Wednesday 20 February 2008

'The simplistic banalities of the modern progressive elites'

Kind-of-apropos of what I wrote in this post about fake radicalism: composer James Macmillan reflects on what he terms 'the simplistic banalities of the modern progressive élites' and their influence on the arts:

This has nothing to do with a love of life, a love of the poor or the outsider, but all to do with a love of transgression. It becomes addictive and in the past has led artists as much to the extreme Right as to the far Left. Childish ‘anti-bourgeois’ militancy has no political intelligence or moral fibre. Witness, for example, Harold Pinter’s descent into infantilism every time he mentions the United States, or for that matter decides to write poetry. Rather than being ridiculed for the embarrassing doggerel-merchant he has become, he is lauded to the highest by his fellow-travellers, easily impressed by easy rhetoric and equally determined to maintain their favoured positions in the back-slapping arts establishment.

I think a 'love of transgression' and 'childish anti-bourgeois militancy' is a fairly accurate description of much of what passes for 'radical' comment in the pages of the Guardian these days. And I think he's right that this kind of fake radicalism can easily end up supporting the extreme right: hence the spectacle of 'revolutionary' leftists cosying up to Islamists.

Macmillan compares today's Left unfavourably both with the Communist Party which he joined in his youth, and with the tradition of Scottish Catholic Labourism which surrounded him as he grew up. He's mad at the modern Left for undermining the latter:

The cherished values of generations, the foundation of correct, well-ordered structures and relationships were under attack from a formidable foe. The traditional family and education, sexual mores, artistic aspirations, religious belief — all were now seen as coercive strategies of the powerful, designed to enforce conformity and slavish obedience.

The ‘progressive’ liberalism of the new Left, its destructive atheistic iconoclasm, was miles away from the vision of the early Scottish socialists such as John Wheatley, Manny Shinwell and James Maxton.

There's an echo here of Nick Cohen's criticism of the contemporary Left for abandoning the 'decent' values of its radical past. But Macmillan's critique is given a particular twist by his avowed Catholicism and wider dislike of secular leftism: 'As a Catholic artist I am sick of the smug ignorance, the gross oversimplification and caricature that serves as an understanding of religion, particularly Catholic Christianity, in so much that passes for criticism and analysis.'

This is where I part company with Macmillan. In seeking to hold on to a nostalgic attachment to the Catholic-tinged socialism of his youth, he finds a different -ism to blame for the decline of the Left - liberalism: 'The destruction visited on schools and universities, the degradation of the media, the vulgarisation of culture, the deliberate and planned dismantling of the family — all this is a result of liberalism, not socialism.' Not to mention, of course, those other products of liberalism: religious toleration, gender equality, anti-discrimination legislation, etc, etc.

Though I agree with much of what Macmillan has to say about the contemporary Left, I'm uncomfortable with this socially conservative, anti-liberal critique. A glance back at the history of the twentieth-century should be sufficient warning against any attempt to detach socialism from liberalism. And we know the dangers of Catholic-inspired anti-liberal social movements.


1 comment:

Roland Dodds said...

'Childish anti-bourgeois militancy' says it pretty well. There is absolutely nothing radical about a bunch of snobs snubbing what they see as bourgeois principles like democracy and liberty (the two principles I find these folks swinging at most often).

Worse yet, they are conservatives, romanticizing their past victories; eager to relive them.