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.
Thatcherism having comprehensively displaced any left-wing form of economic thought, class war has for some time been out of the mainstream of political fashion. And ex-Trotskyites who have never explicitly renounced their left-wing views on economic issues are little better off. Still conceiving themselves as left-wing, though, the Eustonians find it hard to admit that they have no appetite for dissent against the new orthodoxy of their peers (just as they were previously glad to espouse the old orthodoxies of their Leftist peers). The leap from Trotsky to Thatcher is too jarring. Far better to quietly accept that 70s-vintage Marxian verbiage has had its day, and even more quietly treat the Thatcher/Blair consensus as a neutral and uninteresting centre ground. As Hitchens suggests above, the Eustonian renegade Left tend to remain silent on domestic matters. As he doesn't stress, that includes questions of economics, which is to say the distribution of goods.
Of course, it may be that the Eustonians were never that interested in such unglamorous matters as poverty, preferring the mantle of dashing class warrior. In many ways, I suspect, these were classic rebels (or at least adversaries) without a cause. The GWOT provided a way to recover that militant stance: "the chief joy of the Leftist supporter of regime change is that his new opinion permits him to be warlike, patriotic and radical at once."
So it is that, as Hitchens puts it "Mr Cohen has become, as have others on the utopian Left, an admirer of Anthony Blair's foreign policy. He has done this in spite of holding to the usual thought-free untruths about Mr Blair's government being 'Right-wing' in domestic matters, which are the received opinion of the times." Again this seems half-right, and again the half that is wrong seems to be due to a failure to distinguish the social from the economic dimension in using the terms 'Left' and 'Right'.
In economic terms, and with a few marginal exceptions such as the minimum wage, Blair's policy was largely a continuation of Thatcherism, and thus was indeed right-wing. To that extent, while the nostrums to that effect may be thought-free, they are not untruths. Hitchens may well be on the right lines in that Cohen and his cohort are tempted quietly to move to the right on domestic policy, but the move is along the economic axis, not the social (with the exception of the authoritarian approach to civil liberties that comes with GWOT territory). Finding other reasons to become a Blairite might well provide camouflage, a first step or perhaps just a psychological proxy for finally moving explicitly from ex-Marxist leftishness to post-Thatcher market 'centrism'.
The broadly palaeoconservative Peter Hitchens detects a similar phenomenon on the right wing of British politics. He laments the fact that the regime of Conservative leader David Cameron has moved away from traditional conservative views on social issues, and suggests that this too is facilitated by the foreign policy consensus on Iraq and the GWOT that exists between the two main political parties. In this case, however, Hitchens does not appear to think that the Iraq/GWOT issue provides either a subconscious or calculated pretext for a change of position. Instead he claims that Blair's belligerence played a major part in provoking genuine admiration for Blair himself, and thereby to some extent for his overall political programme.
Hitchens has a convincing, if unsurprising, explanation for the attraction of the GWOT to members of the Conservative Party: "For the former conservative, the 'War on Terror' is a pleasing and comfortable replacement for the Cold War. It provides a sinister and wicked enemy who is everywhere in the world. The enemy has agents in our own population, and fellow-travellers too gullible to realise the wickedness of the cause they aid. There is no likely - let alone immediate - prospect of ultimate victory. The nation must be permanently at war and in a sort of state of emergency for as far ahead as the eye can see. It binds us even more closely to the United States in a sentimental brotherhood, delaying still further the unpleasant recognition that the USA has been Britain's principal rival for the past century, and has comprehensively overcome us. It provides the feeling of noble action, among [those who] have largely given up hope of achieving their domestic goals."
It is unclear why the obvious attractions of the GWOT might lead conservatives to adopt a Blairite position on social issues, though the final sentence of the above quotation might be taken to suggest that they have simply given up in the face of a Blairite victory on social issues (in which case perhaps Blair's GWOT policy does provide a fig leaf for an embarrassing climb-down after all).
Hitchens's primary thesis however seems to be that the belligerent and authoritarian policies of the GWOT have simply endeared Blair to certain conservatives who have thereby been more willing to accept the social policies of his party. He cites a lengthy and effusive article by Michael Gove - then a journalist, now a prominent Conservative frontbencher: "as a right-wing polemicist, all I can say looking at Mr. Blair now is, what's not to like? Central to any current assessment of Mr Blair has to be the manner in which he is handling the Iraq crisis. But before considering just how impressive his stance is, and how petty his detractors, it's worth noting that Mr Blair's entitlement to conservative respect doesn't rest on his foreign policy alone."
As Hitchens points out, the ensuing shortlist of Thatcherite policies provides "the first embryonic version of what was to become Cameron conservatism - an explicit identification with Mr Blair and [his] supposed market instincts." (Blair's market instincts are of course real and not merely supposed, and have been clearly discernible since before he gained power. I suspect Hitchens is once again conflating the social and the economic and assuming wrongly that because Blair is not a conservative on some social issues, he doesn't have market instincts. Of course real-world 'market' policies tend to include widespread privatisation of State-funded services and what amounts to a welfare state for the rich.
In any case, while Gove's remarks appear to support the view that Blair's GWOT policies won over conservatives to his wider programme, there is some ambiguity about exactly who is persuading whom here. Is Gove softening up other Tories in preparation for the policy of effectively copying Blair, or is he reporting his own conversion, or is he providing cover for views he already holds? It is hard to say, and perhaps not tremendously important. What is clear, and important, and pointed out at some length by Hitchens, is that there is now little to choose between the two main parties in the UK - possibly even less than there has generally been in the USA.
Hitchens finds this deeply unsatisfactory, though his reason is that he perceives an abandonment of traditional conservative social values by the Conservative party, while the dissatisfaction of left wing Labour supporters such as myself is rather more long-standing, and concerns the abandonment of Old Labour economic policies in favour of Thatcherite ones.
Hitchens states: "There has always been a general belief in this country that there is little of no difference between the two major parties in the state, and it has always been partly true. But in the final years of this decade, it is true as it has never been before. The two parties, at their real centres, are now so close that the watcher is reminded of the moment at the end of Animal Farm when the animals gaze through the window, look from man to pig and from pig to man, and are no longer able to tell which is which. Their militant or principled wings, the Labour traditional Left and the Tory traditional Right, have never been so marginal or so quiet."
The Iraq war has played a part in achieving this cosy consensus, and the moral posturing of Peter Hitchens's targets have helped not only to end the lives of many thousands of poor abroad, but also to ensure their continuing neglect domestically.