Britain’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is set to reward many of those who helped advance Brexit with seats in the House of Lords (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/01/truly-the-lords-becomes-ever-more-a-house-of-ill-repute ). It’s move that could be described as cynical if it wasn’t for the fact that this dual feature of political ennoblement (a reward and helping cement legislative power) is exactly how the House of Lords is supposed to work. I’m not going to spend time looking at all the ways that the UK’s upper chamber is a broken awful thing because the arguments are obvious. Rather, what has caught my interest in one name in particular: Claire Fox.
At one level Fox being made into a Baroness by Johnson is unremarkable: she was a self-styled libertarian who stood for Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. The remarkable aspect is that Fox was once a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party. That incongruous fact in turn looks less incongruous to anybody who has followed the very strange ideological path that the alumni of the RCP have taken over the years.
The current iteration of the RCP is the online contrarian magazine Sp!ked — a website that 80% of the time reads exactly like other ‘intellectual dark web’ outlets like Quillette but which every so often frames things in terms of Marxism. Reading it is both dull and dizzying: dull because the arguments it uses are the usual cliches about SJWs and cancel culture and dizzying because you would think the whole enterprise would explode from cognitive dissonance. It doesn’t of course because that’s not the ways ideologies work.
Here is Sp!ked reacting to the recent House of Lords appointments:
“Yet now, following the publication of the government’s list of new peers, these same Lords-lovers have decided that the second chamber is a foul, rotten institution, after all. Why? Because the newly ennobled include Tory pals of Boris Johnson, including his brother, former minister Jo Johnson, and, even worse, some Brexiteers. Three of the new peers in particular have rattled the one-time cheerleaders of the second chamber’s plots against democracy – former Labour MPs and Brexit stalwarts Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart, and former Brexit Party MEP, and friend of spiked, Claire Fox. That’s it, the Remainer elites cry: get rid of the Lords!”https://www.spiked-online.com/2020/08/03/abolish-the-house-of-lords/
It’s an almost quintessential Sp!ked piece, an overt left-styled radicalism (abolish the Lords!) but actually geared towards defending the actions of a Conservative Prime Minister and supporters of radical-right coup in British politics. The piece opens with the line “The liberal elite in this country has no shame” but shows no embarrassment that one of the new lords is a long time associate of the group.
The journey from cookie-cutter clone of other 1970’s Trotskyist groups (bold slogans and selling newspapers) to ally of the far right and member of the House of Lords is a long one. In the 1980s the RCP used their media-savvy to put better production values into their publications and shifted to a glossier magazine format with “Living Marxism”. The magazine re-christened as LM continued even as the RCP itself atrophied and the ideological stance shifted away from Trotskyist to something else. In the late 1980’s journalist George Monbiot wrote a long analysis of the shift of the group from the left to the right:
“As you wade through back issues of Living Marxism, you can’t help but conclude that the magazine’s title is a poor guide to its contents. LM contains little that would be recognised by other Marxists or, for that matter, by leftists of any description. On one issue after another, there’s a staggering congruence between LM’s agenda and that of the far-right Libertarian Alliance. The two organisations take identical positions, for example, on gun control (it is a misconceived attack on human liberty), child pornography (legal restraint is simply a Trojan horse for the wider censorship of the Internet), alcohol (its dangers have been exaggerated by a new breed of “puritan”), the British National Party (it’s unfair to associate it with the murder of Stephen Lawrence; its activities and publications should not be restricted), the Anti-Nazi League (it is undemocratic and irrelevant), tribal people (celebrating their lives offends humanity’s potential to better itself; the Yanomami Indians are not to be envied but pitied) animal rights (they don’t have any), and global warming (it’s a good thing).”https://www.monbiot.com/1998/11/01/far-left-or-far-right/
The evolution of LM to Sp!ked was precipitated by a major defamation case in which the British news network ITN sued LM after LM had pushed a conspiracy theory that ITN had fabricated evidence of Serbian war crimes in Bosnia. Ironically one of the longest recent analysis of this trial was published last year in Quillette (I say ironically because arguably Sp!ked and Clair Fox’s “Institute of Ideas” created the template for outlets like Quillette, even if Quillette plays the same trick but claiming moderate liberalism as the framing for advancing far-right ideas). The Quillette piece is a two party essay looking at the trial and its ramifications. Part one is here https://quillette.com/2019/11/01/denial-and-defamation-the-itn-lm-libel-trial-revisited-ii/ and here is a relevant quote from part two:
“Hume, and LM’s publishers, Claire Fox and Helene Guldberg, were unrepentant. “We apologise for nothing,” Hume told the press assembled outside the High Court in London immediately after the verdict. “But we will not be appealing. Life is too short, and other issues too important, to waste any more time in the bizarre world of the libel courts.” Facing bankruptcy, Hume and Guldberg shuttered their magazine and immediately relaunched it as Spiked-Online, while Fox became founding co-director of the Academy of Ideas, an LM-associated think-tank initiated before the magazine folded, which continues to operate under Fox’s sole directorship today.”https://quillette.com/2019/11/01/denial-and-defamation-the-itn-lm-libel-trial-revisited-i/
This is all really just background to a wider point. There is one view of ideology that would find this all as inexplicable. It is the view that imagines ideology as distinct categories but also if it admits any fuzzy edges then they would between close neighbours. In this view ideologies are systems of thought with rationally connected ideas — the ideas maybe wrong headed but only because they arise about false assumptions about the world. In this view, ideologies are of a piece. It’s a peculiar view because really it is taking Marxism as the template for ideologies should be like even thought it is a view of ideology that isn’t particularly Marxist.
For example, Marxism in all its forms is very theory heavy. Marx himself had not just a detailed model of economics but also a view of history and a deep philosophical model. However, this is a very unusual example of an ideology. Beyond Marxism (and even within Marxism if we include all the movements that have called themselves Marxist) it is unusual for ideologies to have all these components. Marxism itself would repudiate the idea that ideologies are defined by combing an economic theory with a philosophical stance. Where we see this template-for-ideologies come take root is really with Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, where she attempts to match those aspects of Marxism with her opposed positions (naive free market capitalism as an economic theory and a confused logic-essentialism for a philosophical stance).
I would contend that ideologies function more like fictional genres. They acquire elements over time and those elements may be in active conflict with each other. They also have cultural and aesthetic components that shape everything from patterns of speech, colour choices and even typography. That idea of ideology as aesthetic is most pronounced within fascism but there are elements of it in all ideologies which makes it possible to cosplay the ideas of one ideology as the ideas of another.
That doesn’t mean that the logic of ideas is irrelevant to ideology. We can connect ideas via the implications they have as well as how they impact with reality. Sooner or later we trip over curbs or run into brick walls. Our imagined worlds bump and scrape against the unimagined one. The stability of an ideology over time and over large numbers of people implies at least some degree of coherence. However, the capacity of individuals to adhere to quite novel combinations of ideas or to rationalise their own interests as high-minded principle is essentially unbounded.
Some other coverage: