I’ve mentioned a few times about wanting to write something about politics, not in a party political way, but in the sense of my moral and political intuitions and how I feel nervous about talking about them to other people. This post probably isn’t perfect, but it’s a start and I think I should just post it by this stage, so here we go…
There’s a good quote I came across relatively recently: “if people seem slightly stupid, they’re probably just stupid. But if they seem colossally and inexplicably stupid, you probably differ in some kind of basic assumption so fundamental that you didn’t realize you were assuming it, and should poke at the issue until you figure it out.”
If you want, please consider what follows an explanation of my colossal and inexplicable stupidity…
Like a lot of diaspora Jews, I was raised in an environment that was at least mildly left-of-centre. There was a feeling growing up that one should vote Labour/socialist (arguably not the same thing when I came of age in the Blair years) or at the very least Liberal Democrat/liberal. (It’s weird that antisemites see Jews as monolithically conservative when the reality is that most diaspora Jews seem to be left-of-centre.) As I reached my teenage years, I was influenced by two things. One was studying economics at A-Level and feeling that socialism simply doesn’t work, although I was open to more moderate state intervention in the market. The other was the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. I don’t want to make this about Israel, but I felt that the news coverage and response from politicians and NGOs was increasingly one-sided. I felt that in the space of the first decade or so of the twenty-first century the “narrative” moved from a position of “There are faults on both sides, but Israel is heavy-handed” (which is a debateable point, but not necessarily antisemitic) to the demonisation of Israel as a uniquely evil state and which implicitly has to have its very existence questioned. This is much closer to antisemitism, at least in a world where no other state has had its legitimacy questioned like this. This attitude had been present among the hard-left for decades, coming ultimately out of Soviet Bloc propaganda (the USSR backed the Arabs), but seeped into the media, NGOs and the moderate left, particularly on campuses, where the atmosphere is increasingly hostile to Jewish students, something not really reported in the mainstream media, although it’s been reported widely in the Jewish press and online. Given that Zionism and the State of Israel are a major part of my identity, as they are for most Jews, this felt like an assault on my sense of self and poisoned my view of much of the left and made it harder and harder to see myself as a part of it, even though the right was not particularly appealing.
Contrary to what many people on the left feel, I don’t think there’s anything intrinsic about contemporary progressive thought that makes prejudice less likely than among conservatives, it’s just that the prejudice expresses itself in different ways. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Jews became identified on the left with capitalism, building on earlier antisemitic ideas about Jewish wealth and power. That idea was suppressed after the Holocaust, but has gradually crept back in, initially under the guise of anti-Zionism, but, as was seen in the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, classic antisemitic conspiracy theories and even Holocaust denial are passed around quite openly now on the hard-left.
I suppose I had pulled on a thread and gradually my beliefs began to unravel. This all happened slowly, over a decade or more of time, but I guess by about 2010 I became interested in hearing views I had never really considered before.
I think my views achieved a kind of stasis for a few years where I didn’t really identify with anything other than a vague centrism. Then came Brexit, the most seismic event in British politics in my lifetime. I described myself as a “reluctant Remainer.” I disliked aspects of the EU, especially its lack of direct democratic accountability, but felt being in was better than being out. Still, when Leave won, I thought that was that. In the months that followed, I was horrified to see people I admired, working to annul a democratic vote because they disagreed with it. There seemed to me to be a class element to this: middle class, university-educated Remainers trying to block working class Brexiteers. All the Remainer talk of gullible working class voters being “tricked” into voting Leave made it hard to avoid feeling there wasn’t a sense of entitlement buried under there stemming from access to higher education.
As I read more over the coming years, I realised this paralleled the white working class’ embrace of Donald Trump in the USA. I hated Donald Trump, but I increasingly felt he was the only prominent person who had noticed that in the move to identity politics based on race, gender and sexuality, working class and lower middle class people, some of them living close to the breadline, had been forgotten. Their incomes have stagnated for decades while the rich and university educated have got richer. I felt that Trump was manipulative and probably had limited real regard for these people; like a businessman, he saw an attractive market. All the same, he signalled a failure in the democratic process that was most pronounced in America, but present in other Western countries.
(I suppose, if you want to go down this route, that I’m part of the lower middle class “left behinds” – fifteen years after leaving university, I’ve never had a full-time job or owned a home. Of course, in my case it’s due to autism and mental illness rather than “elite over-production” (briefly, the idea that there are now more people with degrees than there are good jobs that require degrees, resulting in unemployment among people who are already in debt from university fees that they were told they would easily pay off once they started working). Even so, there is some resentment of the prosperous middle class that I try to repress, but probably is in there to some extent, I can’t deny it.)
