UK paperback


Quibbling while the world burns

Note: this is a review of four books, originally commissioned by the Guardian. Some of it may be found relevant to a current debate about the Enlightenment and “universalism”, among other things.

• Decadence: The Passing of Personal Virtue and Its Replacement by Political and Psychological Slogans, ed Digby Anderson
(Social Affairs Unit)
• Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right, by Frank Furedi (Continuum)
• Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas, by Perry Anderson (Verso)
• Metapolitics, by Alain Badiou (Verso)

Take your seats, ladies and gentlemen, for a clash of incompatible fantasies. According to the conservative essayists in Decadence, a misty golden age of “genuine virtue” has passed, to be replaced by bogus slogans and psychobabble. This is all the fault of the Enlightenment. But here comes Frank Furedi in Politics of Fear, arguing that conservatives no longer appeal to tradition, and that the problem is that we have turned our back on the Enlightenment. Evidently, both these views cannot be right. In Decadence, Nietzsche is the drooling bogeyman, denounced as a cheerleader for the Enlightenment and the subsequent plague of leftism; and yet Frank Furedi calls Nietzsche “the philosopher of the right at the turn of the twentieth century”. Whom shall we believe? It is a choice between cartoons.

Cartoonishness is often, indeed, the result of appeals to concepts of “left” and “right” in politics, which invite the drawing lurid stereotypes of opposing points of view. A collection of essays about political philosophers and historians by Perry Anderson (let us call him Perry A., to distinguish him from Decadence‘s Digby A.) appeals explicitly in its title to this topographical metaphor of a “spectrum” of ideas; and it travels, as it were, from Hayek over to Hobsbawm. But the problem in general with such talk is that each is free to draw his own personal spectrum, clustering things he dislikes at opposing extremes and thus making himself look reasonable in the middle. A messy graph of incompatible spectra arises.

Frank Furedi knows this – after all, his title promises to take us “Beyond Left and Right” – and yet he cannot help but continue to use the labels. At one point, for example, he calls Perry A. “one of Britain’s leading leftist intellectuals”. Well, Perry A. edits the New Left Review, and, sniping from this position, he is able in Spectrum to lump together the disparate thinkers Leo Strauss, Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott under the label “radical right”, which rather leaves one at a loss as how to describe neo-Nazis. Yet Perry A. will also shift the goalposts when it suits him, using an appeal to some vague past of “coherent ethical vision” – an appeal that would warm the heart of Digby A. – as a stick with which to beat John Rawls, the liberal writer of A Theory of Justice, here described as occupying the “centre”, and laboriously traduced and patronised by the author. “Leading leftist” Perry A., moreover, describes the London Review of Books (in a generally admiring article) as “politically correct to a fault”, while sighing relievedly that at least it has never hosted any “feminist insistence”. Is that how “leading leftists” talk these days? “I detest pubs,” Perry A. confesses at another point. No doubt. Pubs are notoriously hotbeds of “feminist insistence” . . .

Drawing your own unique “spectrum” of views also enables you to leave out of your concept of “politics” certain inconvenient concerns that may be sliced off at either end. The French philosopher Alain Badiou’s pungent little book of essays on “Metapolitics” has as its major argument that what we call “politics”, and by implication what we refuse to call “politics”, is already and inescapably a political choice. We can see this in action when reading Decadence, for whose contributors “politics” is in general a dirty word. In an essay exhorting prudence, for example, Kenneth Minogue complains about “a widespread politicisation of the moral life”, supposedly a feature of our times, yet he has just approvingly paraphrased Aristotle to the effect that “the good of the individual can hardly be separated from that of the city”, which shows that the moral life has always had an inextricably political aspect. Minogue’s idea of this “politicisation of the moral life”, meanwhile, is that “a person’s concerns about consumption of tobacco, the fate of the environment, the arms trade and human rights will often be regarded as signs of moral capacity that are more important than keeping promises, saving thriftily, and exhibiting temperance and fortitude”. Of course, some thrifty savers might be interested in whether the banks they are lending their money to are using those funds to invest in the arms trade, say, and so for them the “personal virtue” of saving is necessarily linked with a political question.

