Sunday, 13 February 2011

From Egypt to UK and back

Népliget, Budapest

Following events in Egypt, of course. The military have suspended the constitution, but then the constitution had guaranteed majorities for Mubarak. It will be a tense time from here to the elections. There is, say the experts, no party in waiting apart from the Muslim Brotherhood, and there is the army that will not want a long period of chaos.

In May 1989 we were wandering round with friends in Népliget in Budapest examining the trestle tables of the various new parties, fifty-two of them by the time of the election was held, as I remember. My cousin went over to one of the tables and said, 'I think I'll join this one.' Soon enough he was an MP himself, though not for that long. Come the election the old parties were all but swept away and a new politics emerged based on cultural loyalties.

I'm not sure now that cultural loyalty is a particularly good way to determine political position. Culture comprises region, ethnicity, religion and tradition, but it has little to say about policy, except perhaps to propagate advantage for whatever elements of the winning party's culture can be advantaged by political action. So, after 1989, considerable portions of the liberal and socially progressive parties preferred to throw in their lot with market economics, while portions of the socially conservative, traditionalist parties preferred protectionist and national ownership of national assets, such as they were. Ideologically it was mixed bags and rapid splits.

Here we have, notionally at least, an ideological politics dramatically modified by short term pragmatism. Jews, Muslims, Christians and atheists will vote for either Labour or the Tories on principles other than identity. The rural community tend, as everywhere, towards conservativism, and hence towards the Tories; the inner city poor, naturally vote for change and redistribution, hence for Labour.

That does not mean we don't have identity politics in the UK, and I don't just mean ethnic or religious identity politics. The educated intelligentsia of which I am, in many respects, a part (it feels almost comical using the term intelligentsia here, but I far prefer it to 'the chattering classes'), the part of it that does not come from a position of decided privilege,or working class Toryism, is, I suspect, almost entirely Labour and regards the Tories as the party of evil. That is not pure ideological politics, it is partly down to identity and theology. In any case, there are not many Times of Telegraph readers in Higher Education.

Personally, I have always felt unhappy with identity politics. Well, you'd expect a refugee of my age to be unhappy, wouldn't you? What kind of identity is that anyway? (A very vulnerable one). I am distinctly uncomfortable dismissing the Tories as, well, simply bad people who are bound to have bad ideas because their intentions are intrinsically evil.

But it's not just vulnerability, it is also a kind of inner contrarianism. The Simone Weil line I have often quoted is at the heart of it Obedience to the force of gravity: the greatest sin. I even suspect it is what keeps the poetry alive in me.

That means there are two grounds on which I can have political preferences. They are ideology and pragmatics. If I vote Labour, as I do, it isn't because I think Labour politicians are more virtuous than Conservative ones. I vote because an ideology that stresses social justice and equality seems to me a worthwhile ideology. Ideology can be discussed: identity cannot. I have no great expectation that the Labour party will embody this ideology, but I do have some expectation that it will bear this ideology in mind in formulating policy. A degree of pragmatism - meaning the maintenance, and possible increase, of general well-being and stability (meaning people don't start murdering each other) - might even be risked in pursuit of this goal. Should be. Conservative ideology, as I understand it, values stability above all, especially if that stability advantages those who benefit most from the market. Socialist ideology prefers equality over stability.

I can think like this because I live in a mature, well-weathered democracy in which, despite the circuses, the spin-doctors, the scandals, and the funfair rhetoric, it is possible for the state to creak and sway without toppling. One can push for social equality without precipitating collapse. One can hope for changes for the better and, given any reasonable choice, one can prefer to take the one that offers a better chance of equality. One can argue for that choice in both ideological and pragmatic terms. I suspect most people recognize this.

People in Hungary and Egypt have not lived in such democracies. Over here, we tend to assume that democracy, by definition, includes the capacity for weathering, but I doubt it. New democracies are brittle, panic easily, and quickly revert to identity politics. That is where Hungary is now. I am utterly ignorant of where Egypt might be in six months time, what parties might form, representing what ideas or identities. It is almost as if democracy, in states that have not had long experience of it, were composed of exhilarating moments, like the moment a couple of days ago, when a vast crowd deposed Mubarak by simply persisting and uniting. At such moments our hearts lift and sing.

Now the tents are being removed. Hearts are still beating fast. Meanwhile the body politic is hastily scrambling about looking for its reasons.


Alfred Corn said...

Well expressed, George, and it seems at least to allow for the possibility that things might turn out well.

For comparison, look at this Opinion piece by the Bulgarian novelist Nikolai Grozni in The New York Times.

Gwil W said...

Whilst I agree with you in the main I think the young will come through without reverting to 'identity politics' if they are only given half a chance. There's a lot of Facebook politics at work (I'm not a Facebooker or a Twitter myself but I see where it's coming from).
In the 'old days' of the Internet it was a case of identity politics to a greater extent with one identity group slagging off another identity group and not much intelligent discussion getting done. I think we've moved on. I hope we have. I have the impression we have.

George S said...

I hope you'r right, Gwilym, and you may well be. It is not the way it has worked in Hungary despite modern technology. It's a long war, not a short battle. As I expect Egypt might be.

Gwil W said...

George, in passing here's a brief statement from the Hungarian leader seen in a recent Austrian newspaper report about Hungarian press restrictions and the EU's attitudes: Brussels is not Moscow.

George S said...

Brussels is not Moscow.

That is the kind of absurd statement that is intended for the home market. But maybe he thinks Budapest is Moscow. Or Berlin. So easy to confuse these places.