All the same, I feel uncomfortable calling myself a “conservative.” I don’t agree with all conservative policies, for one thing. For another, I find conservative political parties worldwide fairly repulsive. What works on a local scale as communal help ends up on a national scale as strict needs-testing and rooting out of “undeserving” claimants, backed up by occasional jingoism. COVID in particular has shown the British Conservative Party as inefficient when faced with a new challenge, while Donald Trump has shamelessly ignored the science and tried to make it a partisan issue (although I don’t see Trump as a conservative in any meaningful sense).
Nevertheless, I believe in evolutionary change and tradition; in localism and third sector involvement in social care; I believe that many problems are not solvable, not by government and certainly not within one electoral cycle; I am suspicious of simplistic mono-causal explanations; I am strongly opposed to monopolies and big corporations, whether public or private-sector; and I feel excluded from identity politics, which often seems antisemitic, and which in any case I see as socially divisive. So all these thoughts would mark me out as a conservative, albeit a very particular kind of conservative, what in Britain is sometimes referred to as One Nation Conservatism for its vision of a mutually responsible national culture that transcends the divisions of class. I care about many of the issues progressives care about (poverty, discrimination and injustice, the environment), I just find their answers simplistic and often unworkable.
I’ve tried other ways of looking at the political spectrum. One recent UK survey identified seven types of political ideologies and I’m don’t fit any one of them, so that didn’t help. Other people look at “Somewheres” versus “Anywheres” – those rooted in a place and culture against cosmopolitans who value global living and policies. This has the advantage of explaining Brexit and Trump well; both appealed to parts of the established right (but not the neo-liberals), but also to parts of the working class that had not previously voted conservatively. But my “Somewhere” place doesn’t exist; inasmuch as I want to conserve somewhere, it’s a construct of Jewish identity that only exists on an abstract plane, not in a real place (not even Israel).
George Orwell divided the world into moralists and revolutionaries. Moralists think there is no point in reforming institutions while human nature is in need of reform; revolutionaries think the reverse. I suppose I would mostly be a moralist. More pertinently, Orwell also coined the phrase “Tory anarchist,” defined by the political theorist Peter Wilkin as “a form of cultural dissident, out of step with and in opposition to many features of the modern world” who has “respect for privacy and the liberty of individuals, a fear of the state and its expanding power over social life; a nostalgic and melancholy temper… ; criticism of social conformism; and a pervasive sense of pessimism about the fate of the modern world.”
This is a phrase I’ve taken to heart. I like it partly because it’s loosely defined and allows me to avoid pinning myself down, but also because it suggests to me (although perhaps not to other people) a kind of dynamic tension between opposing outlooks that I feel strongly, as opposed to a synthesis or compromise.
I suppose I think that there is no one way of running a society/economy. It’s all about what trade-offs you are willing to make. I’m not a libertarian, but the libertarian saying that “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” seems to me to be inherently true, but frequently ignored. You can trade off economic growth against economic redistribution or unemployment against employment laws and minimum wage legislation and so on. It depends if you think the gain is worth the cost. I think that’s entirely sensible behaviour. The problem is that politicians rarely frame the decisions in that way; they tend to try to mislead voters into thinking that you can have it all. I’m very much opposed to that kind of short-term, simplistic thinking, whether it comes from the left or the right. I do very much see politics as a pragmatic business of balancing different positives and negatives and I feel uncomfortable with people who see it in a very redemptive, almost messianic, way, about “saving the world.” I don’t think we can save the world, only God can do that. We can just try to make it marginally less awful.
Even though I’ve moved rightwards, a lot of my friends and family are more left-wing, particularly online. The library sector is very left-wing, unsurprisingly, being based on public sector and education sector employment. On the other hand, some people in the Orthodox Jewish community are far off to my right. I haven’t been able to work out if most Orthodox Jews are right-wing, or just the most vocal ones. I mostly walk away from fights that are impossible to win and let other people believe what they like. It does leave me feeling “They would hate me if they knew me,” which is not good for my self-esteem. I do feel a lot of the time that I have to hide my sense of self, which probably isn’t healthy for me. Hence, I want to write this, just so I can see what happens and whether I can afford to open up to the world a bit more.