Below is a summary of Warring Fictions' core argument. It takes around 10 minutes to read.
Left populism and left pluralism: the real divide
There are two strains of thought on the political left and within the British Labour movement: populism and pluralism. These aren’t divided by values or policies, but by approach and temperament. This distinction has been exposed by the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, a standard-bearer for the populist left.
The dramatically different responses that Corbyn generates among left-wingers don’t come because, for his critics, he’s too committed to equality or to social justice.
Nor do they come because of how he chooses to advance the causes of equality or social justice. Although there are major disagreements here, his electoral and policy prescriptions aren’t the core problem.
Instead, the crux of the issue lies somewhere else altogether. It stems from a gulf in mindset and analysis: a divide between populist and pluralist world views. The divide is rooted in three myths; a set of narrative assumptions, referred to here as the Dark Knight, the Puppet Master and the Golden Era. These are central to the populist analysis but absent from the pluralist one.
The Dark Knight myth says that the political spectrum is also a moral one, that the left is where virtue lies; that the further to the right you go the more wicked or self-interested things are.
The myth of the Puppet Master describes the view that powerful and far-sighted elites control, design and coordinate society, suppressing the popular will for personal gain.
And the Golden Era myth is the declinist view that a left-wing Arcadia – a spirit of ‘original socialism’ – once existed but as since has been polluted by modernity.
The most extreme populists – those whose loyalty to Corbyn borders on the devout – believe in all three, absolutely. The most forceful pluralists – those who’d leave Labour before they’d vote for him – believe in none of them, at all. Between these points there are more mild levels of belief or non-belief in the narratives.
These three narratives are harmful and counter-productive. They hold back progressive and radical goals, and lead us down reactionary or extremist cul-de-sacs.[i] They explain why the left often splits, why arguments result in non-sequiturs, why communication between the different parts of Labour is so hard.
Before we get into these three myths in detail, I should say that my reason for criticising them stems from two convictions about the state of modern British politics.
The first is that regaining a rational, civil and democratic debate should be the number one priority for people of all leanings. Until trust in the motives of others is restored, discourse is again based on logic not conspiracy, and respect for opponents returns, politicians cannot address the other problems we face.
So, I’m asking that the left – and specifically the populist left – takes the steps necessary to prevent Britain being consumed by US-style ‘culture wars’.
The second conviction is that the crisis of socialism and social democracy, which has put progressives out of power across Europe, is easier to solve than we think. The adage that we’ve ‘run out of ideas’ may be true. But there are answers, both electorally and through policy-making, if we want them.
Yet this is impossible when every conversation is distorted by sacred falsehoods and an atmosphere that straitjackets debate. The new thinking needed to tackle global wealth inequality or address climate change is shut down by the visceral stories which guide left populism.
The Dark Knight
The first myth is the Dark Knight. This is the belief that the spectrum between left and right is also a spectrum between good and bad. It is a narrative based on Manichean conflict.
The myth is applied to individuals and groups of voters, with many on the populist left inclined to believe Tories are more selfish or spiteful than left-wingers. But it also applies to causes, institutions and policies, with the private sector or the police or the USA often automatically see as the enemy.
The Dark Knight is explicitly built on the idea of the political spectrum as a moral scale. It’s not a scale running from ‘right to wrong’, from ‘wise to foolish’ or even from ‘sane to mad’. It runs from ‘generous to selfish’ and from 'decent to spiteful'.
This is important, explaining why the myth leads to approaches based on conflict rather than persuasion. A politics framed as a battle between benevolence and wickedness has far more potential for divisions or even violence than a dispute between right or wrong. As soon as a disagreement occurs, it becomes a question of character, ushering people into moral tribes, categorising policy questions as good and evil, and taking us from spectrum to binary. There is no middle ground.
Many of the populist left’s greatest ethical failings stem from the Dark Knight’s capacity to turn good intentions into harmful outcomes. This applies whether we’re talking about the USSR’s descent into totalitarianism, or about abuse and anti-Semitism in the contemporary British Labour Party.
As different as these phenomena are, the underlying narratives are the same, based on a fight with opponents who are deemed to be bad people. The Dark Knight is thus the founding father of many of the populist left’s worst vices, both mild and extreme: sanctimony, dogma, sectarianism, hostility to democracy, collective guilt, extremism, etc.
A historic example of the Dark a Knight is the ‘social fascism’ accusation, made by the German far left in the 1930s. This alleged that social democrats of the time were ‘social fascists’ – identical to the Nazis in all but name (and in fact more dangerous because they hid their true nature). It ended in disaster, of course, splitting the left at a crucial juncture.
