Schadenfreude and the Elections in the UK

Schadenfreude is not the most noble of human emotions, but it can certainly be very sweet. I must confess that to me the most enjoyable thing about the recent Tory election victory in the UK is the impotent rage and naked despair in the left-wing English newspapers. I don’t much like what passes for Tory politics in England nowadays, and I don’t actually think this Tory victory will make much difference, but the progressives’ despair is really amusing. For a moment the worshipers at the idol of progress doubt their god, and shout in rage at the meaningless nothingness left over after his absence.

In The Guardian Giles Fraser turns against one of the most important elements of progressive ideology: the idea that democracy is a progressive force. The leftist Anglican vicar, who once told us that Jesus would have voted, now suggests that democracy is a false religion, with voting being its idolatrous liturgy. For the moment he feels like agreeing with the following dictum:

elections require the complicity of all participants in a deliberate mis-recognition of the emptiness of its procedures and the lack of any significant changes which this ritual brings about, but are a necessary charade to mollify a restless electorate.

He is not entirely convinced of this position, but after the election he is in a despairing mood; the real gods are the evil capitalist propaganda makers, and there is no defeating them:

We try and control the gods of Rothermere and Murdoch with our electoral intercessions. But maybe they are just too powerful, too remote. “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.” Shakespeare had it right.

Another Guardianista, Stuart Heritage, describes his despair in even more drastic and comical terms:

The country is screwed. The electorate is evil. The UK has become a flat, ugly, smouldering disaster zone, and by the year 2020 we’ll all be dressed in rags…

He then, however, points out that it doesn’t matter much after all, given the meaninglessness of things in general:

We live on a coldly rotating speck in an ocean of total nothingness, and nothing we do can ever truly matter. All is blackness and abstract cruelty. There is no point to us, and soon we will be gone. The universe will spin on, oblivious.

There is of course an element of hyperbole in such declarations of despair. And the mood won’t last; soon these temporary prophets of doom will return to optimistic hopes of the world being saved by the rising tide of young egalitarians, LGTBQ activists, and radical environmentalists, but it is sweet while it lasts.

I think Fraser is absolutely right to see the situation in terms of the unmasking (however temporary) of a false religion. I think that what is really behind the despair is the pseudo-religion of progress. I am reminded of the following passages from a retreat on the theological virtues preached in 1986 by the future Pope Benedict XVI:

It dawned on me […] that “optimism” is the theological virtue of a new god and a new religion […] The goal of optimism is the utopia of the finally and everlastingly liberated and fortunate world, the perfect society in which history reaches its goal and reveals its divinity. […] The immediate aim, which as it were guarantees the reliability of the ultimate goal, is the success of our ability to do things. […]
But this means that the product of optimism is something that we must ultimately produce ourselves, trusting that the blind process of development in connection with our own activity will finally lead to the right goal. The gift of the promise of [Christian] hope, on the other hand, is precisely that, a gift that as something already bestowed we await from him who alone can really give: the God who in the midst of history has already begun his age through Jesus. This in turn means that in the first case there is in reality nothing to hope for, because what we are awaiting we must bring about ourselves, and nothing will be given us beyond what we can achieve ourselves. But in the second case real hope does exist beyond all our potential and possibilities, hope in the unbounded love that at the same time is unbounded power.
In reality ideological optimism is merely the façade of a world without hope that is trying to hide from its own despair with this deceptive sham. This is the only explanation for the immoderate and irrational anxiety, [the] traumatic and violent fear that breaks out when some setback or accident in technological or economic development casts doubt on the dogma of progress. (pp. 42, 46, 48)


Update: J.W. pointed me to a jewel of resentment by philosopher Rebecca Roache, who explains why she ‘unfriended’ all the conservatives whom she knows on Facebook: «Life is too short, I thought, to hang out with people who hold abhorrent political views, even if it’s just online.»

