I have never had quite the problem with Gramsci that some of the writers of the Libertarian Alliance blog have – as I mentioned to David Davis (not that one, the other one) at the LA conference a few weeks ago. And I admit to feeling rather dubious when Melanie Phillips popped up as a defender of liberty against these insidious underminers of culture.
I didn’t actually get around to reading her article until today, however, when I happened across David Osler’s reaction to it on Liberal Conspiracy. Presented with an argument by somebody I tend to disagree with, and a refutation by somebody I tend to disagree with, I was intrigued: which of them would I agree with?
The answer is, predictably, neither.
Here’s Phillips’s redux of Gramsci:
This was what might be called ‘cultural Marxism’. It was based on the understanding that what holds a society together are the pillars of its culture: the structures and institutions of education, family, law, media and religion. Transform the principles that these embody and you can thus destroy the society they have shaped.
This key insight was developed in particular by an Italian Marxist philosopher called Antonio Gramsci. His thinking was taken up by Sixties radicals – who are, of course, the generation that holds power in the West today.
Gramsci understood that the working class would never rise up to seize the levers of ‘production, distribution and exchange’ as communism had prophesied. Economics was not the path to revolution.
He believed instead that society could be overthrown if the values underpinning it could be turned into their antithesis: if its core principles were replaced by those of groups who were considered to be outsiders or who actively transgressed the moral codes of that society.
So he advocated a ‘long march through the institutions’ to capture the citadels of the culture and turn them into a collective fifth column, undermining from within and turning all the core values of society upside-down and inside-out.
So far, so uncontroversial. When you remove the qualifiers – Gramsci was a Marxist taken up by ‘Sixties radicals’ who was opposed to particular values – he’s actually right. What holds a society together are the pillars of its culture; undermine them and replace them with the values held by the moral ‘outsiders,’ and you change the society. This happens all the time, now and throughout history, and usually it happens deliberately. Undermining the pillar of the Roman Catholic church certainly overhauled European society in the 16th and 17th centuries; undermining the pillar of totalitarianism caused the fall of the Soviet Union (which, incidentally, appears to have inspired Phillips’s writing of this article). Gramsci was stating a simple truth about one of the ways in which society evolves.
This is why I don’t have a problem with Gramsci; for if you accept the fact that our previously liberal, free-market oriented society has been undermined from within and replaced with restrictive redistributionism, then you also must accept that the only way we’re going to change that is also to employ Gramsci’s plan and undermine the current value systems of society. Essentially, cultural ‘Marxism’ can be used by anyone, for any purpose, and (and this is what makes Gramsci’s insight so valuable) ought to be, as it’s both more gradual and more peaceful than other common methods for change, such as violent revolution. It also means that the ‘winners’ don’t usually have to enforce their values at the point of a gun, as they’ve succeeded in persuading the ‘losers’ to accept those values on their own initiative.
So Gramsic’s ideas are actually useful; it’s only sets of values that are good or bad.
And as I suspected would be the case, I don’t entirely agree with what Phillips sets out as a good set of values.
The nuclear family has been widely shattered. Illegitimacy was transformed from a stigma into a ‘right’. The tragic disadvantage of fatherlessness was redefined as a neutrally-viewed ‘lifestyle choice’.
Education was wrecked, with its core tenet of transmitting a culture to successive generations replaced by the idea that what children already knew was of superior value to anything the adult world might foist upon them.
The outcome of this ‘child-centred’ approach has been widespread illiteracy and ignorance and an eroded capacity for independent thought.
Without wishing to go too much into my own strange ideas about family, I will say that fatherlessness and illegitimacy are not the problem. Single-parent households are the problem. Having two mothers, or two parents who are unwed but live together, is not a tragic disadvantage. Being raised by one parent is, if you believe the statistics. Nor is the removal of ‘stigma’ the problem; coercively funding this lifestyle choice through taxation is. I don’t think any child should face being stigmatised for choices that weren’t his own, and I wish that every child born could have the kind of healthy, non-deprived upbringing we all want for our own children. But the reason we have single-parent households is because the state subsidises them, not because we’ve removed the stigma and destroyed the appeal of the nuclear family.
Likewise, education has not failed because we tell children they are all little Einsteins; it’s failed because we tell them they aren’t. Capacity for independent thought hasn’t been eroded, but the desire for it has. Free thinking leads to culture’s not being transmitted, as free thinkers are able to reject the moral contradictions in any and every culture and argue for their abandonment. The key to transmitting the culture you want to impressionable children is to deny them an outlet for their free thought and prevent them from accessing ideas that might result in the rejection of that culture. Children are smart; they perceive things in ways adults don’t. But we’re not in the business of educating them to perfect their thinking; we’re in the business of teaching them memes. And with a curriculum developed centrally by government-directed education ‘experts,’ this should be no surprise.
Law and order were similarly undermined, with criminals deemed to be beyond punishment since they were ‘victims’ of society and with illegal drugtaking tacitly encouraged by a campaign to denigrate anti-drugs laws.