Pejorative modern terms used by the populist left – ‘centrist’, ‘transphobe’, ‘neoliberal’, ‘Blairite’, ‘red Tory’ – serve the same function. They turn neighbours into enemies. And they do so at a time when, like the 1930s, highly unpleasant individuals increasingly hold or seek power; a time when dialogue is needed, right across the spectrum, to solve the problems which the likes of Trump or Boris Johnson seek to exploit. (Read about this in more detail in this extract from the full book).
The Dark Knight is compelling. Indeed, I have been compelled by it at points. There are several ways in which it is attractive.
To begin with, it caters to a sense of identity – especially when things aren’t going your way. It’s no coincidence that, within Labour politics, divisions usually rear their heads after major defeats, when the road ahead is unclear. The notion of an out-group satisfies a need for belonging.
Added to this, the Dark Knight corroborates the idea that we, as people, are morally above average. Many people are susceptible to this. We instinctively assume others in society are more money-grabbing or callous than ourselves.
Moreover, the myth creates a compass with which to understand issues. The process of side-taking, be it with the unions or against the bankers, distils issues. For those of us who don’t understand every policy area, the myth offers order and clarity, offering a way for the lay-observer to engage.
There are four serious arguments against the Dark Knight myth.
The first relates to identity. Most individuals are complex, and have an array of often conflicting identities. A person may, simultaneously, be a gay rights campaigner, a Tory voter, a private sector employee and a former refugee. By shaking politics into goodies and baddies, we dismiss the characters of great swathes of the population, based on a single piece of information about them.
Secondly, life experience plays a crucial role in all our politics, our social attitudes and our behaviours. Upbringing, background and generation remain decisive in what citizens think about tax or immigration. Everyone – including those with privileges, and including ourselves on the left – is a product of circumstance. Hence, logic and objectivity must be our tool for deciding what’s right – not ever more self-certainty.
The third point is about the multi-layered relationship between politics and morals. People can have different views on policy while sharing similar values. I, for example, am less inclined than a Corbyn supporter to see free higher education as the route to equality – while being just as committed to equality itself. Likewise, values don’t equal morals. I’m socially liberal, whereas someone else might be more traditionalist. But this doesn’t mean I’m more personally moral than they are. By recognising this we can achieve the Jo Cox ‘more in common’ ideal. (Read about this in more detail in this extract from the full book).
The last issue with the Dark Knight is that it increases dogmatic or doctrinaire thinking. Institutions, causes or methods become invested with morality in themselves. The result is that positions are taken which run counter to our values, and support for policy approaches like non-intervention abroad or nationalisation becomes unwavering. Because of this dogma the public – who often support radical progressive ideas in theory – don't trust Labour to deliver them in practice.
The Puppet Master
The Puppet Master is our second myth. It describes the view that problems in society mainly occur by a far-reaching and sinister design.
The focus of this myth is on ‘the powerful’, a group who allegedly coordinate with one another to oppress or silence the population. This sometimes overlaps with the Dark Knight, but the analysis is different. The core emphasis is on power and society, not on values and morals.
The Puppet Master myth is an overstatement of power, not an observation that it exists at all. We are, of course, all subject to government power. The very fact that the law exists demonstrates this.
But the Puppet Master is the default belief that everything can be understood in this way. It transcends empirical evidence, and uses malintent from those above to explain just about everything. It welcomes in a vernacular that focuses on coercion, hegemony, cleansing, state-sponsored terrorism, pre-decided outcomes, oppression by a ‘deep state’, the engineering of public opinion, the rigging of the system, the construction of an acceptable mainstream, which fits the agendas of elites. Etc etc etc.
The myth leads to several consequences, both mild and extreme: opportunism, cynicism, paranoia, forms of libertarianism which make socialism harder, and an attraction to conspiracy theories.
But its biggest problem is that it encourages a mentality based on the idea that government is omnipotent and that politics is easy. Through encouraging this mindset, the Puppet Master leads Labour towards ‘opposition for its own sake’ – and thus towards populism.
From a pluralist point of view, I believe that refuting the Puppet Master makes you no less radical. It merely means a different analysis.
A good example is the British print press. The idea of an ‘MSM’ (‘mainstream media’) is a common one on the populist left. The Puppet Master analysis here isn’t simply that the newspapers harm the public debate and make life hard for those with radical politics – a claim with which most people who are left-of-centre would agree. It’s to do with the explanation of how this happens and why.
