Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet
Issue Number 51
9th July 2001
Review Article by Dr Sean Gabb
Pluto Press, London, 1996, 168pp, £10.99 (pbk)
(ISBN 0 7453 11016)
Every so often, I gather up a mass of the review copies I have been sent of new books and take them to the nearest charity shop. The book that I am briefly reviewing here has lain unopened on a shelf for about five years. Looking through it, I realise I should have made an effort with it, as it is deserving of some notice. I cannot be bothered to give it a full scale review. But here are my brief thoughts on it.
I used to be troubled by the post-modernists. Whenever I looked into their works, I found them full of claims that everything I believed was wrong, with arguments in support that sounded impressive but always seemed just outside the range of my understanding. I would look up from the page feeling distinctly unintelligent. Perhaps, I would think, I was an intellectual incompetent. Perhaps I was able to travel easily enough along paths that generations of previous thinkers had made smooth and provided with sign posts, but not to strike out in new directions which might lead more directly to the truth, but where the ground was still uneven. It took me a while to realise that this was one of the main objects of post-modernism, and that the arguments themselves, so far as they could be translated into normal English, were just hot air.
Post-modernism is the last refuge of people who realise they have been wrong for most of their adult lives, but who for reasons of pride or career cannot make a full recantation. They simply claim that circumstances have changed, and that because of this all the old ways of thinking and doing things are obsolete—not just their own, but also those of their opponents. Without ever admitting to having been wrong in the past, they have abandoned their old positions in favour of new ones from which they can continue sneering at everyone else and preening themselves on their own effortless superiority and fitness to rule.
To some extent, this is an improvement. Our musical establishment, for example, will never admit that composers like Hans Werner Henze were charlatans; and so any theory that lets them start commissioning real music again without public embarrassment must be a relief. It is the same with the more intelligent socialists. If talking about “post-Fordism” lets them forget about their printing press and machine gun economics, we all gain.
As well as benefits, however, post-modernism has its costs. In politics, for example, though it may disguise a retreat from evil, it also disguises much remaining or even new evil. The old socialists may have been wrong, but they usually argued in the normal way from their premises; and their opponents could see where and why the arguments were wrong. The post-modernists prefer to advance behind a barrage of ambiguity and verbal tricks. We can suspect their intentions, but these are plain only to the initiated.
Turning to the work under review, it is almost a classical illustration of these faults. According to the puff on its back cover,
[p]olitics is on the verge of a radical break with the past, permitting a post-liberal democratic politics that is relevant to the politically empowered individual. Yet such empowerment is only possible against the backdrop of a re-conceptualisation of citizenship.
The author spends 125 pages arguing for these propositions; and, so far as I can tell, he fails to establish either of them. He begins with the standard claim, that
Marxism, as a systematic ideology, is by common consent, dead [Dr Clarke’s punctuation]. But… liberalism, or at least that part of it that takes European history and purely European characteristics as universal, and that part of it that takes civil society as unpolitical, is equally dead.[p.15]
Of course, he nowhere proves this second part of his claim, or even seriously tries to. He never tries to show what is bad about limited government, or how the laws of demand and supply stop working in places like Africa and Central Asia, or how the health, wealth and happiness that derive from respect for these things are either bad in themselves or regarded as irrelevant by non-Europeans.
A few moments’ thought should be enough to tell anyone that European history and characteristics are of supreme importance, so far as they allow people to understand or join the only real civilisation that has ever yet existed on this planet. It is wrong to despise people because they come from cultures that have not our heritage of legal and scientific progress. It is wrong to expect them to put away all their local customs, and to dress and eat and worship and be entertained exactly as we are. It is also false to claim that European civilisation is entirely the achievement of Europeans, owing nothing to the genius of earlier times and other places. Even so, the basic elements of European civilisation are of universal value, and must be accepted by anyone who does not wish to remain poor and oppressed.
All Mr Clarke does succeed in showing is a reason to cut off all public funding to the University of Essex, which employs him as a lecturer—and where I understand he is thought to be tremendously clever.
Indeed, his book is so opaque that even its intention would have escaped me without the back cover to act as a guide—a back cover that was probably written by somebody else.