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Forward, not back

Unidirectionality and the politics of the excluded middle

The slogan for the British Labour Party during the 2005 General Election campaign has been “Forward, not back”. We ride, it seems, a single axis of history; a groove or rail or world-spirit-teleology points in only one possible direction towards the utopian horizon. Anyone who would prefer another bearing must needs therefore be a retrograde philosopher, because the only other possible direction is backwards.

The only vehicle in which you can go either forward or back, and in no other direction, is a train. But whereas an ordinary train has a destination, where it stops, the train of progress can never stop. It is a perpetual train, rather like that in China Miéville’s fantasy novel Iron Council. Moreover, so as to avoid any disagreeable notion of circularity, of getting back to where you started, we must imagine that this train makes its epic journey on a boundless flat Earth. “Forward, not back” is, in fact, a quasi-totalitarian view – the leader maps out the only possible future and invites merely our monologic assent – mingled with an Italian-Futurist notion of the erotics of speed and machinery . . .

Tony Blair has also used this uniaxial image in his increasingly confused justifications for joining in America”s 2003 invasion of Iraq. The choice was either to go forward (“remove” Saddam Hussein, a decision for which there was no justification in international law), or back (leaving him “emboldened”). That, according to the Prime Minister, was the decision he was faced with. “There was no middle way,” he insisted.

Such imagery is particularly revealing from a politician who surfed to power in 1997 on waves of rhetoric about “The Third Way”. Eight years ago, the old distinctions between Right and Left, between Socialist and Capitalist, were outmoded, exhausted. Binary choices were misleading us; there was a Third Way that could reconcile the good faith in everyone and make the world a better place.

This was refreshing, if vague, talk at the time. Now it is forgotten. The old fallacy of positing bogus dichotomies for political expediency, it seems, is too useful to throw away permanently. The excluded middle reigns once again. It is “You”re either with us or against us”. It is “Forward, not back”. As the votes are counted this evening, some people may already be looking for the emergency cord.

One comment
  1. 1  Gavin Rees  May 6, 2005, 11:30 am 

    Thanks for the bottle of the Champagne.

    You failed to mention it in your email, but I am sure it was alwasy your attention to give one to the first person who attached a comment.

    Too gnarled to think this morning, but a small thing, though: “progress” was a key battle word in the 1997 election. As I am sure, you know, there was this quota thing with good words, like “new” which spin doctors got salvation points for including in press releases somewhere. I think these lists may even have been official.

    “Progress” was definitely not verbotten, I used to write film reviews for the Labour Party Activists magazine which went by that name.

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