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Why the means justifies the means (say Gordon Brown and Wile E Coyote)

Wile_E_CoyoteChuck Jones, the creator of Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny and a host of other great cartoon characters once explained that the inspiration for his Wile E. Coyote character (all his efforts to capture Road Runner fail but he never ceases to work on his ineffective plans) was a remark of the philosopher George Santayana who said “A fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim”.

I am reminded of this quotation when I hear Labour Party politicians dismissing debate about deep long-term radical change as an indulgence on the grounds that nothing can be done without winning power which must therefore be the governing aim. My Labour MP recently told the General Committee of the Constituency Party “the core purpose of the Labour Party” is  “to help us win elections”. Note, “the core purpose”. The core purpose is not, it seems, to develop a clear view of the sort of society we want to create (apart from a few platitudes about fairness and inequality”). Such a long-term view is virtually never discussed in the Labour Party. Instead the focus is on a programme that is slim enough and untroubling enough to ruffle as few feathers as possible. In other words trying to establish Labour as ‘not the Tories’ but without being so different that “middle England” might get nervous.

This argument has been repeated so many times that it has come for many to have the status of “common sense” or the “blindingly obvious”. And yet it is entirely specious reasoning. It inextricably bound up with a so-called pragmatic approach to politics which avoids all theoretical consideration and prefers to collapse thinking to immediate problems and “evidence-based” policies for “what works”. Everything is wrong with these claims. They need to be unpicked.

No one imagines that such a “practical approach” can be applied in matters of Physics or Biology. There it is clear that “common sense” will not do and that the shortest route to reality is through well grounded theory. But in human affairs, politics and social science we are supposed to believe that reality can be grasped without such an effort. Just take a problem, add a sprinkling of common sense, stir it up with some “evidence” (always carefully selected) et voilà: a policy. If only …

This is the permanent delusion foisted on the Labour Party and the rut it is now in is so deep that there is no hope of getting out of it without abandoning this view. Only with a Corbyn leadership would it be possible begin that process and to marginalise the supine view if the public is not currently persuaded of an idea then we shouldn’t think it. The problems faced by a Corbyn leadership would be massive but if he is elected this would be great and unexpected opportunity. It would be an occasion to remind ourselves that we came into politics wanting to bring about deep social change and not to tinker on the margins. It is true that the left is not in a particularly good shape but we cannot say “We’re not ready, come back later”. Rather, we have to rise to challenge in order to give Corbyn the support he will need to renew the Labour Party.

The latest to intone the mind-numbing “our job is to get elected” argument is Gordon Brown in the Radio Times for 5-11th September. The headline for Brown’s article is Heirs to Hardie. It is yet another attempt to claim the Hardie’s legacy for the Labour right-wing by making Hardie into an anodine Saint of New Labour Politics. The real Hardie is completely unrecognisable in this. No wonder Brown doesn’t attempt to back up any of his claims by allowing Hardie to speak for himself.

Brown says “He knew that you could not deliver in power without principles but you could not deliver on principles without power”. This is the mantra that in practice is used to stop discussion about principle.

Should we take the railways into public ownership and de-privatise the Royal Mail? If you put these questions to people who repeat this mantra they will say things like “It would lose us the election”. If you then ask “Okay but what about  the medium to long-term. Isn’t public ownership a desirable objective?” and you will either get complete silence or will be told that such discussions are for ivory tower academics. In other words the “principles” in question have collapsed into “whatever it takes to win power”. In effect they say ‘Stop talking about the  ideas about deep change to society that brought most of us into politics. We will never get elected that way‘. The logic of the fanatic is evident – albeit expressed in boring articles for genteel readers of the Radio Times.

This ‘genteel‘ fanaticism can be seen in Labour’s commitment to neo-liberal ideas well after their destructive power has been made all too plain by their impact the lives of millions through wars and economic instability. What is fanaticism but clinging to an idea even when it produces the opposite of what one originally started out to achieve?

Hardie was of a rather different persuasion to Brown’s patron saint of electability. He wrote

Socialism we believe to be the next step in the evolution of that form of the State which will give the individual the fullest and freest room for expansion and development. State Socialism, with all its drawbacks, and these I frankly admit, will prepare the way for free Communism in which the rule, not merely of the State, but the rule of life will be – From each according to his ability to each according to his needs. … Socialism with its promise of freedom, its larger hope for humanity, its triumph of peace over war, its binding of the races of the earch into one all-embracing brotherhood, must prevail. Capitalism is the creed of the dying present; Socialism throbs with the life of the days that are to be. (From Serfdom to Socialism, 1907)

Does that sound closer to Gordon Brown’s view of things or to that of Jeremy Corbyn? The question only has to be asked … The attempts of right-wing Labour to claim Hardie as the apostle of their supine politics just won’t stack up.

One Comment

  1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

    Almost every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise, to balance it.

    George Santayana

    An interesting article that examines some interesting and to me deeply troubling trends that I’ve noted also; I was particularly taken with the use of the term, “‘genteel fanaticism,” although genteel fascism would probably be much closer to the truth.

    That old saw serves almost a definition, “we know what we like and like what we know,” and what we like best is people like, “us.”

    I would define this as being the peculiarly narrow and increasingly out of touch mind set which has so come to characterize and dominate the PLP and which uncritically, sees, (typically,) middle class life experiences, values and prejudices as a being some kind of norm and regards any departure, questioning or criticism of these, “values,” (nihilisms,) as being always retrograde and upsetting.

    So where do we go from here?

    Well fortunately for us and once again the real Hardie rides to our rescue as it were, with this wise and seminal comment.

    “For my own part I have always maintained that to claim for the Socialist movement that it is a “class” war dependent for its success upon the “class” consciousness of one section of the community is doing Socialism an injustice, and indefinitely postponing its triumph. It is, in fact, lowering it to the level of a mere faction fight. Socialism offers a platform broad enough for all to stand upon who accept its principles … Socialism makes war upon a system, not upon a class.”

    Keir Hardie

    As for Brown’s tedious conviction that nothing else matters but power; that’s exactly the kind of, “the end justifies the means,” thinking that’s got Labor and this country into so much trouble, socially, economically and politically over the last 10 years or more.

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