I’ve recently been thinking about my time as a philosophy undergraduate. Mostly this has been inspired by the fact that I’m considering a return to academia in the not-too-distant future… becoming a fulltime philosopher again for a spell. It’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it. And frankly, I’m not sure I trust anyone else to do it properly.
The second reason for my undergraduate reminiscing was The Euston Manifesto. For those of you who are unaware of this document, it’s a recently published political manifesto (so recent it hasn’t happened yet… the official launch date is May 25th). It has as a preamble…
We are democrats and progressives. We propose here a fresh political alignment. Many of us belong to the Left, but the principles that we set out are not exclusive. We reach out, rather, beyond the socialist Left towards egalitarian liberals and others of unambiguous democratic commitment. Indeed, the reconfiguration of progressive opinion that we aim for involves drawing a line between the forces of the Left that remain true to its authentic values, and currents that have lately shown themselves rather too flexible about these values. It involves making common cause with genuine democrats, whether socialist or not.
Upon reading this, I was instantly transported back to first year political philosophy seminars. I had a lecturer who would have used the phrase “wet western wanker” when referring to the author of such a paragraph. In fact it’s precisely the sort of thing he’d have written himself as a parody of “wet western wank”. And I guarantee he would have met the first sentence, We are democrats and progressives, with a cynical, “well who the fuck isn’t?” I’m not condoning his attitude… I’m just saying…
I Won’t Be Signing Up
And not just because it’s full of wet western wank. In fact, what I find most objectionable about this document is the other stuff… the pro-globalisation stance that almost gets obscured by the meaningless platitudes. But before I get into the detail of the manifesto, I’d like to point out that the first time I visited its website, my PC informed me “The website bloggers4labour.org would like to set a cookie. Will you allow it?” Then, the very first name that caught my eye when glancing at the signatories was ‘Oliver Kamm’.
So it got off to a bad start. Though the actual content of the document merely compounds the badness.
The Euston Manifesto is comprised of a preamble, 15 statements of principle, a bunch of elaborations and a short conclusion. It can be read in full on this webpage. I’m not going to analyse it line by line, or even principle by principle. There’s much that’s bland and uninteresting but which I wouldn’t have a major problem signing if it featured in a manifesto alongside some genuinely good ideas. Instead I’m just going to highlight what I see as the serious problems with it… the inherent self-contradictions and the dodgy wrong-headedness.
Where better to start, then, than Principle 5? It’s the worst offender, and alone makes for a flawed and deeply objectionable manifesto, the signing of which puts a person on very much the wrong side of the barbed-wire fence.
5) Development for freedom.
We stand for global economic development-as-freedom and against structural economic oppression and environmental degradation. The current expansion of global markets and free trade must not be allowed to serve the narrow interests of a small corporate elite in the developed world and their associates in developing countries. The benefits of large-scale development through the expansion of global trade ought to be distributed as widely as possible in order to serve the social and economic interests of workers, farmers and consumers in all countries. Globalization must mean global social integration and a commitment to social justice. We support radical reform of the major institutions of global economic governance (World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, World Bank) to achieve these goals, and we support fair trade, more aid, debt cancellation and the campaign to Make Poverty History. Development can bring growth in life-expectancy and in the enjoyment of life, easing burdensome labour and shortening the working day. It can bring freedom to youth, possibilities of exploration to those of middle years, and security to old age. It enlarges horizons and the opportunities for travel, and helps make strangers into friends. Global development must be pursued in a manner consistent with environmentally sustainable growth.Ibid.
OK. First off. If you talk about “environmentally sustainable growth” you are (knowingly or not) peddling a dangerous lie. There is a widely-held misconception that the findings of The Club of Rome and their famous report; The Limits to Growth (download an abstract in RTF format); have somehow been discredited. That there are in fact, no limits to growth and that growth can carry on “sustainably” (i.e. indefinitely). This is simply not the case.*
I’d go further and say that the philosophy of sustainable growth is a powerfully regressive one which ranks alongside fascism in its potential to generate human suffering. But it’s not just the last line of Principle 5 that’s problematic. I find the opening statement little short of mind-blowing. “We stand for global economic development-as-freedom…” Are they serious? And if they are, then it’s perhaps no accident that they decided to use the rhetoric of totalitarianism to express it.
I’m sorry, but no matter how many empty platitudes you pad it with (against environmental degradation… once again; “well who the fuck isn’t?”) the decision to equate freedom and economic development proves that The Euston Manifesto is little more than an attempt to recast rapacious capitalism as “the friendly, cuddly” planet-despoiling philosophy.
6) Opposing anti-Americanism.
We reject without qualification the anti-Americanism now infecting so much left-liberal (and some conservative) thinking. This is not a case of seeing the US as a model society. We are aware of its problems and failings. But these are shared in some degree with all of the developed world. The United States of America is a great country and nation. It is the home of a strong democracy with a noble tradition behind it and lasting constitutional and social achievements to its name. Its peoples have produced a vibrant culture that is the pleasure, the source-book and the envy of millions. That US foreign policy has often opposed progressive movements and governments and supported regressive and authoritarian ones does not justify generalized prejudice against either the country or its people.Ibid.
Can someone say “straw man”? Look, there are clearly people who have a “generalized prejudice” against American people or against America as a country. But that’s not anti-American in the political sense. Those people are bigots and are no different from the numerous English people who feel antipathy towards the French or the numerous French people who feel antipathy towards the non-French.
However, given that Principle 8 is entitled ‘Against Racism’, I would have thought that a specific principle attacking anti-American bigotry would be unnecessary. So obviously that’s not what Opposing anti-Americanism means in the context of The Euston Manifesto.
Instead, what we have here is yet another transparent and irritating attempt to conflate legitimate political anti-Americanism with bigotry. It’s a tactic beloved of dishonest rightwing newspaper columnists and mirrors the tactic of equating opposition to Israeli government policy with anti-semitism. I find it impossible to trust people who resort to this tactic. It’s a deep-seated dishonesty and it casts a dark shadow over their motivations.
I am – politically speaking – anti-American. I disagree profoundly not merely with the political aims and policies of the current United States government, but also with the aggressive global marketing of US culture and economic philosophy. And yet I have American friends and family (like many Irish families we have a branch in the States). I lived there for a year. New York is my favourite city. I adore American film, literature and music. There is no contradiction.
Principle 6 of The Euston Manifesto is not about being “against anti-Americanism”; it’s about being in favour of pro-Americanism. It is the active support of US foreign policy and the embrace of corporate capitalism. It stands hand-in-hand with Principle 5. A pledge of allegiance to the Land of The Free(dom-as-economic development). Why else the need to dishonestly paint those who consider themselves politically anti-American as bigots?
And there’s more
But not right now. You’ll have to wait for ‘critique #2’. I want to address the subject of “democracy” and that deserves an essay to itself… Principle 1 of The Euston Manifesto (the ‘We Heart Democracy’ bit) provides an interesting context in which to do that. Also I believe that there may even be a ‘critique #3’ as I’d like to highlight a particularly glaring self-contradiction in the manifesto (the “No apology for Tyranny” yet active “political pro-Americanism” paradox), elaborate a little on the implications of the pro-globalisation stance and analyse the language used when discussing terrorism, internationalism, heritage and freedom. So until then.