7 thoughts on “Schadenfreude and the Elections in the UK

  1. The radical left for the most part is not particularly upset about this election. I mean, seriously, Labour vs. Tories is a centre right vs. centre right fight, and everyone with an IQ over 95 knew that the Lib Dems were a pointless entity. From a dem soc or center left point of view, the election results were promising on one important front – the SNP. The SNP is actually center left, and its policy positions come into play in interesting ways. For instance: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/articles/europe/18511-the-scottish-lions-roar-will-be-heard-and-felt-in-tel-aviv

    That is quite the contrast to the pro-Zionist hegemony in England now.

    Which brings up a point – why should you be happy that the Tories won? The Tories are no less liberal than Labour, in terms of their ideology. The UK is not going to take any notable swing toward conservatism in social issues. I am curious.

    Also, the progress bit is a canard. I might as well talk about conservatives holding to the divine right of kings or somesuch. In populist politics, right and left, the rhetoric of progress is used by all sides. “Freedom is on the march,” and so forth. But it’s not the notion of progress, per se, (at least not 19th century notions of progress) that drives liberalism anymore, nor does it drive that progress oriented language – that language is simply used because Westerners have largely adopted the cult of positive thinking, especially in Anglo countries. You have to present your ideas has happy, fun, and inevitably winning. It’s an ideology of banality more than progress that drives this. It’s the business notion of progress – desired outcomes in which we win and our competitors lose, but even more important than that, that we and our brand are seen as winners by the public.

    Pointing to the notion of progress as a fundamental flaw in leftist thought seems off target to me now. With the new left and identity politics, sure, maybe, to an extent, but I don’t think it drives that more than any other current ideology today. Social conservatives and even trads believe that certain policy directions will result in certain outcomes, some positive, some negative, and they hate their enemies and believe they are destroying civilization. Nearly everybody believes that the enactment of certain policies will result in societies that are more likely to have just relations between people than what is seen today. Anyone close to power exaggerates the potential efficacy of their policies, should they be enacted.

    The late 19th century early 20th century hardcore determinisms of a Marxist sort are dead and gone. We live in an age wherein most leftists believe that climate change is quite possibly going to make the planet inhospitable to humankind, and create huge social upheavals. Nobody serious anymore thinks that the proletariat rising up is the certain direction of historical processes. Hell, we may very well not have enough time for that. Even some of the more orthodox Marxist-Leninists I know believe that the fall of capitalism won’t necessarily bring about something better, at least not for quite a while; even they fear a Lord of the Flies on mass scale, with a tiny elite protected by mercenary armies and otherwise chaos being the feared outcome. The obsession with “progress” as this sort of trump card that proves the fundamental evil of the left just doesn’t work, in my opinion. In certain senses, nearly everyone today believes in progress (a cure for cerebral palsy would be a progress, and a policy which brings about that cure would affect progress) and virtually no one does (in that virtually no one believes that history is necessarily oriented toward a precise set of political and social outcomes – instead some believe that there’s is the best political/social/economic product, and given enough time they will win the game, in a pep talk sort of conception of a future winning, not a 19th century sense of historical determinism).

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    • Well, I’m not happy that the Tories won; I just enjoy the despair of the smug, superior, hypocritical, intellectual elite. As you say, there is practically no difference between Labour and the Tories nowadays. Toryism worthy of the name has never recovered from the free trade laws of 1846, which decisively showed that the the balance of power in England had shifted from the landed aristocracy to the the capitalists. And Labour is now as much a liberal party as it is a leftist one. As Tony Blair said in 2001: «Our economic and social policy today owes as much to the liberal social democratic tradition of Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge as to the socialist principles of the 1945 Government.» But the reason why I enjoy The Guardian’s despair slightly more than I would have enjoyed The Telegraph’s corresponding reaction if Labour had won is well summarized by the Nick Cohen article that you linked:

