June 20, 2005

Opinionism and liberal irony


Stupid photos of stupid columnists: 2nd in a series

The modern Church of England has been accused of many things - dithering, incoherence, irrelevance - but I'll wager it is some time since it has been compared to the ideologues of a totalitarian regime. Step forward Rod Liddle in this bizarre piece in the Sunday Times today.

I don't want to dwell on Liddle's own well-known dubious personal and professional morality (to do so would to be to trade in the ad hominem muck-raking that too often substitutes for ethical debate in this country) nor to engage point for point with the slew of fallacies in his article today (enter into the vortex of the Brit pontifitariat and you'll never emerge, which surely is what the forces of reaction want, that the war be fought on their territory and their terms). However, certain features of Liddle's piece are worth singling out because we see the values of the existing order laid bare in them.

I have no wish to defend the bewildered Rowan Williams; far from it. What is worthy of attention, though, is Liddle's reason for attacking the archibishop. What particularly irked Liddle was Williams' idea that the press should promote the public good. 'The press is here, the archbishop said, to nourish the public good. Not to inform or entertain but to nourish the public good. Now, where have I heard this before? It was an argument eloquently advanced by Georgi Plekhanov, the proto-Soviet theorist, the first Russian Marxist and the man whom we have to thank for, among other things, dreary socialist realism in art and, for daily reading matter, Pravda.' Liddle would have us believe that a notion that 'there is a commonly agreed public good that we are beholden to preserve and advance' 'underpins the ideology of pretty much every totalitarian state that sprang up during the 20th century'.

Let's leave aside that mainstay of liberal debate, the tiresome equivocation of the Soviet state with Nazism, i.e. the positing of totalitarian bogeyman waiting at the door and under the bed unless you rigorously maintain a vigilant commitment to sophistry and scepticism at all times. Look what will happen if you stop being like us. What is particularly worthy of note is the idea both that any concept of the public Good is totalitarian and that the real evil of totalitarian regimes lay in their positing of a general Good. Once again, we must resist the temptation to personalise this (i.e. Rod wants to reject any concept of the general Good because he wants the right to betray and humiliate women in the privacy of his own home) and consider the ideology that speaks through Liddle.

Note that the idea that there is a Good which is not generally agreed upon is unthinkable in this ideological configuration. What is monstrous about the Soviet state and the Church of England is that they 'assume' that 'we all share a common belief in what constitutes public good'. Surely neither the Soviets nor the Church made any such assumption. For both, the Good is precisely not coincident with populist feeling; 'democratic consensus' cannot make fundamental ethical principles invalid. The Terrors that Liddle so abominates only make sense if there is a perceived discrepancy between popular values and the Good, and it is assumed that human souls can be engineered so that they will come to recognize (and ultimately produce) this Good. This discrepancy is not a feature of totalitarian thinking alone; on the contrary, it is the cornerstone of any worthwhile ethical theory. Enlightenment thinkers such as Spinoza and Kant made no concessions to the pathologies of the rabble. They fully embraced the idea that there is an absolute difference between 'is' and 'ought', that the Good is to be opposed, and opposed fundamentally, to worldliness. Liddle, however, is situated squarely in the British empiricist tradition. Goodness is not abstract or conceptual, but something we derive from experience, so that 'we trust and believe in each other because we learn to trust through experience, not on a whim or through an article of faith.' This is as far as can be imagined from Anne Frank's idea that there is a spark of goodness in anyone. Frank's conception of Good was not an empirical hypothesis capable of refutation but a statement of faith that was literally counter-factual, against the factual, the experiental.

The ideology that speaks through Liddle has total disdain for faith because having faith means having a commitment, a fundamental project. Whereas Liddle, like Aaronovitch and most every other columnist in the British hack pack, demands the right to 'debate'. This is the vacuous non-faith to which Liddle and his ilk pledge allegiance; 'arguably,' he says, 'the most valuable thing we in the liberal West possess is a fervent disagreement about what is good for us as a society.' But there is an inevitable paradox about this that Nietzsche was perhaps the quickest to identify and analyse. How can you make a fundamental commitment of your lack of fundamental commitment? What is left in this situation is the blandly terrifying blankness of the Last Man, the armchair critic at the end of history, engorged on a surfeit of awareness of the past and of cultural difference, unable to commit and to believe even if he wanted to. That is why a skilled reactionary reader of Nietzsche like Rorty is forced to make reflexive 'irony' a positive and indeed essential feature of his post-political, post-ethical liberalism. Fukuyama was a thinker broadly in tune with Rorty's liberalism, but his positing of the 'Last Man' as the inevitable cultural expression of the capitalist end of history is in fact almost a Marxist desublimation of the supposedly ethical basis for Rorty's arguments (we must be liberals, otherwise we would be cruel). Liberal irony is a requirement of capitalism, a side-effect of the economy. And of course there can be no real 'fervent disagreement' about the Good if it is already decided that any absolutist conception of the Good is totalitarian, if that is to say there is a concealed commitment to a meta-ethical position that values the sheer fact of having an opinion over anything else.

Posted by mark at June 20, 2005 12:51 AM | TrackBack