Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Accounting for the Eustonians

Hitchens, Neocons and the British Left

[This is a late draft of an article written with a US website in mind, but is now available excusively to the reader(s) of these worthy pages!]

The history of most neocons is a strange one. Many are ex-Trotskyites subsequently affiliated to the Democratic Party, only later moving to the right (along some axes) to form an influential part of the Republican party apparatus. The neocons' Global War on Terror and anti-Islamic rhetoric seems to have prompted a similar phenomenon in the UK, with a number of prominent left-wingers rallying to the cause.

A group of such journalists even produced the rather thin 'Euston Manifesto' to formalise their new alignment (Euston being the area of London in which it was devised). Among the left-wing converts to GWOTism is, famously, Christopher Hitchens, whose brother Peter attempts in his recent book The Broken Compass to explain this phenomenon, diplomatically using not his brother but another Eustonian journalist , Nick Cohen, as exemplar. Hitchens (the unadorned surname will henceforth signify Peter) cites Cohen's scurrilous assertion that 'a million liberal-minded people marched through London to oppose the overthrow of a fascist dictator' as typifying the crude trickery and misrepresentation that Cohen brought to bear in the service of his newfound belligerence (in similar mode Cohen has recently taken to smearing those who raise doubts about the surely unsafe conviction of the alleged Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi).

Hitchens rightly suggests that an explanation is required for how a supposedly left-wing commentator (Cohen, doing double duty for Hitchens, C) has adopted the openly authoritarian, born-again Zionist ("it was clear to me that when Hamas fired thousands of rockets into Israel it had declared war and had to accept the consequences. I would not have thought that five years ago") and implicitly American Supremacist GWOT agenda. Hitchens's explanation for this whole-cloth adoption of neocon propaganda is threefold: first, a hatred of religion (this perhaps aimed more at his flamboyantly Atheist brother than his nominal target); second, a soft-focus way of retreating from an imputed anti-Zionist past; and third and most prominently, a desire to recant 'leftist' mistakes and move closer to a conservative position. As Hitchens puts it:

"Left-wing dogmatists can appear to change their minds, and be given credit (or be enjoyably attacked by their former comrades) for having done so, without undergoing any true revolution."

There is certainly something in this, but it is hard to agree entirely with some of Hitchens's presuppositions. He claims, largely on the evidence of a book by renegade left-winger Andrew Anthony, that the Eustonians (and perhaps by implication the Neo-cons) have seen the error of their ways in regard to "crime, Leftist excuse-making, double-think about the Soviet Union, multiculturalism, vandalism, crime, the catch-all accusation of 'racism' and the uselessness of a liberalised police force." The basic conception of the GWOT as providing the Eustonians with the 'acceptable' face of recantation may be correct (and Hitchens seems correct that the anti-religious aspect plays a part in making the position palatable to them - along with the rhetoric of freedom and human rights, which could probably be adapted to almost any foreign policy position). But the nature of that recantation and the motivation for it are not to my ear correctly described.

Hitchens himself seems to realise this in one passage: "One of the most striking things about both 'neo-conservatives' and their allies among the renegade left is how uninterested they seem to be in domestic policy nowadays. The renegade's apparent conversion turns out to be yet another version of consensus. It does not bring him into real adversarial conflict with the conventional wisdom. It delivers him to another portion of the 'centre ground', one where foreign policy is the only thing worth discussing, and where former conservatives and former leftists can mingle in happy communion as long as both forget that they ever cared about the pre-2001 culture wars. They have two things in common. They are ferociously hostile to Islamism and they are - at the very least - uninterested in conservative social, cultural or moral policies."

This seems correct, certainly as regards the Eustonians, but gives the lie to the thesis that a primary reason for their 'conversion' is the list of concerns that Hitchens culls from Andrew Anthony's writings. Insofar as Hitchens is wide of the mark here, his mistake seems to me to stem from running together economic positions with social ones, when in fact the two are both philosophically independent and politically separable. While he focuses on a rejection of liberal-left social positions as the motive for 'conversion', I suspect that it is economic issues that form the unspoken motive of the renegade Left.