Everything is different, but the same... things are more moderner than before... bigger, and yet smaller... it's computers...
Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure
"They keep on inventing new things nowadays, don't they, and making things lovelier and lovelier?"
H.G Wells "Things to Come".
The times in which we live differ from all other times in two important ways.
1: In the olden days things like machines and social institutions used to stay pretty much the same from generation to generation. But we use different phones from the ones our parents did, and our attitudes to sex and crime and religion are different from those of our grandparents.
2: In the olden days, everyone was pretty much content with the way things were. But nowadays, people would like there to be more money, and they would like the money to be shared out more evenly. They think this would be a good thing.
Some people would like the world to carry on getting better and better. But they are divided into three groups.
Group A think that in order for the world to get better, we would have to make very big alterations to the way we do things. Unfortunately their ideas wouldn't work in practice. And the alterations they want are so big that people are scared of them.
Group B also want the world to get better and better. And they have some ideas which might really work. But because they don't think that we need to make big alterations to the way we do things, they come across as very dull and no-one pays much attention to what they have to say.
Group C have only come into existence recently. They also think that you have to make very big alterations to the way we do things in order to make the world better; but they think that those alterations are mostly to do with preventing the people who have most of the money from exploiting the people who do most of the work. People also used to think this a long time ago, which proves they are wrong.
Some of the people who want the world to be better agree with group C. This unfortunately means that group B -- the ones who think that we should make the world better but not change too much -- have to pretend they agree with group C only not quite so much. (When Group C want to do something very silly indeed, the people from Group B do sometimes manage to stop them.)
But all this does in the end is make the people who just want a little bit of change -- who are the overwhelming majority -- think that no-one cares about or agrees with them. So they join one of the groups who want to make the world worse.
This is why Labour lost the Hartlepool by-election.
C.S Lewis said that all clergymen should have to do a translation exercise as part of their ordination exam: if you can't put an erudite passage of theology into ordinary language then you either don't believe it or else you don't understand it. This is why his religious books can come across as a little patronising and old-fashioned to modern ears. He plays the idea for not-particularly-subtle laughs at the end of his first science fiction book: the H.G Wells figure says things like:
"But while I live I will not, with such a key in my hand, consent to close the gates of the future on my race. What lies in that future, beyond our present ken, passes imagination to conceive: it is enough for me that there is a Beyond."
which the Christian philologist hero has to translate into the tongues of angels as:
"He says that though he doesn't know what will happen to the creatures sprung from us, he wants it to happen very much."
In this spirit, I attempted to translate a key passage from Tony Blair's New Statesmen essay into English. The original runs:
"The progressive problem is that, in an era where people want change in a changing world, and a fairer, better and more prosperous future, the radical progressives aren’t sensible and the sensible aren’t radical. The choice is therefore between those who fail to inspire hope and those who inspire as much fear as hope. So, the running is made by the new radical left, with the “moderates” dragged along behind, uncomfortably mouthing a watered-down version of the left’s policies while occasionally trying to dig in their heels to stop further sliding towards the alienation of the centre."
I made an honest attempt to attach meanings to words like "progressive" "moderate" and "radical left" and to work out what "an era when people want change in a changing world" could possibly mean. But I don't think that Blair himself could really say what they mean. I don't think that the essay goes into normal language. He doesn't understand it or believe it.
In Blair's world, the goodies are now called Progressives. "Progressive" encompasses both the The Centre and The Centre Left. The British Labour Party, the Lib Dems, and the American Democrats are all Progressives. The Right are still the enemy, of course, but The Left, the New Left, The Marxist Left and the Woke Left are also baddies because they will prevent the Progressive Centre getting back into power.