      …the wider educated left in England… makes a virtue of denigrating its own people. The universities, left press, and the arts characterise the English middle-class as Mail-reading misers, who are sexist, racist and homophobic to boot. Meanwhile, they characterise the white working class as lardy Sun-reading slobs, who are, since you asked, also sexist, racist and homophobic. The national history is reduced to one long imperial crime, and the notion that the English are not such a bad bunch with many strong radical traditions worth preserving is rejected as risibly complacent. So tainted and untrustworthy are they that they must be told what they can say and how they should behave. What truth there is in the caricature is lost amid the accompanying hypocrisy. The intellectual left deplores racism but uses “white” as an insult. It lambasts the sexism of the right, but stays silent as Labour candidates run meetings where Muslim women’s inferiority is confirmed by stewards who usher them into segregated seating.

      It is this pack of smug, self-congratulatory hypocrites with their unshakable belief in their own moral and intellectual superiority that I especially enjoy seeing squirm.

      You are right that “progress” is touted by all mainstream political parties nowadays. It was after all David Cameron who recently told the Church of England to “get with the programme” when they failed to agree on introducing women bishops (a year later they obliged). And I agree that the radical left is less optimistic on the progress front than mainstream liberals. I guess it was somewhat imprecise to refer to labour supporters as “leftist” in my post.

      But I do think that the ideology of progress remains very influential today, and the rhetoric of progress is slightly stronger among populist liberals who would identify more as left than as right— (Labour in the UK, the Democrats in the US, the Social Democrats in Austria and Germany). That might be a debatable point, but in any case I think the idea of progress still is very strong, maybe stronger than you think. Think of the concept of the “wrong side of history” that is often invoked, especially in gay rights rhetoric. To take a random example from The Guardian, the editorial after the gay marriage act of 2013 says the MPs who voted against were on the wrong side of history, and says about the reform itself:

      Permitting gay and lesbian people to marry is a progressive social reform whose time has come, and come rather more rapidly than many would have thought possible a generation ago. The change is right in principle, the moment is timely, public opinion is prepared for it, and MPs did well in leading and reflecting that sentiment. The vote should be conclusive. The religious traditions which oppose the bill – by no means all of them do – are going to have to adjust to the change over time, which the bill gives them scope to do. But adjust to it they should, the established church in particular. Within a generation, perhaps less, we will all be amazed at what the fuss was about.

      That’s about as straight up an example of the ideology of progress as one could wish for. History has a direction leading toward more liberty and equality, and while there can be set-backs, over all things get better. And this view seems to be presupposed in political speeches as well. Here is Miliband last year: «Together we can ensure the next generation does better than the last. Together we can make our NHS greater than it has ever been. Together we can make Britain prouder, stronger in the world. Together we can restore faith in the future.» Note the use of the loaded word “faith.”

      I think all main-stream political parties in the English speaking world would basically agree with the view of progress that Pres. Obama gave in his Nobel Prize Speech:

      But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached — their fundamental faith in human progress — that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey. For if we lose that faith — if we dismiss it as silly or naïve; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace — then we lose what’s best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass. […] We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of depravation, and still strive for dignity. Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that — for that is the story of human progress; that’s the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.

      And I think that is really one of the greatest obstacles to Christian faith that there is.

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      • Pater Edmund,

        Thanks for the kind and thorough reply.

        Let’s back up a step.

        In my mind when tradCaths are talking about ‘progress’ and denouncing it, I assume they are denouncing the same thing that Popes and hierarchs of the Catholic Church denounced, especially from, say, 1850-1950.

        And there, it seems to me, we are talking about progress in a specific sense. Marx, and a number of other lesser 19th century leftists, and those who followed them in various circles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, believed that humanity and human civilization was necessarily going to progress into an utopian ordo. In orthodox Marxist thought, dialectical materialism directs social organization toward an end that is completely determined by material processes. The Soviets at one point took this so far as to argue in various scientific essays that nature itself reflects dialectical materialism and that revolutionary processes, or something analogous to them, could be seen in various natural phenomena. The point is, however, that this 19th century leftist ‘progress’ believed that humanity would arrive at a utopian end. There was nothing that could prevent this from happening.

