Earlier today, Cameron Freeman – who runs a Facebook group on Radical Theology responded to something I’d posted about Nigel Farage’s resignation with the following:
Kester, I’d really like to hear sometime how do you mesh your (very) radical theology with you’re support for the centralized undemocratic control of an external top-down power like the EU? Surely there’s just a little bit of cognitive dissonance there, yes?
Rather than reply only in the centralised undemocratic top-down power of Facebook, I thought I’d post some quick thoughts here too…
Mulling on this as I walked home from work just now, I began to think about the mathematical idea of vectors. A vector is something with both magnitude and direction. But the interesting thing about a vector is that it has no defined origin. You can apply a vector to any particular start point, and it will move from that place a certain distance in a certain direction. If you refuse a vector a starting point, it does… nothing. Point being: my hunch is that I have a kind of vector-based politics. They are radical in terms of direction and magnitude… but they are pragmatic about where our starting point is.
Thus, applied theologically, it’s perhaps easier for those who’ve followed my work in that realm to see how that vector has been applied consistently over the past 15 years or so, and moved me gradually in a particular direction. The place I find myself now is very radical, Cameron suggests, but – though many people of faith might find it heretical or dangerous – it is a place that has been gradually inhabited because that inhabitation is possible.
Applied to something like the EU, the story is necessarily different. My political vector is very heavily left-wing, but my pragmatic viewpoint is that we have to start from where we are, not fantasise about starting from somewhere else, a mistake that I think dogs the radical left.
This is a disagreement I’ve had with Zizek’s work for some time, and have discussed here somewhere before. Though I think he has tempered this view now, my sense of his position has been that he advocates doing nothing, because this total withdrawal from things will speed the collapse of ‘the system’ and hurry the revolution. I’m with Simon Critchley on this: I think it’s a convenient excuse for passivity. And this is what worries me about extreme rhetoric: in its strength of magnitude, has it forgotten where we actually are starting from?
To return to the EU debate, I’m not going to advocate “support for the centralized undemocratic control of an external top-down power.” But to suggest that a vote in Brexit to ‘Remain’ was a vote of support for this is false. Yes, the EU is over-bureaucratic, yes it lacks democratic accountability, yes it has shown intolerance for migrants and refugees, and yes it has treated Greece appallingly. But my vote was not about expressing support for those things. My vote was about attempting to avoid the very very serious consequences of opening the Pandora’s Box that was ‘Leave,’ with the connected tacit permission for racist abuse and this very ugly separatist mentality.
This is where it links into the debate over Jeremy Corbyn. What I have found jaw-droopingly irresponsible is that he failed to understand the unintended consequences of an ideological Euro-skepticism. His reasons for wanting to Leave may have added up – not wanting to support “the centralized undemocratic control of an external top-down power” – but he seemed blind to what a Leave vote would mean in practice. In other words, he had his vector, but without a proper discernment of the origin, of where we actually are, he ended up impotent.
I am all for reforming the EU, and all for moving from socialites to socialism, but I think the left will remain impotent if it refuses to engage in where we are, and outline some vectors for how we might practically begin to move in the right direction. And this is my challenge to all those who espouse radical ideas: what is the first step?
A prophet who shouts from some high place that we should all come and join him in the nirvana he has found – but offers no rungs to help us climb there – is less than worthless. The purity of their vision actually serves to cheapen them: it’s too easy to rant about how terrible things are and how there should be this revolution and that perfect society. What is far far harder is to long for that place, but exist in the present and have to nudge people towards it.
In very real terms, this is my beef with Corbyn. He has stirred up hundreds of thousands of disaffected young people with an anti-austerity, pro-equality message that is absolutely spot on. His ‘stump speech’ on this is very good. He does town halls well. But when MPs then ask him what should be done, what the first step to that place should be, what practical things should be acted on on the ground in their constituencies, he crumbles into silence. He has a vision of a place, but has no idea how to get there. He is an impotent prophet. A visionary, but not a leader. A true Zizekean, if you will.
(This is what I think pirates got right – and provenly so. They didn’t wait around for the grand revolution. As I argue in Mutiny!, They got on with something very local, very temporary, very practical.)
Corbyn’s grassroots movement calls itself Momentum, and there’s an interesting link here to vector mechanics and quantum theory. As you probably know, what Heisenberg established was that the more you know about the position of an object, the less you are able to know about its momentum. This plays out perfectly for Corbyn’s radical Momentum crowd: so focused are they on this one aspect, they have entirely lost sight of the actual position of things. They harp on about the massive support that Corbyn has among the young members who voted him in, but fail to see that he cannot deliver any movement towards the place he sings about, and this is a betrayal of their vigour and new enthusiasm for politics that I can’t see ending well.
No, I’m not advocating ‘a Labour government at any cost.’ I’m no Blairite. But unless you are in power you have no opportunity to move things in the right (left) direction. And the only way into power is to begin where most people are: in the centre. Only then can you apply your vectors. But – and this is what worries me – perhaps the uncontaminated, pure ideology of the hard revolutionary left is a more comfortable place to be, because it will never require anyone to have to act or do one damned thing.
Apologies in advance – I’ve written this very quickly, so am very happy to be pushed back and to use it as a springboard into more mature thought.
Click here to receive updates, and hear first about new projects