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25 May 2015
“Tout le malheur des hommes vient de l’espérance.”
Assertion by Albert Camus (1913-1960) Algerian-born French writer and Nobel literature laureate, in his disquisition on rebellion and revolution (“L’Homme révolté”, 1951).
“Antigone1984… is very much opposed to political optimism for which there is no basis in fact. One gets a whiff of this in the recourse of the Italian Communist theoretician Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) to “optimism of the will” when faced with “pessimism of the intellect”. The sainted British Labour Party leftwinger Tony Benn (1925-2014) was another notorious exponent of culpable optimism. We remember him telling a meeting in Brussels during the catastrophic 1984-1985 UK mineworkers’ strike that “we [the left] have won” when it was already blindingly obvious that we had lost big-time. Think also of the legendary prediction by Spanish Communist leader Dolores Ibárruri (1895-1989) at the start of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939): “¡No pasarán! [They shall not get through!] she said of the advancing forces of the rightist insurgent Francisco Franco. To which the subsequently victorious Franco is said to have retorted: ¡Ya hemos pasado! [We have already got through!]. At Antigone1984 we prefer to call a spade a spade, not a shovel.”
The above is an extract from our blog “H ελπίδα έρχεται” (“Soon you’ll be able to hope again”) published in Athens on 24 January 2015. It was with this over-optimistic slogan that the left-leaning Syriza party headed into the Greek general election exactly four months ago today. Sadly, as we predicted at the time, despite Syriza’s victory at the polls, it took only a week for those hopes to be dashed as the party’s raggle-taggle army of naïve greenhorns locked horns to their cost with the ruthless bean-counters of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Greece today is even more of an economic basket-case than it was before the election.
The profession of unblinking optimism, whatever the circumstances, was a key duty of party apparatchiki schooled in Marxist-Leninist doctrine at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. The good comrade, indoctrinated to believe in the “scientific” inevitability that the proletariat will ultimately triumph, was trained always to look on the bright side.
The idea is that morale will crumble if party members are allowed to indulge in the “bourgeois” luxury of seeing things as they are.
Antigone1984 adopts a different position. Opposed to wishful thinking, we do our best to analyse the political situation as it actually is and not on the basis of how we would prefer things to be. If our analysis provides grounds for optimism, then we are optimistic. If it does not, then we tell it like it is.
The light at the end of the tunnel may be the light of the oncoming train.
We take the view that it is deceitful to fake an optimism for which you do not believe there is evidence. In trying to convince people that there are grounds for hope when you do not believe this to be the case you are doing them no service.
It is a version of that old chestnut of immorality: “the end justifies the means”: we can maintain a cavalier attitude towards the truth because our ultimate aims are laudable.
Hope-mongers are already at work on the British left following the triumph of the reactionary Tory Party in the parliamentary election on 7 May 2015 (covered in our last four blogs).
Since the catastrophic defeat of the Labour and Liberal Democratic parties in that election, waste-of-breath voices are being heard on the left commending our vacuous old friend “hope”. A paid-up member of the hope-mongering tendency is commentator Owen Jones, a star “leftie” hack on the Guardian newspaper and, paradoxically, a supporter of the non-socialist Labour Party to boot. On 8 May, the day after the election, Jones cobbled together an article entitled “A nightmarish result – but a politics of hope could arise from these ashes”. Here we go again. It is no accident that Jones is a torch-bearer for the late Tony Benn (mentioned in our opening paragraph above) whose name was a byword for pathological optimism.
After lamenting the rightward drift of the Labour Party in the outgoing parliament, Owen concludes:
“There will be a big debate now over the future of the Labour party, and what the left does next. This country desperately needs a politics of hope that answers people’s everyday problems on living standards, job security, housing, public services and the future of their children. What is needed is a movement rooted in the lives of working-class people and their communities. The future of millions of people depends on it.”
