Wednesday 1 April 2015

Breaking my silence?

‘It's no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.' – Alice in Wonderland

I’ve always felt an affinity with French-Moroccan author Marcel Benabou, who wrote a book-length treatise on why he hadn’t written more books: Pourquoi je n'ai √©crit aucun de mes livres. In the same spirit, this is a blog post about why I haven’t written any blog posts recently – well, nowhere near as many as I used to write (only 20 posts in the past three years, whereas in 2009 alone I wrote more than 200).

My principal excuse for inactivity is that this is primarily a political blog – and my political beliefs are currently in a state of extreme flux. So what’s new, you may ask? Hasn’t this blog charted repeatedly (and probably tediously) my movement from youthful Tribunite Labour left-wingery, through Gramscian Marxism, to critical support for New Labour? Didn’t I once claim, in my normblog profile no less, that I started this blog ‘to help me work out what I think’? And wasn’t it precisely the experience of writing this blog that helped me to clarify the anti-totalitarian liberal-social-democratic politics that has characterised my thinking for most of the blog’s life?

Yes, but this feels different. The change in my political outlook feels more seismic this time. I’m reluctant to articulate the change too precisely, for fear that the sands may have shifted again in a few months, and I’ll have to recant any positions I espouse here. So how to characterise the change? Maybe it’s enough to say that these days I find myself reading Standpoint and The Spectator more frequently, and with more pleasure, than The New Statesman; that I tend to haunt websites such as Front Porch Republic and Ethika Politika; that having hero-worshipped Thomas Paine for years I’m much more sympathetic to his nemesis Edmund Burke; and that I now find Chestertonian distributism more attractive than any form of socialism. 

That last item is a partial clue as to why my views have changed. My re-engagement with religious faith in the past year or two has certainly made me more 'conservative' on some social issues, and while my re-awakened faith has helped to keep my passion for social justice alive, it has also made me more open to different ways of imagining and achieving it. But it’s not just about religion. Another way of describing the change in my politics is to say that my growing disillusionment with certain aspects of contemporary leftism – whether it be kneejerk anti-westernism in foreign affairs or ‘big state’ paternalism at home – has led over time to a questioning of the foundations of progressivism per se.

To put it another way, and please forgive this brief philosophical excursion by someone who’s by no means an expert in these matters: it’s partly about questioning the adequacy of the Enlightenment tradition. Like many others who have featured in my blogroll sidebar over the years, I began blogging partly out of a sense of alarm at the rising tide of irrationalism and moral relativism in contemporary political discourse, particularly on the Left – manifested in contorted attempts to ‘understand’ terrorism, a refusal to condemn misogyny and racism if espoused by non-westerners, and the abandonment of a sense of universal human rights. In this context, post-Rushdie, post-9/11 and post-Danish cartoons, it seemed important to rush to the barricades (or at least, the blogs) to defend the gains of the Enlightenment. Indeed, it became something of a badge of honour when, in a burst of tortuous illogicality, Madeleine Bunting (‘Our Maddy of the Sorrows’, to quote the late great Norm), one of the torchbearers for the anti-rationalists, condemned writers of our stripe as ‘Enlightenment fundamentalists’.

But what if an appeal to Enlightenment principles is not enough to roll back the tide of postmodern relativism? And going further: what if the Enlightenment, rather than being the solution, was itself the genesis of the problem? On the first point: it could be argued that the Enlightenment, for all that it began as a critique of religious thinking, actually depended on unspoken but deeply shared religious foundations. For example, its defence of reason, liberty and progress was founded on certain assumptions – that history has a purpose, that every human life is of value – that are inexplicable outside a Judaeo-Christian worldview. It could also be argued that, as those shared religious assumptions have weakened in the last two centuries, so the Enlightenment principles that were (implicitly if not explicitly) founded on them have also been shaken. In a post-religious world, and in the postmodern marketplace of ideas, the principles of the Enlightenment appear no more and no less ‘universal’ than any others. Bunting is not alone in her critique: plenty of more serious postmodern thinkers have argued (spuriously, of course) that Enlightenment ideas are 'merely' a reflection of the interests of a particular group of privileged, white and probably imperialist men belonging to a particular (and particularly oppressive) society and culture.

Which bring us on to the second point: that the Enlightenment may actually share some of the blame for this descent into the slough of moral relativism. How so? Well, once again, I’m not a philosopher, but I was struck by this paragraph in Rodney Howsare’s brief introduction to the ideas of the modern Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar:

For Kant, and the moderns in general, the notion that the unifying center of a thing really does appear in the individual thing was denied. When I see this particular tree, therefore, all I see is the appearance of this particular tree. If any generalisations are to be made about it, they will have to come from the side of the subject. This means that the classical transcendental properties of Being—unity, truth, goodness, and beauty—must no longer be conceived as properties of Being, but as characteristics attributed to Being from the side of universal subjectivity. All postmodernity has to do to achieve nihilism, it would seem, is to deny any universal subjectivity. Postmodernism is not so much an alternative to modernism as its reductio.

We’ve strayed somewhat from our discussion of the direction of contemporary politics. But what I take Howsare to be arguing is that it was the Enlightenment’s denial of transcendence and objectivity that paved the way for the postmodernist critique that eventually sank its claims to universality: in other words, Enlightenment thinkers sowed the seeds of their own destruction. This makes it increasingly difficult to ground a critique of the creeping relativism and irrationalism of much contemporary political thinking in a call for a return to Enlightenment principles. What is needed instead, perhaps, is a deeper kind of return: to a way of thinking grounded in a sense of the sacred and of an objective moral order. (I can imagine the objections already being tapped out on the keyboards of my more secular-minded readers...)

These are the kinds of issues I find myself wrestling with these days, as I struggle to find new foundations for my political thinking, and an alternative to the Enlightenment rationalism that has been the source of my politics for so long. I’m going to make a determined effort to use this blog, once again, as a vehicle for working out what I think. You may notice some changes – in the kinds of themes and issues I discuss, the sources I turn to, and the links that appear in my sidebar. If you were a fan of the ‘old’ Martin In The Margins, you may not find the new incarnation quite to your taste, in which case you should feel free to move on and I shan't be offended. But I rather hope you’ll stick around and share the next stage of the journey.