The ‘rights’ agenda – commonly known as ‘political correctness’ – turned morality inside out by excusing any misdeeds by self-designated ‘victim’ groups on the grounds that such ‘victims’ could never be held responsible for what they did.
Feminism, anti-racism and gay rights thus turned men, white people and Christians into the enemies of decency who were forced to jump through hoops to prove their virtue.
Again, here it is not the theory that is wrong, it is the practice. What causes crime? Isn’t it a good idea to eradicate those causes? We’d end up with fewer criminals down the line. What’s happened is that we’ve put the cart before the horse, and started trying to pretend criminal behaviour can be mitigated before the causes of it have been eradicated. The same with the ‘rights’ agenda Phillips dislikes: it is absolutely true that there has been historical oppression of minorities, and as a society we started to recognise that that was inexcusable. But now we’re over-compensating by granting those historical minorities entitlements not available to the rest of the population.
And let us not be ridiculous: men, white people, and Christians have been the perpetrators of many acts inimical to decency. Their virtuousness is not a given. We should all have to prove our virtue, majority and minority alike.
This Through The Looking Glass mindset rests on the belief that the world is divided into the powerful (who are responsible for all bad things) and the oppressed (who are responsible for none of them).
Well yes – that’s right, isn’t it? People without power to do things are, y’know, without power to do things. Right after this paragraph would have been a great opportunity for her to continue, ‘But the world is divided into individuals, who are responsible for their own actions, and even the oppressed are capable of harming others, while the powerful are capable of benevolence.’
She doesn’t say that, however, because she doesn’t actually believe in individual responsibility, viz. ‘illegal drugtaking’ above.
This is a Marxist doctrine. But the extent to which such Marxist thinking has been taken up unwittingly even by the Establishment was illustrated by the astounding observation made in 2005 by the then senior law lord, Lord Bingham, that human rights law was all about protecting ‘oppressed’ minorities from the majority.
What the fuck? That is what human rights law is all about! It’s about saying, ‘I am a human being, I have certain inalienable liberties, and not even a democratically-elected majority can deprive me of those liberties, because those liberties are protected by the rule of law.’ If that’s Marxist, then I’m a fucking Marxist too. Sign me up.
However, the terrifying fact is that they form a totalitarian mindset that replicates the way communist societies clamped down on any other than permitted views. Thus the intolerance – or even arrest – of Christians opposed to gay adoption and civil union, or the vilification as ‘racists’ of those opposed to mass immigration.
This mindset also led to the belief that a sense of nationhood was the cause of all the ills in the world, precisely because western nations embodied western values. So transnational institutions or doctrines such as the EU, UN, international law or human rights law came to trump national laws and values.
Okay, these are both true. But that doesn’t really support Phillips’s premises, except insofar as we’re not clamping down on what she thinks are the right views to clamp down on (Christian views okay, pro-drugs views bad; Western national laws and values good; non-Western national laws and values bad).
But the truth is that to be hostile to the western nation is to be hostile to democracy. And indeed, with the development of the EU superstate we can see that the victory over one anti-democratic regime within Europe – the Soviet Union – has been followed by surrender to another.
For the republic of Euroland puts loyalty to itself higher than that to individual nations and their values. It refused to commit itself in its constitution to uphold Christianity, the foundation of western morality.
Also true. But democracy is not a perfect system (although it tends to be better than anti-democratic ones), and I for one am pretty pleased that we are not constitutionally bound to uphold Christianity and its moral system – at least as practised throughout most of history, or even as practised today, when it tends to manifest as ‘bend over and take it – self-sacrifice is the highest virtue.’
My essential problem with Melanie Phillips is that she appears to have no problem with cultural ‘Marxism’ in principle, just that it’s been deployed to undermine her own particular values. And as her particular values appear to be stigma, indoctrination, the tyranny of the majority, and white Christian nationalism, I’m kinda glad she hasn’t got her way.
I’m not so happy that the pillars of society I do value have also been undermined – individual responsibility, equality under the law, and the protection of inalienable rights – but at least I’m not bitching about the mechanism that was used to accomplish it. I’m hopeful that I, and like-minded people, use the same mechanism to turn things round again.
Winning the ideological battle is, in large part, a result of being able to frame the terms of debate. Gramsci recognised this, and he was right. It’s the difference between asking, ‘Should we redistribute wealth?’ and ‘If we were going to redistribute wealth, how should it be done?’ The first question wonders if redistribution is a good thing; the second question assumes that it is. The second question is framing the terms of the debate. That’s how the enemies of liberal society have been getting away with their policies for decades; we, as liberals, ought to take a page out of Gramsci’s book and do the same thing. No more of this ‘Should the scope of government be reduced?’ We should be asking, ‘If we’re going to reduce the scope of government, where should we start?’