        This, obviously, is a secularized and materialistic alternate to the Christian eschaton. And so it gets denounced, for that reason, and because these radicals hated many of the Church’s wealthy friends and recommended things concerning them that were not nice.

        Now, the Obama quote you note is very helpful here, thank you. I could not have found a better text to make my point. Obama points us to the rhetorical drive of liberal thought – the fundamental belief in human progress, but he then provides caveats which make clear that he does not hold to anything of the sort of 19th century utopian progress that Popes condemned. Oppression will always be with us, he says. Deprivation is intractable, he says. But, we can still strive for dignity. War will be with us, but we can strive for peace. If oppression is always going to be with us, then, logic demands, there will always be some ebb and flow to oppression, for if there were a continual progressive reduction of oppression, oppression would eventually cease. Thus, there can always be, and at times will be, a regression, in Obama’s ideology. So when Obama says we must have faith in human progress, he does not mean what the orthodox Marxists and other utopian socialists and anarchists meant. He means what the contemporary businessman means – that we must have faith in our product. Yes, we will never completely annihilate all competition, yes, our market share may peak and then ebb and flow afterwards, but we can always work to better our brand, always work to better our product, and we can have faith that we will win in competitive markets. That is what Obama means. It’s political/economic pep rally talk, not 19th century determinism.
        Now, with LGBTQ stuff, yes, it is more complicated. You are right to point to the “wrong side of history” talk coming from that front. This gets complex. First, I’ve spent a fair amount of time with LGBTQ activists because I’ve spent a fair amount of time in activist circles, and the gays are very present there. Of the orthodox Marxist-Leninists I have met over the age of 25, all but one of them is a gay male. But we are talking about a tiny group of people – not ideologically influential in our day. LARPers to a large extent too. Anyway, the use of “wrong side of history” from the popular gay front does not really have to do with an appropriation of 19th century ideological determinism. It is one more example of the gay rights movement appropriating the terminology that was used by the civil rights movement, particularly by African Americans and MLKJr, and so forth. It is very much a part of the propaganda of the gay rights movement to present and project itself as “the civil rights movement of our generation” and in doing this it has adopted the slogans and makes comparisons and so forth. It is all rather unbecoming and patently ridiculous, but there you go. Also, given the momentum of the societal changes with regard to popular views towards homosexuality and its enfranchisement in law in the last two decades, there is, shall we say, a flamboyant confidence that in 50 years all these battles will have been decisively won by the LBGTQ front, and, frankly, who can blame them for that confidence? But that confidence is not the same at 19th century determinism. One reason I know this is that among liberals, and most radical leftists as well, the LBGTQ spectrum has arrived at the same patronized status of eternal victim as black folk have in the minds of the fashionable left. The eternal victim is, as Obama teaches us, always going to be subject to oppression, to depravation, to violence, and so forth, always in need of ‘progressive saviors.’ We may progress, we should have confidence in progress, but there is no final or static end, and the victim classes will always be under threat of harm, and always ontologically victims, oppression will always be with us, says ObamaJesus. This is very, very different from the confidence of the 19th century radicals. This new confidence is a confidence that our product is best, and that we can win, and that we must always strive to win for those poor helpless souls. It’s not the determinism that bothers me here; it’s the insufferable patronizing arrogance. Instead of the workers of the world uniting in solidarity and breaking their chains, we are reminded of moral imperative of mass patronage. Gee, thanks.

        There are a lot of things wrong with this, but the confidence in winning is not high on my list of concerns. My concern is much more that what classical liberals and victimhood peddlers think of as progress is simply wrong. It’s not that they believe we should and probably will get from point A to point B that bothers me. It’s that their point Bs suck.

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