The country may “need” a politics of hope, whatever that means, but it is not going to get it. Nor is there any evidence to suggest the emergence any time soon – or indeed ever – of a movement rooted in the lives of working-class people and their communities. At least not if the Labour Party has anything to do with it. No sooner were the catastrophic election results announced, than the party elite unanimously blamed the disaster on the fact that the party had not moved far enough to the right. As we have repeatedly emphasized, despite its name the Labour Party is a market-subservient party of the right, not the left, and it is moving further to the right at a rate of knots. A big debate over the future of the Labour Party. That is the last thing that party apparatchiki want. But if there were to be a debate it would not be about moving back in the direction of the historic left-inclined roots of the party, but about how far and how fast the party could move in the opposite direction.
So not many grounds for hope there then.
A letter in the Guardian newspaper on 16 May 2015 from Emeritus Professor Roger Carpenter of Cambridge University refers to the infighting among the right-wing epigoni of the Labour Party elite who are now scrabbling to succeed the fallen party leader Edward “Loser” Miliband:
“When the ambitious little apparatchiks come out of their woodwork and vie with each other in support of ‘aspiration’ (greed and selfishness) and Tory values generally, is it not time for those who care about creating a society that is fair, civilised, compassionate, and protected from the power of the big corporations to agree that this terminally corrupted and aimless organisation, the Labour party, should be left to die quietly? Is it not time to start again?”
The fact is that the Labour Party has long been a spent force. The recent election gave it the coup de grâce. The loss of all but one of its Scottish seats means that it is unlikely, in the foreseeable future, if ever, to be able to win enough seats in any subsequent election to form a majority government. It has often been argued that if Labour lost its Scottish seats the Tories could be in power permanently. Forthcoming changes in constituency boundaries are also likely to reinforce the Tory advantage.
Nor is there any sign of the emergence in Britain of any other significant movement aspiring to don the leftwing mantle that has been cast off by Labour. There is no counterpart here of the new social democratic parties in Europe, such as Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain. Leftwing grouplets (such as Left Unity or the Socialist Workers’ Party) do exist, of course, but their membership is minute, their policies are unoriginal and unimaginative and they have no political traction. Moreover, because of its socialist origins, as long as the Labour Party exists, there will be gullible people who will continue to support it in the misguided belief that what it was once it still is. As long as that remains the case, the Labour Party will continue to monopolise the space that could otherwise be occupied by more left-leaning groups. The Labour Party is the elephant in the room. That is why the demise of the Labour Party, the sooner the better, is a pre-condition for the emergence of genuine opposition to rightwing politics. In Greece it was the implosion of the country’s discredited socialist party (PASOK), which had sold out like the Labour Party in Britain, that gave Syriza its chance. However, the death of the Labour Party, if it happens, is likely to be a long drawn-out affair. There is no sign that it will happen any day now.
The immediate outlook, then, in the period between now and the May 2020 deadline for the next parliamentary election is – as former London mayor Ken Livingstone said in our last blog on 18 May – “five more years of pure evil”.
In these circumstances, with the electorate having given the green light to the most reactionary government since the 18th century, what is the leftwing activist to do?
Что делать? What is to be done?
- Opting out of the political arena, on the assumption that no progress is currently possible, one can sit at home and cultivate one’s garden. This was the solution proposed by the Greek philosopher Epicurus of Samos (d. 270 BC) to deal with the plight of the isolated individual freeman of his day. Unlike in the heyday of the “polis” city-state, which gave direct democratic rights to all citizens, the Hellenistic commoner had no political importance in the vast cosmopolis brought into being by the conquests of Alexander the Great (d. 323 BC). French philosopher and gardener Voltaire (d. 1778 AD) also advocated retiring from the world to cultivate one’s garden. Cultivating one’s garden need not be taken literally. It can mean turning away from the world to spend time developing one’s intellect and talents. Confucian civil servants in imperial China, when they left or lost office, often withdrew to their provincial estates where, parlayed into Taoists, they communed with nature and wrote poetry.
2.The other option, for those who can, is to emigrate to more hospitable climes.