Ron Paul did this to great effect when he went on the Colbert Report a couple of years ago. I’m having trouble finding a link, but what happened was this: Stephen Colbert announced that he was going to start reading out the names of government departments, and he wanted Ron Paul to raise his hand at each one he would abolish. Ron Paul said something like, ‘Well, I’d rather just keep my hand up, and put it down if you say the name of one I’d like to keep.’
That’s framing the debate. Colbert assumed that all government departments are necessary except for those one might like to abolish; Ron Paul insisted on the assumption that no government departments should automatically be maintained.
UPDATE: Commenter Celteh has provided a link to this video. And I discover that I’m wrong; it’s Colbert who says, ‘Keep your hand up, and put it down when I read the name of a department you’d like to keep.’ The point about framing the debate still stands, of course, but I should remember to give Stephen Colbert the credit he deserves.
This is where David Osler’s reaction to Phillips comes in; his allies have been so successful in framing the debate that he no longer recognises that the debate has a frame at all. He could have made the objections to her that I just did: that she’s just not happy with her pet pillars being undermined, that she has no respect for individual liberties or the rights of minorities, but he doesn’t do that. What he actually seems to believe is that society is exactly how Phillips has always wanted it, and that he and his political allies have been fighting a losing battle against the forces of exploitation and oppression. There must be some sort of psychological term for looking at your victories and calling them defeats, but I don’t know what it is.
After basically accusing her of plagiarism (and what do I know, he might be right), he says:
Our basic problem is that we are ‘hostile towards western civilisation’ and thus seeking to bring it down. We just can’t help hating freedom, thanks to our ‘totalitarian mindset that replicates the way communist societies clamped down on any other than permitted views’. This is tantamount to reconstituted ‘communist ideology’ that is actually worse than full on Stalinism, being ‘even more deadly’ as an ‘active enemy of western freedom.’
Got that, folks? Forget the Red Terror, forced collectivisation, the Great Purge, Hungary 1956, the Cultural Revolution, the suppression of the Prague Spring, and Cambodia in the Year Zero. Political correctness is ‘even more deadly’.
This is from a guy writing on the same website that will allow commenters to call Daniel Hannan a ‘cunt’ for daring to criticise the NHS whilst claiming that his ideas are too patently false to bother debating (’cause that’s not clamping down on un-permitted views). And this is from the same guy who called a rape victim a ‘starstruck teenybopper’ and an ‘LA Lolita’ on a website that supposedly prohibits misogynistic comment.
There could not be a better demonstration of the ‘what we say is okay, what you say is outrageous’ mindset than David Osler writing at Liberal Conspiracy.
But hey, LC isn’t putting anybody into camps or massacring them, so they don’t hate freedom or prohibit views and debates.
Indisputably, there has been an erosion of social cohesion in Britain since the 1970s. But the primary reason is not the clandestine machinations of closet Gramscians, but the abandonment of social democracy for exactly the kind of inegalitarian society driven by the very market forces that Phillips applauds for ‘carrying the torch of liberty’.
And if feminism, anti-racism and gay rights really are that wicked, with what should they be replaced? Presumably the return of the traditional mother and wife, penalty-free racial discrimination and a retreat to the times of hush-hush homosexuality.
According to David Osler, we’ve actually abandoned social democracy, and the free market actually erodes liberty and equality. And the only alternative to special pleading is, apparently, 1950s-style sexism, racism, and cultural oppression.
These people just do not get it; just because some people are ‘less oppressed’ than they used to be doesn’t mean others aren’t more. We’ve exchanged one world in which some people are demonised and unfree for another world in which other people (market apologists, as you can see) are demonised and unfree. But the demonisation and lack of freedom continues. Osler doesn’t see this, of course, because he’s actually partially succeeded in his aims. But like a child, he complains that he and his ‘mates’ have been on the back foot for thirty years.
Whatever anyone thinks of society today, it is the creation of Thatcherism and Blairism, which are both essentially variations on a neoliberal theme. Lenin would not – as Phillips crassly concludes – be smiling if he could somehow see it from his mausoleum. But Hayek certainly would be.
Any real liberal will tell you that Thatcher and Blair were just as much the enemies of freedom as Lenin and Marx; and Hayek, after weeping silently from the great beyond for the past 17 years, is now spinning in his grave at this bastardisation of what he’d be smiling at. Hayek, smiling at Britain in 2009? David Osler, you are both ignorant and blind.
In short, Phillips already lives in the kind of country that is the only conceivable outcome of the brand of rightwingery she herself represents; she might at least be that little bit more graceful about it.
Yeah, she does; and you live in a country that is one of the milder forms of the brand of leftwingery you yourself represent; you might be a little more graceful about it, and thankful that it hasn’t turned into any of those hideous tragedies you mentioned above. Because you’ve both gotten exactly what you wanted: a culture of liberty and individual responsibility demolished, and a society of restriction, coercion, and collective punishment raised up in its place. The two of you are a hell of a lot more alike than you are different.
And poor Gramsci is probably sitting there next to Hayek saying, ‘I know, man. WTF.’