Beyond the delusion delusion

A few days ago Mike Gapes tweeted to tell me that I, like hundreds of thousands of people who have voted for Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party, want continued Tory government:

As Richard noted at the time, this is actually a mirror image of the accusations thrown about by a minority of ‘Corbynistas’, who argue that people like Mike Gapes are ‘Tory-lite’, or secret Tories.

This kind of stuff gets no-one anywhere; although I do understand that there can be some personal satisfaction in blowing off steam on twitter, it’s not hard to see that such accusations merely entrench existing positions. Intelligent argument, they are not.

But to curb this kind of unhelpful tit-for-tat squabbling in future, and to restore credibility in Labour as a party of grown-ups, I think it’s useful to look harder at why such pitiful attempts to ‘win the argument’ are made in the first place. Only when we understand this can we hope to remedy the current squabbling culture.

The key process at play here is what post-Marxists might call “othering”, and is common to much contemporary political discourse. What othering also does, though, is that it gets the agent of the othering of the hook from explaining her/his own position, on the basis that the one ‘othered’ is simply not worthy of argument.

While Mike Gapes’s tweet is an extreme example, there are plenty of others at hand around which, while more subtle, follow the same process

Here is one such example, picked up on Facebook the other day, in which Tom Copley gets around the need to argue his case on the basis that Corbyn supporters are “deluded”.

There is, I suggest, a problem with any argument where the basic premise is that the person on the other side of the argument is “delusional”.

To state simply that an other person/other people is/are not currently capable of seeing the world in the correct way is, at root, an abuse of the other’s integrity/capacity to have a worldview, and an abrogation of the duty to set one’s own argument and seek to persuade that it is more valid than the opposing argument. Indeed, a method of argument which seeks to cast doubt on an opponent’s capacity to see the world straight is, I would argue, more damaging than the Gapes-style method of arguing that the people who vote for Corbyn know precisely what they are doing, and are actively dissembling.

Having set up this premise, Tom redoubles the insult by the imputation that anyone who is “deluded” in this way is, by their personal frailty of mind, betraying those who need Labour:

[T]o convince yourself that Corbyn can win in the face of all the evidence betrays those who are being impoverished by Tory austerity and who need a Labour government.

I’m not having a go at Tom particularly here, as it’s not an isolated example of this technique. I am just saying that this failure of proper argumentation should be taken as seriously by the left as more obvious “fuck you” style abuse — perhaps even more seriously, because the former feeds the latter.

So how do we go about improving the level of discourse within Labour?

Well, let’s look at the positives. The leadership contest will soon be over. There will soon be an opportunity for some calm reflection on how we all more on from it, and with it the opportunity to codify the way in which the party talks to itself;

But if we restrict ourselves to rules about what swear words are not allowed, or what constitutes a threat, then that codification will be too narrow, and the process will begin all over again; one side will suggest that the other cannot see what there is to be seen, the other side will take offence, and bricks through windows may follow.

Regular readers of this blog (and its predecessor) will not be surprised that, in my view, this wider codification task might most suitably be conducted in accordance (at least heuristically) with Habermasian principles of ‘proper’ argumentation.

As a starting point to developing, within Labour, a “ritualized competition for the better arguments.” (p. 26), Labour could seek to ensure that four basic conditions are met, whenever discussion takes place:

(i) no one capable of making a relevant contribution has been excluded;
(ii) participants have equal voice;
(iii) they are internally free to speak their honest opinion without deception or self-deception; and
(iv) there are no sources of coercion built into the process and procedures of discourse.

These ‘pragmatic idealizations’ of logical argument will, of course, never be realized in full (this is something Habermas always accepts, but his critics prefer to ignore), but what they can do is help create “standards for a self-correcting learning process” (p.91)

Such a self-correcting process is, it hardly needs saying, easier to talk about than establish, but this doesn’t mean that, in the period after this feud, those who really wish to see a united Labour party should not come together and try.

One practical way forward — but one which has the virtue of combining ‘facticity and validity’ — may be the establishment on an arms length institution, funded as a social enterprise from fees paid by branches, CLPs and other party (and union) units, which provides an accreditation/kitemarking service.

This would involve, as with all such services, external assessments of these units’ capacity to orchestrate rational and respectful debate, and if developed with due reflexive rigour, could come to be seen as a ‘sine qua non’ by these units, on the basis that membership, attendance and participation can only realistically be developed and maintained if members and prospective members see and trust the kitemarking process, and have whistleblowing rights if the standards slip.

Of course, this does not of itself deal with the vitriol and distinctly un-Habermasian standard of debate on social media, but it may in time be that engagement with a “self -correcting’ process in the real world will also start to influence online behaviours. If it’s any guide at all, I have moderated my own online behaviour, which has certainly fallen below Habermasian standards, since I started to think this stuff through.

More importantly, the development of such standards within the party/movement could converge with wider and more ambitious attempts — as and when I get my Habermasian way — to develop a post-Gramscian relationship with the wider public, in a way which will require of activists a different and more democratically evolved set of skills.

If you’ve read this far — and i appreciate you will be one of a handful — you may be genuinely interested in taking these ideas forward. I will be at conference next week, extolling the virtues of #habermasianlabour to anyone wanting to hear, and I’m more than happy to talk next steps. If you are not at conference, seek me out online.