But this is to let facts intrude upon ideology, which will not do. Alain Badiou’s term “metapolitics” is offered in opposition to a style of “political philosophy” that ignores contingent facts of history and society and is content to think in grandiose, universal terms. What Badiou denounces is effectively illustrated in Minogue’s statements. Poverty is unfortunate, Minogue allows, but “in many [cases] the crucial factor is a serious lack of prudence in many people”. In many cases? Really? How many, exactly? Many people are seriously imprudent? How many of them? The olympian style does not stoop to citing statistics. The reader is expected merely to nod in sage agreement that poverty really must be the fault of the poor themselves. That is, after all, “common sense”, a phrase that crops up often in the pages of Decadence. Minogue puts it in fastidious scare quotes, but complacently appeals to it nonetheless. Of course, “common sense” has for centuries been one of the “political and psychological slogans” which this volume asks us to believe are a unique plague of modern times. But since it is a slogan of anti-intellectual conservatism, we are expected to agree to pass over it in silence. For the conservatives of Decadence, “politics” is what is practised by the enemy; all the manifold political assumptions wrapped up in their own ostensibly apolitical views are merely “common sense”.

Frank Furedi adopts an eerily similar strategy, seeking to circumscribe the definition of “politics” for his own specific reason: to protect his thesis that the publics of Britain and the US are cynically “disengaged” from politics. This claim looks threatened by the familiar phenomena of anti-globalization and anti-war protests, consumer activism, and increased donation to NGOs – according to its 2004/5 financial statement, Amnesty UK attracted 23,000 new supporters in that year. But like his comrade Kenneth Minogue, Furedi has little use for such facts and figures. He just declares that such concerns don’t really count as “politics” at all: they are at best, in his contemptuous phrase, “micro-politics”. Speaking of America, he cites some more concerns that are not authentically political: “debates about same-sex marriage, religion, abortion, gun ownership and working parents”. “The fact that such private issues have become politicized,” Furedi complains, “indicates that the public sphere has become depoliticized.” Gun ownership a “private issue”? Is possession of an instrument designed to kill other human beings really just a matter for individual conscience? Charlton Heston would surely approve.

Furedi also has little time for those who worry about what Minogue calls “the fate of the environment”. We are mentally manacled, runs Furedi’s general thesis, by a “politics of fear” that keeps us in nervous acquiescence to the dictates of government and robs us of faith in social progress. It is not enough for Furedi that this should be true for some things, as it is undoubtedly is for the case of the “war on terror”; it must be true for everything. And so he appears to have complacently decided, on the basis of no offered evidence, that talk of global warming, too, amounts to “scaremongering”, and that there is a general mistrust of science on the “left”. “The left is anxious about some impending environmental catastrophe,” he declares, evincing a great deal of condescending ignorance in that little word “some”. In fact, the enormous body of evidence for global warming amassed over the last 20 years is a triumph of science, not an index of a fear of science; and it is the anti-scientific, pseudo-Christian conservatives of the US with whom Furedi is allying himself in dismissing it. Strange bedfellows, indeed.

The most telling coalition between these volumes, finally, is on a deep scepticism about “human rights”. Let us start with the writers in Decadence, for whom a focus on “human rights” is one of the plagues of the modern age. Notably, none of the contributors bothers to interrogate the phrase “human rights” itself for its philosophical assumptions, as Perry A. does, at least, in a sceptical essay on Habermas and others. Instead, Decadence relies on the crazily bad argument that, because talk of human rights exhibits a universalizing impulse, it ought to be lumped together with Nazism and Stalinism as examples of evil utopian thinking. As part of the book’s general thesis, it is stated in the following remarkable sentence by Digby A.: “The redemption of society used to be sought by encouraging individuals to improve. In the twentieth and twenty-first centures, it is sought through political means, whether communism, nazism or the welfare state, affirmative action and anti-discrimination policies.” Are we to suppose that simply asking people to be nicer would have liberated the slaves or given women the vote? Is the welfare state really comparable to Hitlerism? In the same volume, Roger Kimball expresses the same idea with a pinch more subtlety, claiming that notions of human rights are “prey to totalitarian doctrines and other intellectual and spiritual deformations”. The use of “prey to” is revealing: even Kimball realizes that to say out loud that human-rights talk leads to such doctrines would be patently ridiculous. But how is saying that they are “prey” to oppressive ideologies to count against them? Is it the lamb’s fault for being prey to the wolf?

Let us turn for a third opinion to Frank Furedi, who asserts, on the contrary, that “hostility to universalist values” in our age “is most pronounced among the cultural left”, and that “It is among the left-wing intelligentsia that the greatest scorn is reserved for the ideas of progress associated with the Enlightenment”. Digby A. and Kimball would no doubt be amused to find that, on this view, they must be members of the left-wing intelligentsia.

The facts in the world, should we care to consider them, are quite plain. Régimes such as those in Iran or China are institutionally allergic to talk of “human rights”, and it is organizations such as Human Rights Watch, defending the “universalist values” of such legal instruments as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that have been most vocal in criticizing the routine torture authorized by the White House and the Pentagon. Alain Badiou writes with admiration of “the demonstrations in London against the war in Iraq”, yet he is just as impatient with talk of “human rights” as are the writers in Decadence, which may not be surprising given his particularly indulgent attitude towards Mao’s “cultural revolution”, and his principled dislike of “moralistic preaching against acts of violence”. Nor can “human-rights” activism be welcomed by Frank Furedi, because he has already decided that participation in NGOs such as HRW is not “politics”.

Indeed, for Furedi, one of the symptoms of the political vacancy of our fear-ridden age is that “avoiding terror and cruelty” is the sole basis for our “public ethos”. If only it really were so. Then there might not exist such vicious examples of political rhetoric as “extraordinary rendition”, the euphemism for the CIA’s practice of exporting prisoners to countries where they will be interrogated under torture. Besides this, all the modern “slogans” that the writers of Decadence complain about – “caring” or “accountability” or even “critical thinking” – are just so many trivial hobby-horses. Borrowing the vocabulary of industrial meat-processing, the idea of “rendering” prisoners considers its subjects as meat, in the service of a dark fantasy of inverted transubstantiation in which the flesh, by any means possible, is made word.

But such matters are to be ignored. Jousting instead with imaginary pasts, feverishly redrawing each other’s ideological spectra, slyly eliminating troublesome notions from their definitions of “politics”, ensconced in their hermetic chambers of abstract reasoning while an unscrutinised world rolls by outside their windows – such writers are fiddling while Rome burns. For political argument in our time, here is the authentic music of decadence.  

  1. 1  Abbas  April 13, 2006, 10:34 pm 

    Dear Steven,

    I wanted to ask you something, but don’t see your email address anywhere, so I thought I’d just leave a comment. If you have a chance, could you just send me an email?

    Thanks very much.



  2. 2  guthrie  April 14, 2006, 12:49 pm 

    Indeed. Speaking as an ordinary British pleb, I have only heard of Mr Furedi. And that only because he is linked to the odious and decidedly right wing/ corporate set up that is “Spiked”. Therefore i am not surprised that his bloviations sound the same as those of an anti-climate change right wing americans would.

    It all goes to show how disconnected these intellectuals are from real life.

  3. 3  Vance Maverick  April 14, 2006, 4:07 pm 

    Well said. But a quibble — there’s a more common sense of “render” which is a plainer fit. The online OED gives it as “3 literary hand over; surrender.”

  4. 4  Dave  June 13, 2006, 12:51 pm 


    I agree with you that activist organizations like HRW put in good work – particularly in exposing vicious government activities, making their cruelty clearly visible despite government attempts to make them less visible. But it seems unclear to me what ‘human rights’ are supposed to be.

    I understand the notion of a legal right: I have a legal right to X if other people have a legal duty not to obstruct me getting my X, and their legal duty is enforced by a legal system – i.e. laws compliance to which is ultimately enforced by the threat of state violence. In a well-functioning system of legal rights, it is a matter of fact rather than of ethical intuition what legal rights I have. We might _hope_ to have legal rights which we don’t in fact have – but we can’t _claim_ legal rights which we don’t have, and in particular can’t claim rights for which there is no system of enforcement.

    With ‘human rights’ the situation is apparently different. Despite systematic and ongoing ‘violations’ of human rights, human rights somehow mysteriously persist. That I have a human right to do X isn’t a matter of fact, but an ethical claim.

