Platform Twelve

Norman Geras tackles an unfortunately common approach to the text, as exemplified by David Clark in the New Statesman.

A recent article critical of the Euston Manifesto is worth noticing for the principle of textual interpretation it makes use of: the principle, namely, that if the item before you — here, a document — doesn’t actually say what you need it to say for your critical purposes, never mind, invent something. The article is by David Clark and appears in the current issue of the New Statesman (where you’ll get one free hit). Clark starts off in not unfriendly terms:

There is… much in the manifesto with which to agree. Its belief in the intrinsic value of democracy reflects the left’s most enduring achievements. Its call for a humanitarian foreign policy is in the best traditions of internationalism. Even its scathing criticism of sections of the anti-war left for abandoning these values in favour of a vulgar anti-imperialism is substantially justified. Western guilt and the doctrine that my enemy’s enemy is my friend have produced some truly ugly sentiments.

So what’s the ‘but’. The ‘but’ is that like the early American neoconservatives we are leftists who condemn the stance of others on the left — ‘a journey that led most of them [the neocons] eventually to abandon the left for good’. And Clark goes on:

The question is whether supporters of the Euston Manifesto are destined to follow a similar trajectory. There are good reasons for suspecting that they might.

That’s the first step: our imagined future is a mark against us. The next step is the ‘irresistible logic’ underlying a defence of liberal principles (glossed, this, by Clark in war-of-civilizations terms, though these aren’t the terms of the manifesto itself). For that defence ‘sits uneasily with a tough critique of [the West’s] economic and social structures, and the tension is hard to sustain’.

The neoconservatives resolved this contradiction by dispensing with the critique, and there are clues in the Euston Manifesto that point the same way.

OK, you still with it? Our future is against us, us Eustonians, even though it hasn’t happened yet, and so is the logical tension Clark has proposed — though, strangely, the same tension is not held to threaten his own political future. Anyway, what are the clues that we Eustonians will go, in Clark’s imagined future, the way of the American neocons? These:

There are vague and slightly ritualistic expressions of concern about social injustice and global inequality, but nowhere are they confronted with the kind of passion that is devoted to attacking those considered guilty of appeasing terrorism by criticising western policy — nor is any attempt made to identify their cause.

The Euston Manifesto sees the inequality generated by globalisation as some sort of inexplicable mishap; genuine progressives are clear that its origins lie in the uneven distribution of global power that underpins the free-market policies of the Washington consensus. The manifesto’s failure to grapple with this problem, or even acknowledge that it exists, robs it of whatever radical potential it may have contained.

Got that? What we do say about social injustice and global inequality is ritualistic and it’s not passionate enough, according to David Clark, arbiter of passion levels. And what we don’t say, entirely passionless because we don’t say it — that global inequalities are ‘some sort of inexplicable mishap’ — this suffices for him to know where the manifesto and its supporters are going.

There’s only one small drawback to the whole production: that the people who produced the Euston Manifesto think inequality and the maldistribution of power, whether nationally or globally, are merely contingent and inexplicable, with no structural basis in the economic relations of contemporary societies, is a fiction of Clark’s making. It comes from the sucking it out of your thumb school of textual analysis. Not a great school.

Norman Geras is Professor Emeritus of Government at the University of Manchester

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  1. […] to be typical. David Clark, who had been Robin Cook’s adviser when Cook was foreign secretary, reviewed the manifesto. He agreed with its belief in the intrinsic merit of democracy. How could he not? He […]

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