Progressive is a weasel word. It might just be a synonym for Liberal. I might say that it is Progressive to think that gay people should be allowed to get married, and Conservative to think that they shouldn't. It might be used rather more widely: Progressives think that we can make the world better, as opposed to Conservatives, who think that it is just fine the way it is and Reactionaries who think it was better in the olden days. But the word is also bound up with the idea of Progress in technology and science; the idea that discovery and invention are constantly making the world lovelier and lovelier. We might use Progress to describe a genuine change for the better: but we might also use it to describe something which is regrettable, but inevitable. People used to die of diabetes; now it is eminently treatable. That's Progress. It's sad that we are going to cut down the forest to build a motorway: but the motorway represents Progress. You can't stop Progress.
In power, Blair used "modernise" to mean "whatever is in my head right now". Schools and laws and hospitals were never merely changed or improved: they were always Modernised. (This meant that he didn't have to explain why his changes made things better: change was a good thing in itself.) The danger is that Progress in the scientific sense (we are making more and better machines) becomes merged with Progress in the political sense (we want to make everyone richer and happier) and then used rhetorically to justify any political change that you happen to feel like making. You may not like the idea of voter ID, but you can't stop Progress. If you aren't terribly careful you will find yourself saying that the Millennium Dome and the Iraq War must be good ideas because computers are so much faster and cheaper than they were twenty years ago.
Progressives and The Left are now in opposition. Progressives believe that the world can be made lovelier and lovelier by science and technology; in contrast to Socialists, which thinks that the world can be made better through change to economics and the power structure. I, a Socialist, think that if the factory workers want a living wage, they should demand one, down tools, and refuse to work until the Boss agrees to give them a pay rise. You, a Progressive, think that if we build newer and better steam engines and warp drives, the factory will be making so many widgets that the management will be able to afford to double and triple everyone's pay (and will do so, out of the simple goodness of their hearts.) But he, a Conservative, thinks that if the workers want a living wage they should damn well work harder and buy a factory of their own.
As an analysis, this is not intrinsically ridiculous. I know what a Progressive is, and I know that I am not one. You probably know whether or not you are a Socialist. The drawback is that for the first 90 years of its existence, Labour was definitely a Socialist Party. It had a little definition of Socialism on its membership cards. Before there can be a Labour Prime Minister, we have to admit that the party was predicated on a catastrophic error.
"Wrong about everything for a hundred years -- vote for us anyway!" is not a great message.
Blair thinks that technology might make the world a better place because it could increase freedom and opportunity. On the other hand, it might make the world a worse place by reducing those things. It's the role of the Progressives to make sure that the former happens and the latter does not.
Freedom and Opportunity are two more dangerously vague and abstract words. So is Progress. Freedom to do what? The Opportunity to do what? Progressing towards what?
Twenty years ago a homosexual was not Free to get married in this country. Fifty years ago he was not free to have consensual sex. I don't think that science or technology caused his situation to change. I think that radicals -- the Loony Left -- campaigned and argued and eventually won the argument because they were in the right. In this country, Muslim women are free to cover their faces if they want to. Some people think they shouldn't be. In France they do not have that freedom. In Saudi Arabia they are not free to leave their faces uncovered. We can have an argument about whether your right to dress as you like trumps my right not to be freaked out by people in weird clothes. But I can't see how any scientific advance affects the argument one way or the other.
I can see in principle how a technological change could have a political and ethical implication. The contraceptive pill changed the way we behaved, and the way most people thought we ought to behave. You could plausibly argue that up to the 1950s it was immoral for a man to have sex with a woman he didn't intend to marry, because she would end up with a baby and he would end up on the next boat out of town; but nowadays there is no objection to it other than the purely prudish or religious one. If you said "Andrew, your belief that pre-marital sex is sinful is obsolete, redundant, a relic of a bygone era and a museum piece" I would understand what you were saying.
