The power of dogma
15th September 2022
By summoning up the past as a means of predicting the future, progressives bolster their own authority at the expense of free speech and democracy, argues Ben Cobley.
Shortly before Liz Truss became the UK’s Prime Minister, The Guardian decided to cast a critical eye over what the nation might expect from its new leader. Truss was taken to task for her ‘aggressive stance against the Scottish National party’ which had seen her brand Nicola Sturgeon an ‘attention-seeker’, describe nationalists as separatists and unequivocally rule out an independence vote.
An editorial knowingly commented:
Ms Truss is playing with fire. She risks burning down the whole house. A Little Englander running a Little England is where her rhetoric leads.
This was a reference to polling data suggesting ‘English indifference to the fate of the union’. More than four in 10 English people claimed to welcome, or at least not be bothered by, Scotland potentially leaving the United Kingdom, while a majority was untroubled by the prospect of a united Ireland.
According to The Guardian’s leader writers:
This is down to the rightwing politics of Brexit, which was a revolt pitting England against itself. Ms Truss has played on this theme during the contest: by inveighing against the civil service; by opposing political unanimity; by reversing England’s historical tendency to look outwards rather than inwards.
It is probably correct that Truss’s characteristically strident and abrasive approach will hold little appeal to the Scots. We are yet to see whether it will appeal to the English, Welsh or anyone else either. Whether she will be an effective leader is a different question but one to which The Guardian already appears to know the answer.
The paper has been able to reach this damning conclusion largely thanks to a politics of causation. The message is that Truss’s approach is destined to fail, leading to the dissolution of the UK, as a subset of the ‘rightwing politics of Brexit’ which it considers to be the ultimate root cause of all this division. This passes over the poisonous 2014 referendum on Scottish independence and the role of the SNP in it. Indeed, it passes over any left-wing or non-English contribution to these divisions, including those of its own writers (who are not known for holding back in attacking their opponents).
Of course, it is common to blame all social and political problems on your opponents. But here, I am going to take a closer look at how progressives employ the politics of causation. As The Guardian is the left-wing progressive paper of record in Britain, its editorials make a decent object of study.
The knowing observer
The editorial’s stance on Truss is that of the knowing observer, notwithstanding that the paper is plainly offering readers suitable lines to use as ammunition in political arguments. Much of this ammunition is grounded in the assumption that the writers can predict future outcomes based on historical causation, specifically in relation to the rhetoric deployed by political figures. In this account, the writers appear to know that certain actions by particular people will necessarily lead to negative consequences. Specifically, they assume that when Conservatives like Liz Truss or Boris Johnson challenge ‘political unanimity’, or The Guardian’s preferred consensus, there will be already-known consequences.
This quasi-scientific approach to society assumes certain actions have predetermined consequences that can be known in advance by people with the necessary knowledge. It is an expression of authority derived from projecting knowledge of the past into the future. Clearly, knowledge of the past can only take us so far in predicting future outcomes. However, the absolute confidence of this style of assertion occludes any such doubts. Projecting into the future to say what will work and what will not becomes an effective means of manufacturing authority, one that conveniently removes any need to check facts and evidence as they do not yet exist.
Evidence for future predictions consists of a lot of talk: a constant back-and-forth of people repeating the same assertions to each other until they become accepted as factual statements, as truth. In this process, the difference between truth and untruth appears to be promotional clout: access, reach. This is to say: power. As a form of argument, this kind is so widespread that we rarely notice it. We are especially oblivious when it comes from those we agree with. We are also generally unaware of the progressive roots of this way of thinking.
Understanding history as a process of improvement is a staple of progressive ideology. Those who understand what historical improvement looks like will safely assume they also understand what decline looks like. Through a commitment to improvement and against decline, progressive thinkers begin to see themselves as a vehicle of the former and a ‘fighter’ against the latter: they become an agent of truth pitched against the forces of darkness and lies.
The dogma itself can change. The Guardian editorial talks about Liz Truss as a ‘Little Englander’ who is ‘reversing England’s historical tendency to look outwards rather than inwards.’ However, Truss is actually a fervent free trader, committed to breaking down trade barriers internationally. And far from turning inwards and away from the world, Truss is also notably assertive in foreign policy, strongly opposing Russia and China’s expansionist efforts. It does not take much to imagine The Guardian, in another setting, using history to inveigh against Truss’s outward-looking tendency. We can also see how references to ‘England’, rather than ‘Britain’, accept the framing of the Scottish and Irish nationalists the paper claims to understand how to defeat (which is to say, by doing and saying nothing).
Experts in society
Pointing out such inconsistencies often seems beside the point when the point is not passing on knowledge, but politics. Exercises in causal thinking serve as a kind of political education. The Guardian’s editorial is preparing the ground for the challenge of a new Prime Minister, trying to find the right attack lines to strengthen its in-group and draw potential sympathisers closer.
Causal thinking is politics that presents itself in the idiom of knowledge. Knowledge rightly commands respect and so passing off political activity as knowledge boosts a speaker’s authority. The progressive style is assertive and interventionist, but also protected from immediate contradiction and falsification. To claim that you know, to repeat this claim constantly and to have it relayed by political allies, is a political strength which is only strengthened by its tenuous relation to any verifiable facts. As we can see, the manufacturing of authority – as social and political power – has both offensive and defensive aspects.