The ‘MSM’ critique, favoured by the populist left, assumes the problem comes from the agendas of elites. Within this analysis, a powerful clique uses the press as its propaganda arm, protecting its own interests by reducing the parameters of the debate.
An alternative interpretation to this – one which doesn’t deploy Puppet Master narratives – would instead say the problem is due to chaos not conspiracy. This is rather like Tony Blair’s ‘feral beasts’ analysis. It sees the media as a cutthroat market, built on short-termism and sensation, which reflects and magnifies the public’s worst fears.
These are fundamentally different explanations for the same problem. The difference between them isn’t to do with how much disdain we have for an anti-refugee headline in the Mail; it’s to do with our beliefs about why that headline is there in the first place. (Read about this in more detail in this extract from the full book).
The Puppet Master myth is again seductive.
To start with, the myth fulfils our desire to believe we are on the side of the people. This is important, especially to people on the left. We want to feel that what we think is what everyone thinks. The Puppet Master, with its suggestion that that our views would be mainstream had they not been crushed or silenced, permits this.
Moreover, the Puppet Master comes from an instinct to blame ‘the system’. This is generally a positive urge, avoiding the right-wing tendency to blame individuals. But it can lead to a less subtle analysis, which alleges that individuals running the system – not the system itself – are the problem.
The Puppet Master also satisfies an instinct to deconstruct, which is prevalent in developed societies, where more cultural value is placed on critique and dissent. This relates to the rise of post-materialism, which sees society as a ‘construct’.
Added to this, the myth appeals to a more fundamental instinct: to see patterns where none exist. There is a tissue of cognitive biases which lead us, when looking at politics, to observe two isolated incidents, and conclude that they’re part of a wider web of coercion, propaganda or grand design.
The Puppet Master is a fable which at best leads to folly and impotence, and at worst to more sinister outcomes. There are four aspects of the world which it fails to account for.
Firstly, the myth relies on an elite who are both superhumanly competent and inhumanly callous. How have these inhuman superhumans risen to power? The answer must either be that they’re decent people corrupted, or that they’re born with these traits. The former premise suggests we ourselves would become inhuman superhumans if we got a glimpse of power. The latter suggests we should be most suspicious of those who have risen furthest – more hostile to politicians from humble backgrounds.
Secondly, there are major competing priorities in society. Some of these relate to popular opinion. Others relate to policy limitations. This isn’t to say the role of government is simply to mediate, or to find the mean average of public opinion. But the fact that such clear balancing acts exist immediately undermines the Puppet Master idea.
Thirdly, we live in a society where powerful forces perpetuate themselves organically. This is sometimes known as the Matthew Effect – the adage that ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer’ – and presents the biggest flaw of capitalism. But the Puppet Master myth stops us addressing or acknowledging this. We instead imagine that all problems are part of an authored process.
Fourthly, the Puppet Master hides the sacrifices genuine radicalism requires. By focusing all energy on a plutocratic ‘1%’ who create all problems, privileged progressives can re-imagine themselves as underdogs, railing against the omnipotent clique at the top. This prevents the hard-thinking required, and instead invites us to sign up for a form of socialism which is low-cost and guilt-free. (Read about this in more detail in this extract from the full book).
The Golden Era
Puppet Master assumptions are often linked to ideas of a social decline ushered in by the rich and powerful. My third myth, the Golden Era, describes this sense of decline. It usually links to an analysis which says the post-war years were a socialist idyll but have been replaced by ‘neoliberal’ economics and a culture of greed.
Related to this is the idea that New Labour sold out on Labour’s ideals; that we’ve moved towards selfish and shallow values as a society; and that the true spirit of collectivism and community has ceased to exist.
In other words, the Golden Era represents a quest for something lost; a spirit which was original and true; an age of real and meaningful struggle; and, a benchmark against which modern life can never quite match up. It combines a myopic version of British history and a romantic reading of Labour ancestry.[ii]
The harmful effects of the Golden Era are partly cultural. The myth can encourage a miserabilist approach, which offers little by way of a positive path into the future.
Beyond this, the Golden Era’s vision of a ‘neoliberal’ dystopia coming our way can feed individualism and even nihilism. Desperate rolls of the dice – such as some Bernie Sanders supporters’ decision to back Trump – begin to make perfect sense if you believe we’re moving further and further away from a Golden Era.
At a policy level, meanwhile, the reality is that many of the things which have brought the supposed Golden Era to an end are consequences of an interconnected world. This world has both given to and taken away from the left, advancing many progressive ideas and causes, while at the same time making the regulation of capitalism much harder.
