23 October 2007

You're wrong, Sir Samuel

Samuel Brittan is one of the very few mainstream British journalists who has time for anti-left views other than his own. He is generally pro-markets, and at times has even been sympathetic to libertarianism.

When the Mediocracy book came out, we sent him a copy for review. When I inquired whether he had received it, he replied as follows.

I haven't a copy in front of me. Somebody must have borrowed it, which may be a good sign. I thought the book was a witty exposure of left wing foibles. When someone does an even-handed piece on both left-wing and right-wing attitudes I shall really sit up.

Now I find Brittan's implication that the book wasn’t “even-handed” a bit mysterious. It’s as if he thinks that there are an equal number of left-wing and right-wing foibles to be attacked. I’m not saying there are no right-wing foibles in contemporary culture, but demanding that a book examining current cultural trends should somehow be symmetric between biases of the Left and biases of the Right seems either naive or disingenuous.

I don’t think of the ‘foibles’ criticised in the book as predominantly ‘left-wing’, though it’s true many of them seem to lend themselves more readily to interventionist politics than to free-market philosophy. When I wrote the book I didn’t think of it as particularly political.

Having written this blog for over a year and become a bit more politically aware in the process — in spite of my relative lack of interest in politics — I would say that the mediocracy themes are more associated with figures and policies on the Left than on the Right. But I’m still not sure how inevitable that is, or whether it’s partly an accidental correlation arising from the fact that the Left happens to be culturally dominant at the moment. It’s not inconceivable that if it happened to be the Right, we could be having a very similar kind of mediocracy at work, but being espoused by people who thought of themselves as being rightist.

Recently Chris Dillow referred to this blog as one which “among ‘right-wing blogs’ [shows] signs of intelligent life”. Now while it’s interesting that top blogger Chris thinks this site demonstrates intelligence, I’m not so sure about being identified with the Right — though I note his use of scare quotes around the label.

I don’t wish to argue about my precise political preferences, and I suppose it’s fairly obvious that I’m no great fan of socialism. But what I write in this area is determined by what I experience as being the dominant ideology — every society has one, of course. This happens to be leftist as far as British culture goes, and has been at least as far back as when I was at college (the eighties). Even in the heyday of Thatcherism it seemed fairly obvious that the intelligentsia was dominated by people who despised the Right. While it’s true that we then had TV programmes like Channel 4’s The New Enlightenment*, which you probably wouldn’t get now, those were very much the exception to the rule.

I believe I’d find any dominant ideology oppressive and want to criticise it. All dominant ideologies tend to obstruct cultural progress. Ostensibly it’s progress in the direction that is most likely to undermine them which they obstruct. But I think more generally they obstruct all progress, even that which could support their outlook. If I was living in the late Victorian period I would probably be railing against the repressive effect of Christian ideology. However, I do not consider Christianity as being any longer an important cultural force in this country, and I regard attempts to portray it as a significant force for evil as risible and pernicious, partly because they deflect attention from the real dominant ideology.

The worst sort of dominant ideology is the kind which portrays itself as not dominant but counter-cultural, like the present one. (See pseudo-iconoclasm, pseudo-challenge, etc. Also note the similarities with communist regimes which try to use the notion of being in a perpetual state of revolution against the bourgeoisie.) As it says on the back of the Mediocracy book:

Subversion as counterculture is inspiring,
subversion as dogma is obnoxious.

Does Sir Samuel not get the point?

* See note 3 of Chris Tame’s paper.