Making use of historical causation allows you to present yourself as an expert in society and social change. Progressives have fervently embraced this role in recent years in their various battles against Brexit, ‘populists’, Donald Trump, ‘misinformation’, and ‘fake news’. How many times have we heard that you would not get any random person to fly a plane or perform a surgical operation, so why would you do precisely that when it comes to politics?
This framing is reflected in many of the non-fiction books that have been released over recent years with notably didactic and instructional titles. James O’Brien, perhaps Britain’s most successful – and outspoken – current radio talk show host, has probably hit the apotheosis of this trend with his two tomes, How To Be Right (2018) and How Not To Be Wrong (2020).
In the latter book, O’Brien says:
If I have become an expert at anything, it is unpicking the false (or at least utterly unprovable) ‘certainties’ with which we all sometimes insulate ourselves from the myriad confusions of life.
However, not one to normally hold back in the strength of his opinions, O’Brien makes more than a few such statements himself. For example, we read how:
In the history books of the future, it will be impossible to explain the election of Donald Trump without reference to the undiagnosed psychic damage visited upon millions of white Americans by the election of Barack Obama eight years previously.
Given that Obama got elected twice by the same electorate, this might seem something of a strange thing to say. But it also reflects how O’Brien’s approach embraces psychological diagnosis as a form of expertise: as a way to situate friends and opponents alike as mentally damaged in particular by right-wing politicians and media.
In a sort of quasi-confessional state, he says at one point:
I now know that almost all of our most toxic attitudes towards blameless, innocent people are born of buried pain, shame and guilt about ourselves and our own experiences, but it took me a long time.
O’Brien has now transcended this state:
I have finally learned that admitting to being wrong is infinitely more important than using skills and tricks and weapons and tools to look ‘right’, and that there is no point having a mind if you never change it.
The latter sentence may come as something of a surprise to those who have heard O’Brien tackling callers to his radio show or viscerally attacking Tories and Brexiteers on Twitter. But, as it turns out, him admitting to being wrong does not mean admitting to his own excesses, but rather confessing that he has not been progressive enough.
For example, of his dislike of tattoos and reluctant affiliation to private schools and marriage (both of which he has taken advantage of), O’Brien says:
I am quite wrong about all of them. I know this and yet, even as I write these words, I am aware that somewhere deep inside me, somewhere still immune to all the facts, evidence and empathy in the world, I still somehow think I am ‘right’.
In a sense he is converting his own legacy preferences, commitments and choices into judgements – and finding them wanting against hard, cold ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’. He knows what is right but confesses that an irrational and somewhat immoral side of himself still lingers despite everything.
Rightness as neutrality
Once these mental ailments, as he posits them, have been correctly diagnosed, it is time to provide a cure. As a recovered patient who has transcended the illness and come out the other side as a better person, this anti-Brexit shock jock sees himself as the perfect person to prescribe it.
In one passage, O’Brien speaks of our society’s continuing enslavement to ‘false equivalence’, notably in the media which persists in giving opportunities for people he opposes to speak against those who have facts and evidence on their side. For him, the latter group should stand unquestioned as authorities on whatever matters they are chosen to discuss, while those he calls right-wingers should be put in their box and effectively removed from public life.
As he puts it, ‘I think we have become so completely inured to the tyranny of right and, these days, far-right talking points that we have come to see the neutral middle as the ‘left’.’
Here we can see how O’Brien has come to see his own views as neutral. As his views align with those of experts, he is clearly an expert himself: that is to say someone who knows and intervenes without political bias.
Elsewhere, O’Brien talks of his problems with religion, including, ‘the licence it gives leaders to determine the behaviour of followers, to impose strict conditions of what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ without ever being required to explain themselves or their reasoning.’ The point is not that he disagrees with authority, but that it should always be subject to a trial by reason – conducted by people like him. This gives him and his fellow travellers that ‘licence’ to sit in judgement – and to impose their own strict conditions of right and wrong, with opponents who do not meet their standards removed from the scene.
As we might see, manufacturing authority requires both projection and prevention. It needs a constant presence and assertion of what is right but also the removal of opponents. Nothing can be allowed to steer events away from the predetermined path. In this way, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump appeared as existential threats, both to society and to the personal authority of progressive experts.
Recourse to historical causation effectively renders both political preferences and identity obsolete and illegitimate unless they are tied to the right form of knowledge: that is, knowledge of what causes good and bad things to happen. In one sense, this represents the elevation of often-amateur sociology to the status of an overseeing science, with the disciplines and restraints of science replaced by self-certainty.
The political power of historical causation derives partly from the assumption of proponents that they are on the right side of history. They do not just understand correctly but possess special political authority on account of their understanding. In a sense we could say that religious dogma has been replaced by historical dogma that claims to be both moral and rational. In the interests of free speech and democracy, it needs to be challenged.
Ben Cobley is a writer, the author of The Tribe: the liberal left and the system of diversity (2018) and forthcoming book The Progress Factory: the modern left and the false authority of history (due in autumn 2023).
Picture: Ilovetheeu, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons