38 of 42 people found the following review helpful
Between Iraq and a hard place,
This review is from: What's Left?: How the Left Lost its Way: How Liberals Lost Their Way (Paperback)It could fairly be argued that what has always united the myriad groups, factions and parties comprised under the term "left-wing" is not so much their ideology as their self-image. They have always seen themselves as the champions of progress, the defenders of the poor and marginalised, the fearless pursuers of impartial justice. Their opponents are the bone-headed defenders of tradition and privilege who ensure the executioner's face is always well-hidden.
These typically liberal traits - an effortless moral superiority, instinctive support for the underdog, and opposition to the status quo - are undoubtedly very easy to ridicule. But they are not inherently malign or wicked. They only become dangerous when they are un-coupled from any sort of genuine altruism. This is what Cohen means when he says the Left has lost its way.
In Cohen's view, substantial segments of the left are in danger of allowing their movement to degenerate into a trite, self-indulgent counter-culture, in which an angry anti-establishment posturing conceals a lack of a positive political programme. Stop The War and Globalise Resistance, two of the most visibly popular left-wing campaigns, are defined by what they're against, not what they're for. Many people on the left are far too ready to draw an artificial moral equivalence between true tyrannies overseas and the very real but usually much milder moral failings of our own leaders and institutions. The author sets out to explore what's gone wrong and why.
Cohen is probably correct, at least from a British perspective, when he says that most liberals and socialists would find it quite difficult to imagine what a society significantly more left-wing than ours would look like at the present time. The defeat of the blue-collar unions and the rise of popular capitalism in the 1980s left socialism reeling. Tony Blair's reformed Labour party appropriated the rhetoric of conservatism, helping to close off space for a radical alternative. Even the minority who are still prepared to put forward a case for nationalised utilities and a more progressive tax system often feel compelled to admit that the welfare state has had unintended negative consequences. Liberals are no longer sure that history is on their side.
But perhaps more debilitating still is the social chasm that has opened up between the old, working-class, union-based left, and affluent cosmopolitan liberals in the public sector and cultural industries, a phenomenon Cohen explores in the chapter "What Do We Do Now?" He concludes with the depressing observation that a person who lacks empathy even with his or her indigenous working class is likely to be, at best, lukewarm about offering solidarity and support to people overseas, whether it's Iraqi trade unionists at risk from Ba'athist death squads, or Indian feminists trying to put an end to dowry murders.
The influence of the postmodern theorists, Cohen explains, has also been thoroughly disastrous. Despite, or because of, their impenetrable jargon - "homogenizing epistemic logic", "representationalist discursive areas", etc - many of these obscurantists were able to achieve a high degree of credence in university humanities departments. Their contention that everything is a social, historical or linguistic construct opened the door to moral and cultural relativism, so that it became permissible to combine vaguely egalitarian-sounding rhetoric with an implicit rejection of universal human values: "Homosexuality, blackness and womanhood became separate categories that couldn't be criticised or understood by outsiders applying universal criteria. Nor, by extension, could any other culture, even if it was a culture of wife-burning or suicide bombing" (p105). A recurring theme of What's Left is that you must never underestimate the impact that cranks, contrarians and loonies can have on mainstream political thought.
Nick Cohen has frequently been derided as a "neoconservative" for his views on the Middle East and especially Iraq. But the charge is little more than a playground insult. Cohen is not some kind of wild-eyed utopian seeking to remake the world in his image. "There is no necessary virtue in wasting other men's blood and other taxpayers' treasure in other nations' conflicts rather than attending to pressing issues at home," he insists. Moreover, he is as critical of the excesses of Cold War militarism as he is of the unbridled free market and of rampant social inequality.
What he finds distressing is not so much that "the liberals" opposed the Iraq War, but rather that so few of them were prepared to give even qualified support to the occupation after "major hostilities" had ended. The "Bring the troops home now!" crowd didn't actually want Iraq to be subjected to an escalation of terrorism, years of hideous sectarian civil war, and the real possibility of a Ba'athist counter-revolution. But they refused to confront the reality that this was the likely consequence of what they were demanding.
We are also presented with a fascinating and convincing insight into possible reasons for the revival in anti-semitism, and of conspiracy theories in general, on the left. In the final chapter, entitled "Why Bother?", Cohen leaves us with the thought that we need to rediscover the best traditions of the "old left", whose sense of solidarity has remained relatively uncorrupted by postmodernism.
I disagree with Cohen on one or two specifics (the Kosovo conflict for instance) and he does overgeneralise a bit. But overall the book displays tremendous insight, scope, humanity and moral clarity.