In “Exile’s Return” (1934) the US critic Malcolm Cowley (d. 1989) chronicled the flight to Europe of talented young Americans escaping the philistine post-war USA of Presidents Harding and Coolidge: “Harold Stearns (d.1943), editor of the pessimistic “Civilization in the United States”, wrote an article for the Freeman in the early 1920s called “What should a young man do?” …his answer was simple and uncompromising. A young man had no future in this country of hypocrisy and repression. He should take ship for Europe, where people know how to live. Early in July 1921, just after finishing his Preface and delivering the completed manuscript to the publisher, Mr Stearns left this country, perhaps forever. His was no ordinary departure: he was Alexander marching into Persia and Byron shaking the dust of England from his feet. Reporters came to the gangplank to jot down his last words. Everywhere young men [including Cowley] were preparing to follow his example.”
Following the electoral triumph of the Tories in Britain this month, progressive Britons face the same imperative. Reaction has triumphed. There is no place for liberals in a country where the candle of liberty has been snuffed out. Even as we write these lines, arch-repressive Home Secretary Theresa “Fangs” May is fast-tracking a bill which threatens to categorise all opponents of the government as criminal extremists.
Our advice is stark: get out if you can while you can.
But where to?
In our globalised homogenised marketised world, where diversity is repressed and conformity dictated, there are few hiding places for the free spirit. Certainly not America with its permanent war culture, its judicial executions and its reactionary timocratic politics. Not Europe either with its bankster economy and its foreign and defence policies outsourced to Washington. Obviously not Russia or China – both dictatorships – either.
It seems to us that there are currently only two countries in the world which might offer a modicum of freedom to the political exile.
One is Iceland (330 000 inhabitants) with its progressive attitude towards asylum and free speech.
According to Wikipedia, Iceland generally has a free-market economy tempered by capital controls. It also has “relatively low taxes compared to other OECD countries. It maintains a Nordic social welfare system that provides universal health care and tertiary education for its citizens. Iceland ranks highly in economic, political and social stability and equality. In 2013 it was ranked as the 13th most developed country in the world by the United Nations’ Human Development Index.”
However, Iceland might perhaps be a tad on the cold side for softies from more southerly climes.
The other possible bolt-hole is Uruguay with its 3.3 million inhabitants. Not exactly round the corner, but then again nothing’s perfect.
This is an extract from Wikipedia’s entry for Uruguay:
“Uruguay is ranked first in Latin America in democracy, peace, lack of corruption, quality of living, e-government, and equally first in South America when it comes to press freedom, size of the middle class, prosperity and security. On a per capita basis, Uruguay contributes more troops to United Nations peace-keeping missions than any other country. It ranks second in the region on economic freedom, income equality, per capita income and inflows of FDI. Uruguay is the third best country on the continent in terms of HDI, GDP growth, innovation and infrastructure. It’s regarded as a high-income country (top group) by the UN, the only one in Latin America. Uruguay is also the 3rd best ranked in the world in e-participation. The Economist named Uruguay “country of the year” in 2013, acknowledging the innovative policy of legalising the production, sale and consumption of cannabis. Same-sex marriage and abortion are also legal, leading Uruguay to be regarded as one of the most liberal nations in the world, and one of the most socially developed, outstanding regionally and performing well globally on personal rights, tolerance and inclusion issues.
Drawing on Switzerland and its use of the initiative, the Uruguayan Constitution also allows citizens to repeal laws or to change the constitution by popular initiative, which culminates in a nationwide referendum. This method has been used several times over the past 15 years…to stop privatization of public utilities companies; to defend pensioners’ incomes; and to protect water resources. A 2010 Latinobarómetro poll found that, within Latin America, Uruguayans are among the most supportive of democracy and by far the most satisfied with the way democracy works in their country.”
Maybe someone can suggest other bolt-holes.
In any case, good luck to y’all.
And will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.
You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts. For instance:
- Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)
- Partitocracy v. Democracy (20 July 2012)
- The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)
- Capitalism in practice (4 July 2012)
- Ladder (21 June 2012)
- A tale of two cities (1) (6 June 2012)
- A tale of two cities (2) (7 June 2012)
- Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)
Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.