I’ve followed the ‘twitterstorm’ following Mehdi Hasan’s Being pro-life doesn’t make me any less of a lefty article with interest; I can’t say I’ve read all the response posts and all the tweets, but I’ve got the gist.
But I think there are two main omissions from the debate:
First, in nothing I have read is there any real critique of Mehdi’s understanding of what being leftwing actually means.
Here’s how he boils down the distinction between left and right, before jumping into the debate:
[M]y motive for writing this column is not merely to revisit ancient arguments, or kick off a philosophical debate on the distinctions between socialism (with its emphasis on equality, solidarity and community) and liberalism (with its focus on individual freedom, autonomy and choice).
As a leftwinger, though, I don’t accept that distinction, because by its very duality it suggests that leftwing political practice is not concerned with individual freedom, autonomy and choice.
To accede to such a distinction is simply to echo the message of the right. The point about (good) leftwing political practice is that it seeks to ensure freedom and choice for all, through an emphasis on equality, and via means of solidarity. Conversely, liberalism may talk a good game about freedom and choice for all, but its political practice is such that real freedom and choice are denied to all but the few who wield political and material power.
And it is this unfortunate caving into the dominant right-wing narrative which leads Mehdi directly towards the sentence for which he has received most criticism:
Abortion is one of those rare political issues on which left and right seem to have swapped ideologies: right-wingers talk of equality, human rights and “defending the innocent”, while left-wingers fetishise “choice”, selfishness and unbridled individualism.
While Mehdi has apologised subsequently for the use of the words “fetishise” and “selfishness”, he sticks by the principal claim:
Now, some on my side of this argument might say that the dictionary definition of “selfishness” – i.e. “concerned primarily with one’s own interests” – makes the word relevant to this debate, on an abstract, ethical level, but that is beside the point
But if, as I’ve suggested, this argument that left-wingers are in some way behaving like right-wingers dissolves away in the face of the reality of women’s reproductive rights – that the rights of individual women were won through the solidarity of women (and some men).
Second, it appears to have come as a surprise to Mehdi that people should seek to deny the validity of his views, or his right to express them:
It slowly dawned on me, at about 5pm on Sunday evening, that no matter how politely, gently and sensitively the anti-abortion case is expressed in the future, people on the ‘pro-choice’ liberal-left will never want to hear it…….Or as one commenter on Twitter put it: “One thing that really gets on my nerves about @mehdirhasan’s comments is that there isn’t even a debate to be had about abortion.”
Yet framing political debate in your own terms, and securing the material means to continue to do so, is what all of politics is. Laclau and Mouffe express this in term of the creation of boundaries, beyond which “otherness” lives, and they see that struggle for control of the boundaries as the essence of the political. It’s what right-wingers do, and it’s what left-wingers do. It’s just that right-wingers tend to do it better, because they have more resources at their disposal.
This normal political process of boundary setting happened to me when I set out the argument for supporting Labour councillors who have to make cuts; like Mehdi, I was called all sorts (“scum” was the term of choice), and my argument was twisted to suggest that I supported the making of cuts (the bad headline didn’t help!); that process was really just about ensuring that my minority (for now) position did not gain validity. I lacked the resource to combat that process effectively, so I lost the battle. Heh, that’s politics, and it’s up to me to garner more resources should I wish to re-engage (I will)
So why is Mehdi so shocked? First and foremost, I think it’s because he’s been taken in by the right’s hold over what debate is legitimate. That is, he thinks about political debate in the terms imposed on him by the right: ‘mature’*, ‘rational’ debate is ok, as long as its within the limits prescribed by authority.
Compare, for example, Mehdi’s reaction with right-winger Phillip Blond’s instinctive response to the twitterstorm:
Greatest error in the left is social libertarianism i.e. inability to question or even rationally debate issues like abortion.
I responded to Blond somewhat snarkily:
As opposed, say, to Theresa May’s keen desire to look rationally at the determinants of the 2011 riots? You do make me smile. [I had been at a conference with Blond at which Theresa May had refused to acknowledge that their might be merit in understanding these determinants]
In response, Blond revealed his true authoritarian colours:
Well I agree with you on this we need a wider approach to the riots than just condemnation but we also do need condemnation.
For Blond, it is clear from this, debate is valid as long as it’s preceded by a closing down of the terms of that debate. His side holds power over what is valid as debate and what its outcome should be, and that is ‘as it should be’. Yet he can’t see that this is also what women, who have struggled to wrest power of the debate from men in just one area, are seeking to do; that’s just ‘social libertarianism’ gone maaaad.
I’m not saying that Mehdi is as cynically (stupidly?) disingenuous as Blond about the nature of political power. I’m just saying that, as an experienced political commentator, he needs to get to grips with the essence of the political.
*I am indebted to Dave Semple for reminding me forcefully of this, when I used the words “mature debate” in a way which, in hindsight, was a little too liberal:
When I hear words like “mature” it triggers alarm bells in my head, as the maturity of statesmen is a liberal trope often compared to the demagoguery of revolutionaries, and in reality it is simple code for siding against the “immature” (substitute also “uneducated, ill-informed”) rabble. The Decent Left against the anti-war Left. And so on. If we present our conclusions most openly – that we believe in equal access to justice – the practical measures needed to ensure that are not going to sound mature. They are going to sound extreme. They are going to be castigated by the Hang ‘em and Flog ‘em brigade.
So my personal preference is that I would rather not bother competing for terms like mature. The people we aim to convince don’t care if we seem mature, they simply care if we’re on their side. Which we – you and I – are. So my issue here is more of style than substance – but it’s with one eye on the style influencing the substance somewhere down the road.