Is Nick Cohen a Neoconservative?

Nick Cohen is now very much in the business of criticising leftists who, according to him are in ‘bad faith’ about a number of issues, namely our opinions on Muslims, the Middle Eastern far-right and the war on terror. Sunder Katwala, who applied the term bad faith to the way Cohen viewed the left, had his lion’s share of the attack, when Cohen accused the Fabian Society of never having, or planning to promote the work of Muslim liberals who criticise fundamentalists. Responses back and forth ensued as Katwala pointed out that Cohen had shared the stage with one such Muslim at a ‘Future of Britishness’ conference held by the Fabian society in 2006.

Katwala picked out another important detail in his retaliatory attack, that ‘We also have here the well-known phenomenon of the zeal of the convert. That is why several of the keenest neo-cons and Thatcherites had been Marxists’. There is a lot of weight in this comment, much of which has been dealt with by political philosopher John Gray (there is some minor convergence here that might as well be pointed out, that though Gray and Katwala are very different politically, Gray is formerly of the LSE, the school founded in 1895 by Beatrice and Sydney Webb, early members of the Fabian society).

In the twentieth century, according to John Gray, most notably in his book Black Mass, owing to a kind of spiritual vacuum, whether rightly or wrongly as a by-product of an age of scientific rationalism, faith-based utopian cults were the preserve of certain political projects. The two most obvious examples are Soviet Communism and Nazism. Gray points out that inherent to these projects is a disavowed desire for what is known as Abrahamic End-Time – a common theme in all three monotheistic religions that sees all who give themselves to God be purified and strengthened by persecution, a short period of time before the return of the Messiah – in Communism this is structured around the Hegelian influenced end-of-history – the end point of socioeconomic evolution – and in Nazism it is the subsequent dominance of the white race, and destruction of the Jews.

Unable to operate without religiously inspired ideas, secularism, according to Gray, is doomed to forever be consumed by Christian eschatology, or the view that society and the economy will eventually converge. John Gray identifies this notion not just in political projects of old, but in concurrent projects also, namely the neoconservative attempts to install democracy in the Middle East. Even if you ignore for the moment George Bush’s pursuit for evil – and the seriously questionable tones of the voice of God telling him to go to war – the war effort in Iraq had as its intellectual infrastructure ideas grounded in utopianism and convergence of social values, two things that were never on the cards any time soon in Iraq. The appeals to Christian End-Time were never more apparent than when Lt Col Brandl alarmingly stated that ‘The enemy has got a face – he’s called Satan, he’s in Falluja, and we’re going to destroy him’.

As John Gray himself has said:

Invading and occupying Iraq was never justified by any clear national interest. Since the end of the first Gulf War, Saddam has posed no serious threat to the US or to Britain. No evidence has ever existed of a connection between him and al-Qa’ida – though in the chaos of post-war Iraq the remnants of the regime may be linking up with radical Islamists to attack US forces.

Saddam was a tyrant, but the coordinates for the liberal intervention were predicated on the fact that it was of national interest, which, of course it was not.

Neoconservatism is a utopian-based political project much like the terror of Robespierre or the murderous regimes of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and Hitler. Forces were sent to deliver “freedom” without any evidence of Iraq ever taking kindly to an installed liberal democratic programme and without any substantial evidence that attack was in ‘national interest. Despite what Cohen would have you believe, this opinion is not informed by cultural relativism or denial that evil doing had taken place under Saddam’s watch, but it is a question of the motives of the war, and whether the effort could viably safeguard against the mobilisation of fundamentalism in the aftermath, which I’m tempted to say it can not.

For those who say Nick Cohen has moved to the right I say hold back. Cohen has actually operated a utopianism common to neoconservatism and elements of left wing thinking that has unfortunately taken End-Time out of its Christian context and applied it to an existing version of secularism that can only be identified as doomed to failure. As Geoffrey Wheatcroft has alluded to about Cohen, via the Euston Manifesto signatories, why doesn’t he just come out as imperialist, after all he’d be in familiar company, ‘Mill, Macaulay and even Marx made approving noises about British rule in India’?

