Monday, July 28, 2008

Political axis - a few alternatives

Lady Antonia Fraser was on the wireless yesterday, saying how surprised she was when her husband - Harold Pinter - was awarded the Nobel Prize a few years ago. She had assumed that his outspoken politics would get in the way.

I'm not sure what the most deluded assumption behind this statement is. Is it that Pinter's self-serving blend of idealism and cynicism (Will always points out that the two are indistinguishable) is courageous, or some kind of a career-limiting liability?

(update 29/7: Will has provided some detail in response here).

Is it that she believes that Pinter is some kind of thorn in the side to the establishment with his sclerotic ranting? Does Whitehall quiver under his rhetorical blows? Or does it notice them at all? Or - better still, does it look forward to them?

Perhaps she believes that he is a threat of any kind to anyone in power, and that they would normally seek to contain him by lobbying against the Nobel Prize?

And thinking about Pinter and his fellow-travellers, I have to admit a prejudice. I tend to automatically disagree with any argument that comes wrapped in idealistic or cynical packaging.

I'm saying this as a prelude to a question about the various political axis that I've seen pedalled in recent years as an alternative to the poles of left and right. Personally, I'm quite wedded to left / right, though they seem to becoming more and more fuzzy and unreliable.

The most common alternative is the alternative poles of 'libertarian' and 'authoritarian' - (generally as a cross-cutter to the left/right axis) - one that is championed by (amongst others) the Political Compass application. I have problems with this one, not least because of the fairly subjective notion of the two words. I draw the same conclusions about most of what passes for libertarianism these days that others drew in the 1980s about Lord Hailsham's 1970s Tory notion of 'an elective dictatorship'.

Hailsham curiously forgot all about this liberalism when Mrs Thatcher carried out the most sweeping acts of political centralisation that the British state has ever seen. David Davis can be expected to do the same if the Tories end up in power. Show me a self-styled libertarian and - nine times out of ten - I'll show you a closet Tory (and usually a right-wing outlier).

Other work on political axis includes one of the best political uses of the web that I've seen is the clever, late, Chris Lightfoot's opinion-plotting application. Chris chose a much more complex set of axis, but the resulting graphic is the most valuable output of the whole thing. It's very good because it tells us a great deal about democratic politics. The lessons include...

  1. Almost no-one agrees with you about very much, even though you think they do

  2. When politicians don't say what you'd like them to say, they are doing it for a damn good reason. They're not saying anything that many people agree with

  3. If you think that unelected individuals should be able to directly influence legislation, then you should also know that you are arguing for a lifetime of utter repression.
The 'everyone agrees with me' fallacy is - I suspect - one of the biggest causes of disillusionment with government by the elected, and the perceived disconnection between politics and the general public. The recurring question is often 'why can't they do what we want them to do?' Sadly, the answer is that they often try to do exactly that - and they really shouldn't be doing so in the first place.

So, for most of the time writing this blog, I'd be prepared to advocate set of oppositions that ignore left and right for the most part, and concentrate on 'pro-direct democracy and pro-representative democracy axis.

I could back this up with the argument that illiberalism and a general retreat from social-democratic principles can be largely explained by the fact that elections are much less a measure of partisanship, and much more a complex set of auctions - the kind that Burke warned against. Thus the kind of triangulation that Shuggy touches on in this great post here. If politicians feel forced to trade specific policies with the tiny fraction of the electorate that have the outcome of the next election in their hands, the outcome will always be a more reactionary and authoritarian set of policies than those proposed by politicians who see themselves deliberating in the interest of the general will. For this reason, I've often argued, (and sometimes believe!!) that this is the almost only really relevant axis in the modern politics of a liberal democracy.

Other axis that I've seen recently include Marko Atilla Hoare's very flawed decent / indecent opposition. Chris Dillow has a much more interesting variation on the bland 'authoritarian / libertarian' opposition here with his cosmos v taxis opposition.

For me, returning to my original point, I'm beginning to suspect that the most important one is not the direct / representative split, but the opposition between idealist/cynics and those of us that cringe or weep every time we hear them.

For some reason, being a cynic / idealist appears to be very attractive to the popular culture of advanced democracies. As James Hamilton argued a while back, it certainly helps to get you laid. It gets you on the telly, and it is vary rare to find a satirist that doesn't dive into this pit.

