ust as socialism is no remedy for capitalism, capitalism cannot be a remedy or an alternative for socialism … The contest is never simply over an economic system … For the rest, it has to do with the political question: It has to do with what kind of state one wants to have, what kind of constitution, what kind of legislation, what sort of safeguards for the freedom of the spoken and printed word; that is, it has to do with what our innocent children in the West call ‘bourgeois freedom’. There is no such thing; freedom is freedom whether guaranteed by the laws of a ‘bourgeois’ government or a ‘communist’ state.”
– Hannah Arendt, ‘Thoughts on Politics and Revolution: A Commentary’
We have to relearn listening and we have to relearn argument, to free both activities from the indulgent wrath of the new digital age. I am not making a Luddite argument against new media and espousing a return to forms of traditional community that have been smashed in the fiercely individualistic and amoral economic transformations of capitalism in the last quarter century. I like living in a multicultural metropolis and I am happy to do so. But in the complex dance between the ideal of liberty and the ideal of justice that should be central to progressive and democratic politics, we need to take seriously the perspectives of people who are fearful of their economic future and that of their children.
The “straitjacket of political correctness” is not that it doesn’t allow the deplorable to be expressed, but the expectation that we must all use a language governed by academic and bourgeois forms of expression. This presupposes a knowledge and a dexterity in the use of such language, and in its most elitist forms silences conflict and cannot recognise humour. It is not necessarily anti-immigrant to pose the question of how Europeans are to maintain a sophisticated welfare system with a concurrent commitment to massive migration, when the original consensus between labour and capital has collapsed. The concerns that working-class people have about the entrenchment of generational poverty, and the resulting breakdown of family cohesion in their communities, are not always anti-feminist. And to be proud of one’s ethnic and cultural background is not always to be racist, just because that history might be “white” or “Anglo” or Celtic. To cede such questions, concerns and desires to the most virulently xenophobic and right wing of politicians and parties is disastrous.
I have returned again and again to ‘Racist Friend’ in writing this essay, and once more I am galvanised by its fierce politics and troubled by the ruthlessness of its conclusion. When I was a younger man being introduced to anarchist and socialist politics, I met mentors and friends who shared such ruthlessness. They were staunch in their commitment to reconstituting the world and slicing off family, friends and community who could not follow them in their radicalism. Be it your sister / Be it your brother / Be it your cousin or your uncle or your lover. I learnt that there was a long legacy to such ruthlessness, arguably one that was birthed from the radical Jacobinism of the French Revolution and blighted the left when it led to gulags and Cultural Revolutions. It is also reflected in a more comic vein, though equally selfdefeating, in the separatism and sectarianism that have all but destroyed the cultural left. I now believe that its history stretches even further back, forged in the Messianic traditions of late Second Temple Judaism, gleaned in the declaration of Jesus that he has come “to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother”, and is evident now in the apocalyptic language of contemporary radical Islam. The ecological crisis confronting humanity makes such apocalyptic fervour attractive. And sinister.
I have racist friends and racist family. Sometimes the malevolence of such expression has created a separation between us. And sometimes with strangers I have faced the hateful punch that declares any conversation and any communality impossible. There have been times when I wished