In the video above I explain the central thrust of Warring Fictions - now re-published as The Dark Knight and The Puppet Master. The slides used can be found here, and you can view enlarged versions of the images from the main text by clicking here.
The basis of the book is a critique of three populist myths, the Dark Knight, the Puppet Master and the Golden Era. These myths repeatedly surface on the left, dragging progressive politics into ethical and electoral wormholes. They are briefly outlined below.
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 cruel'.
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.
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 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.
The Puppet Master is our second myth. It describes the view that problems in society mainly occur thanks to 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 by the 'MSM', 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 perhaps the Puppet Master's biggest problem is that it enables a mentality based on the idea that government is omnipotent and that politics is easy. Through encouraging this mindset, the Puppet Master leads Labour and the left towards ‘opposition for its own sake’ – and thus towards populism.
The third myth, the Golden Era, describes a 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 collectivism and community have 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.
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. The Golden Era’s vision of a ‘neoliberal’ dystopia coming our way feeds fatalism and even nihilism, causing desperate rolls of the dice begin to make perfect sense.
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. Yet the Golden Era world view, recalls only the retreats and the defeats. The net effect of this is that left populists continue to fall into the traps of Euroscepticism and ‘socialism in one country’. Instead of seeking to embrace and shape globalisation, as the left have historically embraced and shaped other challenges, a return to the Golden Era as an alternative.
Rejecting the Golden Era mindset does not mean saying that everything is getting better. But there must be an analysis of which areas have shifted leftwards, which have shifted rightwards, and whether there are links between the two. The Golden Era's 'Year Zero' nihilism invites the left to dismiss more recent progressive advances as collateral damage in the fight against modernity.