In so far as they mean anything at all Freedom and Opportunity tend to be buzzwords of the political right, not the political left. Conservatives tend to believe in Equality of Opportunity (everyone should have an equal shot at getting rich). Socialists tend to believe in Equality of Condition (everyone should have a good time even if they are poor). They don't think that everyone should have the same amount of money as everyone else (whatever the American internet may tell you) but they do think that the rich should be a bit poorer and the poor should be a bit richer. The Conservative says that the it is OK for the boss to have Rolls Royce provided the man sweeping the floor had a fair chance of owning his own factory one day. The Socialist says that we should take some of the money that the boss spends on smart cars and use them to set up a really good public transport system. The Progressive says -- what? That computers and the genome project will mean that it soon won't matter whether you have a car or not? That new technology will make Rolls Royces so cheap that everyone will be able to afford one? The pretty soon we'll have jetpacks so the question won't arise? A Socialist approach to technology would be one that asks how we could use it to make everyone more Equal -- in particular, how to make sure that everyone has equal access to the internet, say by giving everyone free wi-fi. But the word equality is not in Blair's political vocabulary.
Compromise and moderation are good things. But Centrism always seems to mean "the left should become more like the right" and never "the right should become more like the left". I finds some of Blair's language quite alarming. Blair takes it for granted that Conservatives are proud of their country (and that this is a good thing) but that the Left are inclined to be ashamed of the whole idea of nations. And he speaks with apparent approval of The Right's championing of "flag, family and fireside".
Freedom and opportunity. Flag, family and fireside. Traditional Values. Family Values. Back to Basics. We all know what this is right-wing code for.
I am not completely sure if the technological changes that have happened in our lifetime really are the most significant since the invention of the steam train. I think that the two biggest shifts were the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century and the invention of television at the beginning of the twentieth. The Internet is the latest iteration of a mass media that has been evolving since 1922. I am not sure that Blair's talk of "a technology revolution of the internet, AI, quantum computing, extraordinary advances in genomics, bioscience, clean energy, nutrition, gaming, financial payments, satellite imagery " is a great deal more sensible than Boris Johnson's talk of pink eyed terminators and terrifying limbless chickens, and it's a lot less funny. And I remain to be convinced that computer games and satellite imagery have rendered Socialism obsolete in the way that the oral contraceptive pill (arguably) rendered Chastity redundant.
Blair uses the idea of free university tuition (with scare quotes around the word free) as an example of something which used to be right but is now wrong. "Politically it is a museum piece, a lingering relic of an outdated ideology" he rambles. The argument seems to be that the idea of free education sprung from Marxism; Marxism is now out of date, so free education is out of date, so people should pay to go to college.
But in what way is Marxism "out dated"? I don't want to hear Conservative arguments about why it is wrong. If it is wrong it was always wrong. I want to hear why the information technology has made it redundant. Does he mean anything more than "In the 60s, Marxism was fairly popular; now, not so much?" Or is there some sense in which Marxism was a good way of doing things in 1968 but a bad way in 2020? But in what way had Xbox III, Google Maps and Limbless Chickens rendered "from each according to his ability..." obsolete?
If we believe in freedom and opportunity, then it follows that everyone who wants to go to university should be able to go to university: poverty and class should not be a barrier.
There are other questions we might want to ask. Is education a good thing in itself, or are colleges merely one way to produce people who can fix computers and build bridges and perform heart surgery? Are universities centers of liberal wisdom or hotbeds of godless left wing book-learning? Are you better off getting a job at Apple and working your way up than taking you time getting a BSc in computer science? But granted that university is a good thing and that freedom and opportunity are also good things, then everyone who is clever enough to do the course ought to be able to study for a degree.
The question is how we pay for it. Private fees and scholarships? State funded courses and maintenance grants? Student loans? Some other system which hasn't occurred to me yet? The answer depends on practical questions (what can we afford?) and moral questions (what is fair and just?) and social questions (what is good for the rest of the country?) If you think that education is a good thing in itself and that a country in which people have studied Proust and Quantum Physics and the life cycle of the mollusc lemur is a good country to live in, then you will be prepared to use tax money to finance higher education. If you see college in basically instrumental terms -- spend a few years studying to get a piece of paper which can be traded in for a better a job when you turn twenty five -- then you will think that students or their families should pay for it themselves. If you think that students are basically idle layabouts who drink too much then you'll be happy for college to be the province of kids with rich parents. The argument is very much the same as it always was. I don't see how gene sequencing or robot chickens effects it one way or the other.