Yet the Golden Era, left populist argument fails to acknowledge the advances of the last 50 years, focusing only on the retreats and the defeats. Whilst real, these retreats are hard to reverse without also reversing the advances.
The net effect of this is that left populists often fall into the traps of Euroscepticism and ‘socialism in one country’ – as we’ve seen with Corbyn’s protectionist policies and tacit support for Brexit. Instead of seeking to embrace and shape globalisation, as the left have historically embraced and shaped other challenges, they suggest we should back away from it.
This isn’t to say that we should rebuff the Golden Era by saying that everything is getting better. The alternative to declinism isn’t no-holds-barred positivism. But there must be an analysis of which areas have become more progressive, which more conservative, and whether there are links between the two. And Labour must avoid the nihilism which the Golden Era invites, with its ‘Year Zero’ readiness to see progressive achievements as collateral damage in the fight against modernity.
The Golden Era myth extends far beyond the populist left. Nostalgia and decline are common in many parts of society. What makes it so appealing?
To begin with, the myth reflects a desire for old certainties: for a world less confusing; for a society less complex; for communities more localised and steady; for an economic structure without riches beyond our grasp; for a period when you knew where you stood on class and nationhood, etc.
Added to this, there is a sense that decline is a good recruiting sergeant. By focusing on the aspects which are getting worse we can, some left-wingers think, stave off complacency and build urgency for the causes we support.
Moreover, there’s a need to feel we’re struggling towards something, as a society. People are often far more optimistic in countries like India, which are in earlier stages of social and economic development. The same principles apply to the left, which often eulogises periods of struggle, when great social institutions were being built, rather than the periods after they’ve been created.
Furthermore, there’s often a need, on the left, for individuals to feel their historical moment is a critical turning point. It’s satisfying to be among those who see that crisis is imminent and progress illusory.
The ‘neoliberalism’ story is the coronary artery of the Golden Era myth. The basic idea is that, during the period between 1945 and the present day, a left-wing Eden was quickly built and then fully dismantled. During that timeline, the policy consensus – and with it the public mood – is said to have shifted in a reactionary direction on most fronts, and continues to do so.
This idea is fairly weak, not least because the definitions of ‘neoliberalism’ are so vague. In reality, there have been a more complex set of transitions since the 1940s and 1950s.
These are listed below, in the form of seven narrative explanations for the last 60 or 70 years. Each of these explains – in more sophisticated ways than the Golden Era analysis permits – how society has changed. None are pure progress narratives, from a left-of-centre perspective. But nor are they simple decline narratives. Rather, they all describe a double-edged sword; forms of economic, social, cultural and political change which have both helped and hindered the liberal left.
Firstly, there has been a shift from isolation to interconnectedness. The rise of globalisation has happened in line with the rise in internationalism and social liberalism. This explains why both the populist left and the populist right are so inclined to feel their values have been defeated in the last three or four decades. The move we’re talking about presents a sort of bottleneck, which the left needs to pass through in order to shape the modern, interconnected world in the direction of our own values. Populists of both sides don’t acknowledge this, and instead feel they can cherry-pick what they want from the past. This explains the immense duress that Brexit (and globalisation more generally) has placed on British party politics. (Read about this in more detail in this extract from the full book).
Secondly, there’s been a macro-economic shift in the scale at which capitalism operates. In the last 200 years, this has taken us from local to national to global. In essence: new technology expands the geographical scale of capitalism; this brings growth but also inequality; it then takes time for the levers of the new geographical scale to be gripped, so that the inequalities can be addressed. The post-War consensus occurred at a time when we had grasped the national levers, and were using them to address the inequalities caused by industrialisation and growth in the national economy. We are now seeing a second hump in inequality, thanks to the scale of capitalist expansion. The answer is to regulate and redistribute at a supranational level. But at present we don’t have the mechanism to do this – hence the existence of ‘the 1%’ and the meteoric rise of the ‘London versus the rest’ issue.
Thirdly, if we look at party politics, there’s been a shift which we might call Attlee, Thatcher, Blair, Brexit. If we consider the rhetoric and policy choices of the mainstream over a long-running period, we see a political mainstream which has never really been in the left-wing corner. In distilled form, the country hs moved from collectivism towards individualism and then halfway back, and from nationalism to internationalism and then halfway back. One key point to observe here is that the mainstream consensus (or ‘Overton Window’) is only ever moved by the governing party. (Read about this in more detail in this extract from the full book).
