pure forms of patriotism and the broader and more vague patriotism of the majority is seen by supremacists as wishy-washy, lacking the courage of its conviction. In fact, they’re different ways of thinking entirely, one based on race, the other not based on race. Far right movements like the BNP rarely gain much electoral traction and when they do it’s because of conflicts based on alienation resulting from rapid demographic change or competition for, mainly state, resources. It is not because of race; Polish plumbers are as much of an issue as Pakistani villagers for the Labour supporters who drift in and out of BNP voting. So while race-based politics seems like it’s an extension of ordinary patriotism and parochialism, it isn’t.
Islamism claims to be a purer, more correct application of religious teaching. But there isn’t a core of pure religious teaching at all, not in any religion. They’re all agglomerates, and they’re all shaped by humans. There are contradictory verses in all scriptures. Genesis starts with two, different, creation myths. The New Testament flatly contradicts most of the Old. Some Koranic verses recommend violence, some recommend peace; some are intolerant, some are tolerant. Movements of religious ‘enthusiasm’ have been a constant problem for the mainstream religious. Ronald Knox put it like this:
He expects more evident results from the grace of God than we others. He sees what effects religion can have, does sometimes have, in transforming a man’s whole life and outlook; these exceptional cases (so we are content to think them) are for him the average standard of religious achievement. He will have no “almost-Christians,” no weaker brethren who plod and stumble, who (if the truth must be told) would like to have a foot in either world, whose ambition is to qualify, not to excel. He has before his eyes a picture of the early Church, visibly penetrated with supernatural influences; and nothing less will serve him for a model. Extenuate, accommodate, interpret, and he will part company with you.
“Extenuate, accommodate, interpret, and he will try to kill you” is perhaps the current version, but the principle is the same. Yet most religious people do “like to have a foot in either world”, or even both feet in this one. Even when they acknowledge that some of the supernatural claims of their religion are unlikely to be true, they consider themselves to be religious. For them, it’s about rituals that bind villages, cities or nations, it’s about social interaction, festivals and holidays, rites of passage, families and a code of behaviour that includes charity and self-denial for those so inclined. And it’s about identity, of continuing the defining rituals of your predecessors and neighbours. The broad mass of religious behaviour has little to do with the actual belief systems at its core. It’s a social phenomenon. Again, while the very religious might seem to be at an extreme of ordinary religious behaviour, they’re not. They’re something else.
The same is true of the left. Broad left movements are a blend of self-interest and a sense of justice, or injustice. I don’t mean ‘social justice’ as defined by the far left, just ordinary, everyday scales-of-justice justice. The distribution of wealth in all countries includes a fair amount of the legacy of armed robbery. You can argue about how much, and how much this has been over-written by subsequent economic activity, but the wealth of all monarchs comes from this, and so does that of most aristocrats. The sense that it’s unfair, that aside, for one child to be born a pauper and be so poorly fed in infancy that their brain development is affected, while another is born into great surplus, through no individual merit, is both understandable and widespread. This is true, for many people, if the parents’ wealth difference comes about through indolence on one side and enterprise on the other. It doesn’t depend on the merit of the parents.
So redistribution, at least some transfer of wealth, is favoured by the broad left, by most liberals (starting with Adam Smith), and indeed many on the meritocratic right. Others on the broad left see themselves as the recipients of redistribution, and not just the less well-off. The narcissism of much of the middle class left is tautological, considering that they are people born into above average affluence who still feel they should get other people’s money because their art, or environmental campaigning, or political thought – rather than their need for subsistence – merits it.
The popularity of nationalisation and the appeal of trades unions today, decades past their usefulness, are also forms of self-interest, based on a conservative wish to return to a past, no less imaginary than the 1950s of the Daily Express, in which people have jobs for life in large organisation that are immune from the uncertainties and competitors of market environments.
On the face of it, people who want complete redistribution, a complete remaking of society, have just reached the logical conclusion of this form of thought. It’s hard to dismiss out of hand a charge of narcissism against those who would reshape the lives of every other person in the country, or world, but more significantly they want an even fairer society than does the milquetoast democratic left. This makes them purer, better leftists than the rest, according to them.
The problem for people in the broader groups, for the ordinarily patriotic, for the Anglican Christian or Sunni Moslem, for the mainstream Labour voter, is that they often have a suspicion that the Ultras are right – that they are purer forms of their own broad ideals. This is why these movements manage to gain traction in large groups, why they can successfully attach themselves to these groups. When any such movement gains serious traction in a broad demographic, it can start using intimidation and punishment to suppress dissent, and the world faces a serious problem – fascism, communism, theocracy.
This explains why the National Union of Students is continually plagued by extremist politics. The anti-imperialists who think condemning ISIS would be Islamophobic are the successors of the communists who turned out not to be super-liberals, but to be supporters of Honecker and his secret police. Students think these people are even more concerned about justice or racism than they are, instead of the truth, that they’re happy to use either as leverage, but are mainly interested in power over other people.
This is where Brand fits in. But there’s an irony. It’s also where some of his critics fit in. Take Chris Dillow’s post, criticising Brand for anti-intellectualism. It’s a fair charge. But then Chris wrote this:
Any serious revolution would, of course, disempower political and business elites and empower people. Which raises many questions: why is there so little popular demand for worker management or even direct democracy? How do we promote anti-managerialism? Could we achieve worker democracy without weakening incentives to innovate? What institutions do we need to create a healthy deliberative democracy rather than debased populism?
Of course, people have been working on questions such as these for years but their efforts have, to put it mildly, not greatly entered the mainstream of the British left.
The efforts he mentions haven’t ‘entered the mainstream of the British left’ because they have nothing to do with the mainstream left. They might be better thought-out, but they’re ideas that are interlopers as much as is Brand (I’m not going to suggest he has any ideas). Like most Muslims, Christians and vaguely patriotic people, most of the left just want to rub along, with reasonable freedom and safety, living their lives as they see fit and raising their kids. They don’t want the dawn of a New Age, be it the revolution, racial purity, the Apocalypse or a Caliphate.
That’s not a failure to be ‘proper’ believers, it’s not being a believer in utopia at all.