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We can act on Conservative vulnerability

On Sunday morning I thought everything would be OK.

I’d started to read the Observer and on the inlay page saw that Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman had told Will Hutton in an interview that the UK economy was the best in Europe, and that not only are we seeing off the last dregs of the financial crisis, but we may well have beaten the city anaylists predicitions.

Well, I thought, aren’t we glad that the rebels bailed out last minute, that Blears apologised for leaving the way she did, that Miliband had a change of heart 9 days previous, and that despite all its talk, Compass effectively did nothing to start a ruck with the right wing of the Labour Party.

For that moment I thought we on the left were wrong, and for that moment it was a good thing we accepted GB in our lives.

That is until today, a most eventful day.

Virtually nobody has supported the decision to hold the Iraq inquiry in secret, from bloggers to the left (Sunder Katwala), to bloggers on the right (plenty to choose from, but I will stick with Iain Dale), from David Cameron and his call for openness, to Richard Norton-Taylor calling it ‘Another Whitehall whitewash‘.

The decision by Brown – though good in itself as Katwala remembers to credit – to hold the inquiry in public is allowing too much space for Cameron to manoeuvre, just like the public spending divide in the party has allowed space for George Osborne to appear on top of things, despite his expenses claims – which news of just disappeared into thin air – and his party’s plans to cut spending on public services anyway.

Of course as it is quite clear, the Tories cannot win on strategy – Osborne only has the Labour Party’s indecision making as ammunition, spending cuts are unpopular – but they can shout us down on competence – and we should not allow it any more (especially given the extension to their lead in the latest ICM poll).

But the – currently disavowed – battle between right and left in the Labour Party, over spending, and party direction – is not the same as the “in-fighting” John Prescott was moaning about at the weekend.

He mentioned;

“[I]magine my surprise when I was walking through Portcullis House in the House of Commons on Thursday and stumbled upon a meeting held by Charles Clarke, John Reid, Alan Milburn and a few others, huddled together in intense discussion.

I went over and offered to be the secretary for their little club. With nervous laughter, my offer was turned down.”

I’m pretty sure it isn’t the same anyway, and if it should happen to be the same, then Prezza is wrong. But I interpreted his remarks as this; currently there exists childish banter between frontbenchers that is only earning them media coverage – say for example, Miliband’s pointless revelation on Sunday – and it is obfuscating any real discussion on party direction, something that all in the party can agree is creating a massive void for the Tories to fill, at a time when their in-fighting is just as striking as ours.

And on that very subject, it should not be seen as unimportant the words uttered by Kenneth Clarke today: “If the Irish referendum endorses the treaty and ratification comes into effect, then our settled policy is quite clear that the treaty will not be reopened.”

This spurred on

“Bill Cash, the Eurosceptic backbench Tory MP, [who] demanded to know if Mr Clarke’s comments were sanctioned by the party leadership.

He said it was essential that Britain held a referendum on Lisbon, irrespective of the Irish vote. He added: “It appears that Kenneth Clarke has reinvented unilaterally Conservative Party policy on the whole of the Lisbon Treaty and European policy.”

This in-fighting has caught the attention of two main bloggers, firstly the Archbishop has said (in third person, of course);

“But Cranmer is puzzled by something further. Mr Clarke said that he decided to re-join the Conservative front bench because the Party is ‘less Eurosceptic than it was’.

When? Under which leader?”

And Bob Piper has said about it;

“It always amazes me how many Conservatives think of the Party as being eurosceptic. They are not. They know the public are though, and therefore, in opposition, they have consistently played the eurosceptic card.”

Overall, the Labour Party with a bit more punch, a bit more direction, and a lot less media curtsying could challenge a presently vulnerable Tory party. And it shouldn’t wait another second to attempt it.

Update: A concrete direction with regard to public services can now achieve two things: firstly it can dampen the blow of, and try to recitfy quickly, the TUC prediction that job losses in the public sector are inevitable. And second it will enable commitment over the Tories; “the party of cuts“.