Saturday, April 13

Echoes of 1968 in 2024?  Pocock on the repetitive problems of the New Left

Recent events in American universities point to an underlying crisis of coherent thinking, an issue that increasingly affects the progressive left across the Western world. This of course is nothing new as anyone who can either remember or has read of the late 1960s in America would know.  But just because we know this doesn’t necessarily mean we understand this – or understand the reasons why the progressive left continuously fails to think coherently.

One of the important roles of history is that it helps us rethink the past from the present and rethink the present from the past. To do so properly means undertaking research for new documents, texts, and archival sources that both force and enable us to rethink what was and what is understood as having occurred and why. Sometimes these can be discovered in the most unexpected places – such as the Canterbury University Chronicle for 1968.

The great New Zealand historian of politics and ideas, J.G.A. Pocock died late last year at the age of 99. In 1968, on a short visit back to Canterbury University from the USA, he delivered two lunchtime lectures on the problem of the credibility gap. That is, on the problems of political language that were tearing apart American society and American universities and what Pocock termed “the emergence of militancy in the younger elites”.

Pocock made important points and observations that not only help us understand what was happening in the 1960s but also apply just as well to politics and such militancy today.  The first is that in a ‘normally functioning democratic system’ there will be several different and competing value systems – yet politicians try to please everybody. This results in politicians constantly uttering what Pocock describes as “half-truths and other ambiguous statements, which when subjected to pressures may well appear, and actually be, lies.”

Yet Pocock also emphasizes the necessity of living in a free society that is not morally unanimous and so we should seek to employ the politics of consensus or common agreement. However, from around 1965, consensus “suddenly became a dirty word in intellectual circles”, driven in large part by the personality of  President Lyndon Johnson.

The problem identified by Pocock is that consensus  “is morally impure, in the sense that it can never be fully justified by the values contained in any one system.”

A free society requires a politics of consensus. Therefore politicians in a free society must, by necessity, speak a morally impure language that attempts to speak to more than a single value system. This means politicians must speak language that appears to be ambiguous, impure, and complex. To desire otherwise is to situate yourself against a central element of a free society. But does this mean that in a free society, “it is the business of the politician to utter contradictory half-truths and even to perform contradictory half-actions”?

Pocock’s second point is to remind us that in listening to politicians what we are getting is “playback”: that is, the variety of opinions and values provided by the various groups in society.  For Pocock, given this state of affairs, the role of the educated citizen in a democratic society is to decode what is happening and being said. Just as there was a study of Russian politics called Kremlinology, today in a society of contemporary mass politics we need to undertake ‘hustingsology’: “deciphering the utterances of democratic politicians and seeking indicators of what they realIy mean to do and to whom they are really appealing.”

Pocock emphasizes that  “Impure and devious speech is in the nature of politics; it is part of the communication structure. I do not have much right to drop out of the communication system on the grounds that my ear is so pure that impure speech can communicate nothing to it.”

This is a point many on both the left and the right of politics could do well to remember. Of course, social media has made it all too easy to drop out. The echo chambers and silos of social media are erected as barriers against impure speech – and impure thoughts. But this demonstrates just how far we have come from the politics of compromise and how so many appear to reject a free society. Rather, too many desire a closed, unfree society of the pure and the elect – whether of the left or the right.  

Pocock’s’ third point is that those who have turned off decoding also supposed “that they knew it all already”. The trouble is that the media now don’t allow us the chance to consider and be persuaded by what we hear from politicians; the media now present us with all the possibilities and outcomes in such a fashion we do not have a chance to be persuaded. Rather, we are required and expected to react to what the media present us. For Pocock, this is another attack on the consensus of a free society.

Pocock’s concern is that in response to all of this, we feel alienated and this leads “to badly-organized thinking” where we use facts and argument to shore up a feeling that actually becomes expressed as dogma and irrationalism. People then look at the behaviour of others with the assumption that their own behaviour can’t be looked at in the same way. In Pocock’s words, individuals “make a religion of their own powerlessness”.

Another concern is the rise of the holistic argument which takes half-truths but omits the circumstances in and for which the statement or argument is true. This causes statements about ‘society’ to turn into forms of religious dogma which become “absolute and irrational; the people who make them become fanatics and true believers; and altogether they are very dangerous.” Karl Popper provided Pocock with “a very rigorous anti-holistic grounding” when he taught at Canterbury in the early 1940s.  It’s because of this that Pocock is distressed “to see the New Left repeating all the significant errors of the Old Left”. To which we might add, in the 21st century we see the progressive left repeating these errors once again.

So what gives rise to these issues? Pocock first identifies the experience of alienation. Humans are social beings but  if we feel estranged from society we find it very difficult to say anything about ourselves without  resorting to “various kinds of mysticism.”  We become irrational about ourselves  and society and in doing so, echoing Yeats,  “become  true believers, full of passionate intensity.” This “leads directly to paranoia, to persecution mania, conspiracy theories and demonology in general.” Here Pocock could be describing so much of the past decade of  21st century politics – whether left or right. 

The end result is what Pocock terms  “political demonology” in which individuals believe they are being manipulated by a hostile power structure “kept going by powerful and malignant personalities” who aim to “invade and manipulate” their personality.

Pock saw this occurring in 1968 not from “right-wing nuts”  but rather from “liberal intellectuals” because of their “intellectual alienation”. 

It’s this that creates the opposition to consensus politics and the rejection of consensus democracy – which Pocock admits does have problems, not least being the rise of a new class of power elite to maintain a consensus in which as little change as possible occurs. 

The problem Pocock identifies is that just as in Italy in 1920,  the rejection of consensus politics becomes expressed in “a politics of direct action, direct participation, the purity of the will and the rest of it” – which becomes Fascism. He notes that in 1968 it is “amongst people with ingrained democratic values” that you hear the term ‘fascism of the left’ in America, “not amongst conservatives.”

But what really concerns Pocock is the irrationality of the progressive left who, while authentically believing society to be corrupt, also believe that “the only personalities deserving respect are those of themselves and the people who agree with them”. 

Pocock’s conclusions are ones that hold up all too well 56 years old: “The failure of the Left is their propensity to spoil a good case by carrying it to irrational and anti-libertarian extremes.” The problem of the New Left compared to the Old Left is that the electronic revolution in mass media too easily created and supported holistic thinking. Today, with the echo chambers and direct immediacy of social media, we see hyper-holistic thinking and politics in action.

Pocock also reports a conversation he had with someone who knew the campus radicals.

“I said: ‘How long do they think it takes to actualise values? Do they think values are ever finally actualised?” He said: “Well, that’s it; they have absolutely no sense of process and absolutely no sense of history; they think it must all be done immediately or it isn’t being done at all.” I said, as I remember: “Well, there has never been a generation, in

the whole history of the world, to whom the sense of process and the sense of history have been more thoroughly or more intelligently taught. It sounds from what you say as if they just can’t take it.”

It is too easy to attribute all of this to technological changes in society, for while such changes do have an effect, Pocock emphasized that we have to live within such technology. The  underlying problem – in 2024 for us as it was in 1968 – is, as Pocock concludes: “I’m getting the impression that some of the New Left are not really on the side of individuality.”