    Perhaps this claim is that I _should_ have a legal right to do X. Saying that people should have a legal right not to be tortured is more of a mouthful than saying people have a human right not to be tortured. It also raises more explicitly questions of the feasibility (and desirability) of a body to enforce such a law. It thus makes the rights in question more doubtful and remote than they initially appeared in talking of human rights. It nevertheless seems more honest.

    I think this is why so many (on both left and right) see human rights talk as unspeak. It is utopian in blurring the distinction between enforceable and unenforceable rights, and obscuring the hard political questions about which bodies we want to entrust with the necessary capacity for violence to be our rights-enforcers. Even when human rights talk isn’t unspeak, it seems confused to me.

  5. 5  Steven Poole  June 13, 2006, 2:17 pm 

    Hi Dave,

    You will have noticed from my sentence “none of the contributors bothers to interrogate the phrase ‘human rights’ for its philosophical assumptions” that I too think it can be confused.

    I don’t agree with your translation of human rights into legal rights. Specifically, one of the pragmatic (not philosophical) virtues of human-rights talk is that it allows you to test existing laws against it. It can be a useful way of pointing to harms not yet outlawed.

  6. 6  Dave  June 14, 2006, 12:53 pm 

    Hi Steve (if I may),

    Apologies – I carelessly overlooked the sentence you note – though the sentence as it stands didn’t explicitly say what you now add, that the phrase ‘human rights’ can be (philosophically) confused. Do you think there is a way to keep the pragmatic virtues of human rights while avoiding philosophical confusion?

    There is also a pragmatic argument to be had: critics (in different ways on left and right) might think human-rights talk sacrifices strategic (long-term) pragmatic virtues to tactical (short-term) pragmatic virtues. It isn’t especially useful to point to harms not yet outlawed if the way in which it is done systematically obscures either the path to outlawing them, or other larger harms.

    The American/French revolutions, which produced this universalist human-rights talk, also produced the critical reactions still repeated today. To the right (e.g. Burke), universalism was politically dangerous: by promising more than could be delivered, it precipitated acts of political folly and made people forget to care about virtues they had the ability to practice in their own backyard. To the left (i.e. Marx), universalism was politically soporific: reassuring claims of formal moral equality obscured (pointed _away_ from) real (i.e. systematic & causally important) economic inequality.

    Though left and right agree in diagnosing some sort of utopian confusion here, they clearly can’t simultaneously be right. One question today is whether 50 years of the UNDHR has had a systematic political tendency. If it has, has it contributed to political over-assertiveness (as rightist critics say), or to political under-assertiveness (as leftist critics say)? If it hasn’t, and its tactical use has different effects in different contexts, how can this tactical use be strategically controlled? What makes purely tactical use of human-rights talk problematic, it seems to me, is that the talk itself is so high-flown.

    Sorry to bang on at such length about this: I envy your economy of expression.

  7. 7  Steven Poole  June 14, 2006, 3:11 pm 

    Hi Dave,

    You say:

    It isn’t especially useful to point to harms not yet outlawed if the way in which it is done systematically obscures either the path to outlawing them, or other larger harms.

    I agree it wouldn’t be especially useful if it in fact did systematically do this. But it does not. By means of instruments such as the ECHR, talk of human rights is translated into real legal rights, which would seem difficult if talk of human rights systematically obscured the path to lawmaking. The ECHR also provides a further useful test of other legislation, for example in the UK.

    To the right (e.g. Burke), universalism was politically dangerous: by promising more than could be delivered, it precipitated acts of political folly and made people forget to care about virtues they had the ability to practice in their own backyard.

    Naturally, Burke could not foresee the things human-rights talk has had a hand in delivering, for example the great advances in civil rights in fortunate countries of the Anglosphere and Europe and elsewhere during the 20th century, and things such as the Geneva Conventions, the unfortunate fact of whose regular dishonouring should not presumably make us wish them out of existence. Does human-rights talk still promise more than can be delivered? Perhaps. But it has delivered (or at least in some way inspired the delivery of) quite a lot already, much of which might even meet the conditional approval of Marx.

  8. 8  Gus  June 23, 2006, 2:33 pm 

    Frank Furedi’s mob are an interesting lot. Check these out:


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