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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Why are we repudiating the values that allowed the West to triumph?

The Cold War ended roughly a generation ago. Our side won. Soviet communism collapsed – completely disintegrated – when its populations, literally in the case of East Germany, simply walked out from under it. This was, or should have been, the ultimate vindication of Western democracy and the free market economics which had provided such unprecedented mass prosperity and personal fulfilment that the opposing system lost all credibility.

So why, roughly 30 years on, does the West seem to be succumbing to a breakdown of confidence so profound that its governments and institutions will submit to absurd rituals of self-abasement designed to discredit its history and deconstruct the fundamental principles on which its achievements were built? What is going on here? And – perhaps most importantly – how perilous is this moment in comparison with what we thought, back in the day, was the imminent danger of nuclear war?

Maybe this is just a form of decadent self-indulgence. In the absence of a clear and obvious mortal enemy, we can slosh around in self-doubt and morbid introspection about the past. Certainly that analysis would be consistent with the general fashion for narcissism.

But that does not quite explain the systematic form that this attack on western values is taking. It seems designed, often in comically ignorant ways, to undermine not only the West’s cultural achievements but the attitude to life’s possibilities which gave rise to them – as if the very concepts of political and economic freedom were rendered unacceptable by any tenuous connection that could be made between their founders and what we now see as social sins.

These techniques are, of course, a perfect example of malicious denunciation – making accusations of guilt by association in what should be such an obviously ridiculous way as to be beneath serious consideration. But serious consideration is what they get.

Is this an inexorable compulsion – a pathological drive toward self-destruction which has often been a feature of declining empires? Or is it nothing more than cowardice on the part of a complacent, second rate establishment? Some of this – the cancel culture stuff – will be gone in the blink of an eye. It is too vindictive and too repugnant to survive for more than a few crazy minutes. What is more alarming – and far harder to unwind – is the official political drift from a basically capitalist economic system in which private enterprise is the source of real growth, to a basically socialist one in which state spending is the manipulator (and, in reality, the owner) of all wealth.

The US and Britain – both, within recent memory, confident exponents of free enterprise, now seem determined to repudiate it. In the case of the US, this renunciation is being made explicit. In this country, it is sort-of denied in rhetorical terms but embraced with enthusiasm in actual policy. This is not accidental. Governing politicians do not construct their programmes accidentally. They are conceived, packaged and presented with the most assiduous study of what are taken to be public attitudes and opinions.

So why are we heading for big-government, high-tax, high-spend economic measures when the avowedly state-run economies proved to be so disastrous that they could not survive? Because public opinion seems to indicate that such measures will be popular, if only in the short term.

The problem with this assumption should be easy enough to see. Public opinion is hugely affected (often determined) by those who are most expert at manipulating it – and that is the one thing at which socialism truly excelled. This is the great irony of the post-Cold War world. Anti-capitalist activism is having a golden age. It has become bizarrely more influential in respectable, mainstream Western discourse at the same time as being much less coherent and economically literate in any proper terms.

Most of what is spouted by the Left-wing activists who infiltrate anti-racism or climate campaigns owes nothing to Marxist analysis, and has little interest in working class concerns. Its attacks on the prevailing power structures are nihilistic and anarchic rather than communist. Which is, paradoxically, why they can be seriously entertained: because they do not represent the interests of any competing power bloc and pose no threat from a recognised global adversary.

The demise of the Soviet Union was a gift to Left-wing protest campaigns in the West: you are no longer aligning yourself with the known enemy when you attack capitalism. Your critique isn’t potentially treasonous: it’s just another point of view. So communism’s failure is what makes this incarnation of it acceptable.

Which brings us to what might be a more generous interpretation of this strange, rather neurotic, historical interlude. Having seen off the Soviet threat, the idea of collectivism – of solidarity and shared responsibility – can be re-examined. It did, after all, have an extraordinary attraction for many intelligent people and we can see it take hold of the public imagination every time there is a national crisis – in the post-war establishment of the welfare state, for example, and during the recent pandemic.

Is there some new political settlement needed that can somehow reconcile the desire for individual self-determination with the longing for community? Now that the proponents of socialist state economies are no longer threatening to bury us, we can have the leisure of considering what value there might be in the original moral precepts. Is this what drives those groping for some new economic consensus – or at least a new form of words to describe what it is we want from a modern government?

Tony Blair had a stab at this. The words worked but the policies didn’t. Whoever succeeds in enunciating this great melding of ideologies can certainly win elections, but carrying out the project – with all its contradictions and potential for catastrophic failure – will be something else altogether. By definition, this new thing will not be a clear political credo: it will be a constantly shifting series of adjustments to new conditions – like wars and pandemics. Not an easy political programme to pitch at a focus group.

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