Marcus Brigstock sometimes avoids it, much to his credit, and watching Have I Got News For You, I deceive myself that Paul Merton silently detests Ian Hislop for it. Its ubiquity, I suspect, led the likes of Bob Geldof and Bob Marshall-Andrews (both idealist / cynic pin-ups) to back David Davis recently. It appears to be the key motivator for Simon Jenkins, Rod Liddle and Steve and Martin Bell. It seems that you need to demonstrate a command of this particular nasty little art before you can get a job anchoring a news programme anywhere these days.

It makes for lazy journalism, self-righteous commentary and cheap comedy. If Trevor Griffiths were ever to revive his very good 'The Comedians', he could replace the old 'alternative comic / racist club comic' opposition with this one in an attempt to define a comedy that avoids the cheap shots and gotchas that often pass for satire.

None of this would be hugely damaging if it weren't for the fact that the idealist/cynic hegemony didn't make life so awkward and unattractive for elected politicians. The 'man in the white suit' commentator will inevitably eventually force representative democracy to recast itself as either a judicial or clerical function - not one that either proposes or revises in the way that legislatures are supposed to do. Judicial and clerical politicians can only follow - they can never lead. Henry Ford famously said that - if he'd just given his customers what they said they wanted, they would have all got slightly faster horses.

The only way to avoid ridicule or censure in such circumstances is to find a way of getting the lowest bidder to supply these nags to the general public. This is no minor transgression on the part of idealist/cynics. Making things difficult for elected politicians without doing the same to their rivals is the same as setting yourself up in direct opposition to representative democracy.

For this reason, I'm tempted to contact the good people at Political Compass to see if they would consider replacing the 'authoritarian / cynic' questions with ones that identify either idealism / cynicism or something that works out just how deluded you are about the fairness or usefulness of referendums and the need for politicians who are more 'mandatable'.

I suspect that either would be a good deal more useful than the 'authoritarian / libertarian' opposition.


mikeovswinton said...

A very interesting post, Paulie, and some targets well and truly hit. But Marcus Brigstock, eh. I've never felt sorrier for someone in the media than I did for him when he was on "The Trouble with Ann Robinson". Every time he was on camera in the few minutes of the one episode I inadvertently caught you could see a look in his eye that said "I've been trying to get on TV for years, I manage it, and I find myself in this heap of dross. It'll be years before I get in front of a camera again." Poor lad's back on The Now Show.

Will said...

Marcus Brigstock is a cunt.

How can you be so wrong about something so obvious.

just saying like.

Paulie said...

Well, I've been planning to write this post for a few weeks, and I've heard him a few times during that time.

I didn't hear any of the usual cheap bullshit that you get elsewhere, that's all.

mikeovswinton said...

Brigstock probably didn't deserve "The Trouble with Anne Robinson". The viewing public certainly didn't.

Tom said...

Brilliant post, Paulie. But I'd take issue with one thing. I've never forgiven Marcus Brigstocke for a segment in the Now Show in about 2004, about the Iraq war, in which he displayed every characteristic of a cynical/idealistic comedian you mention. The most revolting thing about it was that his opposition to the war (for the usual StWC reasons) was given in his own voice, and support for it was distilled entirely into the character of a doddery old colonel saying "Saddam is a very bad man" as the audience laughed at him. It was as if the idea that Saddam was a very bad man was both laughable and irrelevant, rather than a genuine and troubling, morally weighty problem which really did count against the anti-war movement, even if they could still legitimately argue that in the end their objections outweighed the case for war. Brigstocke certainly would not have intended to make cheap fun of solidarity with the victims of genocide and torture but (I honestly don't think I'm overstating here) that was the effect.

Paulie said...

It's official!

I regret mentioning Marcus Brigstock in this post. Apologies to all concerned.

For some reason, he seems to behave very well when I'm listening.

mikeovswinton said...

So, he DID deserve "The Trouble with Anne Robinson"? If so, he got well spanked, as the editor of the News of the World might put it.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant piece. On Brigstock, he once stood over Oliver Kamm threatening him with a trident on TV... He simplified an argument to its dribbling point, but then again... To repeat - excellent museings/analysis.

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