Yes computers are wonderful and science is wonderful. I had my Covid jab last week and the little wobbly line on the chart in the Guardian is going down every week. I take a little pink pill every day and my left leg happily remains the same size as my right leg. I can read obscure golden age Human Torch stories while sitting on the loo. If I want to. The internet has made online learning technically feasible: the Pandemic has normalized it to some extent. Of course that is something that the Minister for Education ought to be thinking about. "Now we have the possibility of Zoom classrooms, we ought to be looking at how to use them, and how to train teachers to use them" is a perfectly sensible thing to say. It is the idea that there is a distinctly Progressive way of doing remote learning -- and that this is different from the Old Left way of doing it, or the Conservative way of doing it -- that I struggle with.
The Left used to talk about how the Eleven Plus and Streaming and the existence of private schools tended to mean that the children of middle-class parents were defined as "successful" by their school teachers, where the children of working class parents were judged to be "failures"; and that this made a nonsense of the whole idea of meritocracy. The Left are worried that black children might go right through school without reading a single book by a black author or encountering a single book about a black character. These discussions don't go away, or become less important, because we can now see our teachers on our IPads. Simply shouting "This is the future!" does not get us very far.
Colstonians believe that flogging people and throwing them overboard would be wicked to day, but was really not wicked in the seventeenth century. Those of us who think that slavery was always out of order are condemned as Woke. That is what the word Woke means, I understand: the belief that you can judge the past by the standards of the present. Blair mentions Woke and Political Correctness in passing in the essay: the far-right press obediently responded to the dog whistle by running headlines about how the former Prime Minister had savaged wokery although that wasn't what the article was about. But maybe Blair really does have a Colstonian belief that morals and ethics mutate and change. Securing for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry really was The Good in 1901, but has really become a bad idea in 2021. He claims at one point that Clause IV -- the Labour Party's formal statement of its socialist principles -- was only ever a mechanism and that the mechanism is now obsolete but the underlying values have not changed. I can see how this could be true: the decent man in the 1950s abstained from pre-marital sex; but the decent man in the 1970s made sure he always had a packet of little rubber thingies in his wallet. His abiding value was that you don't make a woman pregnant if you can't or won't support the child; or more generally that you can't harm someone else for your own pleasure. Chastity and contraception were both mechanisms that enacted the same value. Not everyone would accept this: Christian might say "the risk of pregnancy is incidental: chastity is a Good Thing In Itself. A Socialist would certainly say "sharing the profits among the workers is not a means to an end: it is and end in itself, it is what we mean by the Good." It would help if Blair would say what the abiding values of Labour are; what values that he has in common with Tony Benn and Arthur Scargill (despite having a difference of opinion about the mechanics.) But of course, he can't.
I started out by trying to come up with concrete definitions of Blair's buzzwords.
Progressive - Believing that the world ought to carry on getting lovelier and lovelier
Radical - Believing that the world will only become lovelier if we make big changes
Left - Believing that we need to make big changes to the economy and the power structure
Centrist - Believing that the world can be made lovelier with only small changes
Freedom - When everyone can do whatever they want to provided it doesn't harm anyone else
Opportunity - When everyone has an equal chance to earn money and become rich.
But the point of these words is that they cannot be tied down. The same goes for Woke and Political Correctness, of course. Blair specially says that he can't define them, but "ordinary people know exactly what they mean". I don't think ordinary people do know "exactly" what they mean; because I don't think they have an exact meaning.
A better translation of Blair's word salad would have run as follows:
"The problem with good people is that at a time when good people want things to be better; good people aren't sensible and sensible people aren't good. The choice is therefore between those who don't seem very good, and those who do seem good but who are also a bit scary. So the bad people do well, and the good people have to pretend to be a bit bad; while trying to stop the bad from being too bad in case the good all stop supporting them."
Kier Starmer lost the election because he was not good. He will win the next election if he is better. I think that is a theory we can all get on board with.
The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.
The Screwtape Letters