In the many obituaries published last week for Tony Benn much was made of his personal warmth, charm and honesty, his conviction politics and his singular commitment to a particular brand of left wing politics, still not reconciled to capitalism. His convictions were on the face of it obvious, indeed we read that they were shining: parliament, democracy, social justice, fairness and the disinterested action of the centralised State. But this isn’t what really animated him, these were the objectives of his politics; the animating moral purpose, the fervour, the passion that drove him was moralised antagonism to in-group authority. Note in-group authority rather than all authority for there were forms of authority that he came to admire, but it was those who were the enemies of his authority’s enemy. Or, at any rate, as he would have put it, he came to see certain types of out-group authority as a great deal more benign than they actually were.
An infamous example was in his stated admiration for Mao Zedong, or his taking to the streets to not defend the Syrian people against the bottomless cruelty of their government but trying to prevent any possible action against the people who deployed poison gas in the Damascus suburbs. It is essential to believe that in-group authority is ineffably morally bankrupt to make that type of journey.
He loved this (revealing) quote about the nature of leadership:
“as to the best leaders – the people do not notice their existence. The next best – the people honour and praise. The next best – they hate. The next best – they fear. But when the best leader’s work is done – the people say they did it ourselves”
It sounds here like leaders and leadership are the issue. Look at the trajectory of his career: anti-establishment day and night, anti-NATO, anti-EEC, anti-Labour leadership becoming not the leader of the Labour left (that would have been morally suspect) but rather the encourager of it. His political heroes were the anti-authoritarians: the Levellers and Thomas Paine.
Left anti-authoritarianism does believe in social justice but believes that its achievement follows from the overthrow of a morally dissolute authority. When left governments take power no amount of delivered social democracy protects it from the harsh condemnation of that subset of the left which sees the occupation of government as de facto, corrupting.
In his book Dare to be a Daniel Benn has: “My mother, when she read me bible stories always distinguished between the kings of Israel who exercised power and the prophets of Israel who preached righteousness, and I was brought up to believe in the prophets rather than the kings.” His mother also told him that politics was essentially a question of right and wrong. The American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt would recognise this. In his book the Righteous Mind he argues that we essentially conceive of politics as a matter of rights and wrongs based on our moral intuitions. These intuitions form around various moral foundations one of which is Fairness so evident in Benn’s case but also the moral foundation of Authority/Subversion. Haidt argues that moralised anti-authoritarianism is a strong component of left politics.
But how do they go together? It can be seen in Benn’s case that his anti-authoritarianism trumped his sense of fairness. If the Blair government’s tax credits, pension increases, benefit uplifts and minimum wage enforcement lifted five million out of absolute poverty then it had to do so without the public support of Tony Benn. For him and others the moral psychology of anti-authoritarianism trumps fairness. Benn is considered the socialist, Blair the great betrayer, in a spectacular perversion of the left’s social justice goal only achievable by the emotional acrobatics occasioned by thinking in terms of relationships to authority.
Two Amercian political scientists, Hetherington and Weiler (Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, 2009) have found that attitudes to authority shape all aspects of US political opinion and attitudes. Evidence for the salience of authority as an issue can be seen everywhere in European politics, UKIP’s anti-Europeanism is an echo of Benn’s, and has a contempt for authority running through it top to bottom. In France millions of voters have switched from the Communist Party to the Font National, puzzling if you think in traditional political terms but wholly explicable if you imagine that Communist Party used to be the anti-establishment party and now which party in France is it that makes the Republican establishment lose sleep?
The suspicion about Benn was that he preferred opposition (there are those anecdotes about him glowing with contentment and expectation post Labour’s 1970 defeat). Benn was at the vanguard of huge political change in European Left politics: In Germany Oscar Lafontaine found governing too hard (or more likely found his role as Finance Minister one which made it an impossible position from which to denounce in-group authority as corrupt) abandoned the SPD and set up a new party allied to the famously anti-establishment former communists, the precise achievement of this alliance is the prevention of the confusion occasioned by the existence of a social democratic government.
Confusing, upsetting and confounding social democratic governments are to be prevented in Holland and Denmark by the formation of the Socialist Party and Socialist People’s Left-Wing respectively. These and others parties, like Benn, ensure that anti-authoritarianism purity trumps fairness. The same alarming phenomenon is appearing in UK politics: Neal Lawson of Compass who supported Blair in opposition to Major and then Brown in opposition to Blair and then Cameron in opposition to Brown (At this rate, Cameron will be the saviour of moral society) As his heroes move to from opposition to in-group authority they abandon him. Like Benn, Lawson met the Labour Government’s poverty reduction and increased public spending with stony silence and proposed the “Good” society as an alternative. Now he moots the possibility that like Fontaine’s Left Party Compass might opt for a new political structure whose immediate effect will be to increase the likelihood of in group authority occupied by the Right as it has done in Holland and Germany. But then if you are animated by moralised anti-authoritarianism that keeps the picture in your head clear and paves the wave for imminent collapse of dissolute authority in favour of social justice. Benn waited his whole life for this and died last week just before this was about to happen.
Look a those opinion leaders in the liberal press – no to Major, yes to Blair, no to Blair, yes to Brown, no to Brown, yes to Clegg, no to Clegg yes to Ed Miliband. Watch out Ed you have six months of grace should you achieve a position of notable authority in the near future. Ed should you fail in this then expect the warm glow of approbation to continue.
The former Bennite, Dennis Canavan, is currently the Chair of the Scotland Yes campaign to have an independent Scotland, and in this, richly demonstrates the fracturing of the left at the moral psychological level. If you really want to stick it to in-group authority then break up the UK because that will surely aggravate the establishment. The previously culturally and politically dominant Scottish Labour Party is united in defence of the existing Union, arguing that the great ties of solidarity, cooperation and community that the people of Perth have with those in Woking and Newry should be preferred over the the assertion of identity, or the marginal short term opportunity afforded by high oil prices. However, the hard left in the form of the Scottish Socialist Party demands this solidarity with Woking until September the 18th this year and then they reserves the right to repudiate it. That’s right, if you are reading this in Newry, you pay for Scottish roads until September the 18th and then after that Scotland is not paying for yours, and this is the self styled authentic socialists speaking. The Bennite justifies the repudiation of his responsibility to Manchester’s working class because of his moral antagonism to in group authority: the UK is inherently morally suspect.
There is little prospect of Benn’s baleful anti-authoritarianism dying with him as long as the left allows the conflation of anti-authoritarianism with its traditional values of fairness, internationalism, economic progress and solidarity.