Fourthly, we’ve seen a progression through three sequential goals – equal rights, equal opportunities and fair outcomes – when it comes to government priorities. These are the basic, Rawlsian principles of justice. Over the last century there’s been sufficient progress that, with a few exceptions, we could call a tentative victory for equal rights. Equal opportunities have also moved steadily into the mainstream in terms of political rhetoric and public appetite. However, social mobility in the true sense (e.g. the breaking of the link between where people start in life and where they finish) has effectively changed little, with equal opportunities coming to mean merely ‘good opportunities for everyone’. The goal must now be to move beyond rhetoric on this issue. Fair outcomes – as in equality for its own sake – have rarely been a government priority. Only very recently, as the problem has got worse, has it become something that politicians talk about and prioritise.
Fifthly, there’s been a shift from direct challenges to indirect challenges. The problems the left faces have steadily moved away from being the result of overt barriers, and towards being the consequence of structural ones. For instance, overt racism in the 1960s was commonplace, with groups excluded from working in particular jobs or living in certain areas. These sorts of direct, blatant prejudice have relented. But, at the same time, structural, systemic and economic factors have continued to mean that – despite racism itself declining – racial inequalities remain. This is just one example, but the point is that, to tackle the indirect challenges we face, we need to understand them properly.
Sixthly, there has been a shift from groupish values to individualist and then post-materialist ones. In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the defining values were more tribal – based on sticking together, following the rules, and protecting your group from external threats. The reality of this was both more progressive, with more emphasis on collectivism and community, and more conservative, with a greater focus on nationhood, family and the church. Subsequent years saw the rise, firstly, of individualism – as needs for safety and security were steadily met and replaced. This manifested itself in Thatcherism and in consumer culture. Rising individualism led, in turn, to rising post-materialism – thanks to growing university attendance, increasing international travel, etc. (Read about this in more detail in this extract from the full book).
Finally, we’ve seen a move from innocence to awareness, as understanding, communication and knowledge have improved. This is a magnification rather than a progression. It has, like all our shifts, brought both positive and negative outcomes. Heightened awareness and knowledge might make us learn about the developing world and feel we need to help, or understand the feelings of an LGBT person who can’t marry the individual they love. But it can also make us jealous of the rich and famous, or mean we hear about the Rochdale grooming gang and form racist generalisations.
What are the potential criticisms of the arguments set out above? Many – for example, the idea that I, myself, am an ‘outrider’ for the establishment – end up deploying the three populist myths themselves.
However, there’s as deeper and more justified criticism, which is that the argument I’m making is boring, and makes it impossible to engage in politics. There’s no black-hearted nemesis; no far-sighted wizard behind the curtain; no lost Arcadia. Each issue is more procedural, more understated, less technicolour. Most people are fairly good, most decisions are fairly hard, most eras are to some degree imperfect.
Part of the answer to this concern is that the rewards for the left, if we can jettison our destructive folklore and turn our backs on populism, are immense. A society with equal rights, equal opportunities and fair outcomes could eventually be achieved.
But it’s also true that, to do this, we need to give far more thought to the development of sustainable narratives; accounts and explanations of the world which can create meaning without doing harm.
As Emile Macron has put it, "Modern political life must rediscover a sense for symbolism… We need to be amenable once again to creating grand narratives… Why can’t there be such a thing as democratic heroism?"
By looking at issues in these ways, we on the pluralist left can start to see a way out of our present rut.
We can demonstrate that there’s greater fulfilment in constructing something good than in agitating against something bad. And we can show that there’s a richness in human society, and in its people, stories and ideals, which goes beyond the crusader mentality which the three myths invite.
From Robespierre to Che Guevara, history is littered with romantic and sometimes violent populists, who have believed in the Dark Knight, the Puppet Master, or the Golden Era. They’ve mistaken struggle, uprising and loss for egalitarian progress, and in the process, they’ve done harm – or, at least, done less good than they could have.
Their approach offers not the fulfilment but the deferral of a utopian dream: a style of politics which offers purpose and struggle, but does little to make things better. To move towards pluralism is to decide that, rather than it being a mirage we enjoy the prospect of, we want to see it achieved in the flesh – and are willing to recognise it when it arrives.
This society can never be perfect. But it can be as equal and fair as is possible – a meaningful achievement, instead of an entity at the end of a rainbow.
[i] All three narratives have their mirror image on the political right, where the populists like Boris Johnson or Donald Trump invert the myths and use them to right-wing ends. This essay focuses on the left, largely because that’s where my own politics sit, and I would like to see us lead by example.
[ii] To be clear, believing in the Golden Era doesn’t mean being a pessimist. Many of those who believe in the fable are upbeat about the possibilities of reversing the decline.