‘I am not a contrarian. I find contrarians annoying’

spiked editor Brendan O’Neill answers readers’ questions on everything from liberty and progress to drunken contrarianism and gay marriage.

Why are you the constant contrarian? How does that advance whatever personal goals you have (or might have had) for understanding the planet, how it all works as physics, biology and economics (and politics), the people on it and how they might all fulfil their best potential? Colm McGinn

Don’t you think your contrary, antagonistic, disingenuous style of debate is more suited to drunk teenagers or the Daily Mail? @racybaldhero

In an interview with The Australian, you said you live your life by Arthur Seaton’s phrase, ‘Whatever they say I am, that’s what I am not’. That’s pure contrarianism, isn’t it? Christian Hepworthe

A Guardian reporter once described me as ‘a writer and contrarian’, and when I said I am not a contrarian, she replied: ‘That is such a contrarian thing to say!’ So I realise I probably can’t win on this issue, but here goes…

I am not a contrarian. I find most contrarians irritating. I dislike the word ‘contrary’, because where I grew up – in a pretty solidly Irish Catholic bit of north-west London – it was used as a term of abuse against anyone who simply refused to play by the rules or toe the line. ‘Contrary’ was really just a more acceptable word for ‘deviant’, for branding certain people as the opposite of civilised, as socially or morally unacceptable. I think it’s still used with the same intent by many people today.

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I don’t think that I or spiked are contrarians, but rather that the sphere of Acceptable Thought has shrunk so much in recent years, and has become so regimented, that simply to say something surprising or unexpected is to invite raised eyebrows, even ire. There has been a pretty remarkable convergence of thought in recent years. On the fundamental issues of our time, pretty much the entire media, intelligentsia and political class are in accordance. They have settled on a common ground. Consider the dearth of alternative thinking on austerity, for example, or on environmentalism, the role of the state, gay marriage, or whatever. On a huge number of issues, the sameness of outlook, the idea that there is only one, singularly right way to understand things, is palpable.

As a consequence, certain views can take on an inviolate character; they can become almost like commandments, not by decree or by law, but by informally becoming conventional. Which is why anyone who wheels away from this broad outlook, even if it is only slightly, can be set upon in a sometimes ferocious manner, denounced as a ‘bigot’ or ‘denier’ or ‘contrarian’ or whatever is the latest insult for those who deviate from the normal political narrative. In short, I never set out to be contrarian, but being branded one is pretty much inevitable for anyone who takes ideas seriously in times when the parameters of what it is acceptable to think and say have been drastically diminished.

It brings to mind a time when I was sitting in a green room at BBC radio alongside a well-known newspaper columnist, who asked me what I would be talking about on air. When I replied, ‘I’m defending cheap flights and the ability of poor people to travel the world’, the columnist said: ‘You spiked people. You’ll say anything to get on the radio.’ There you have it - even defending the freedom to travel and to explore and know our planet, something which earlier generations would have taken for granted as a good thing, can now be treated as outrageous. That’s not my fault; it’s conformism’s fault.

What do you make of today’s defamation as a ‘bigot’ anyone associated with holding opposing opinions? Ruth Mieschbuehler

This relates to the answer I gave above. I am intrigued by the way more and more lines of thought are being denounced as prejudices or even disorders. So criticise the campaign for gay marriage and you’re a ‘bigot’; criticise certain aspects of Islam and you’re ‘Islamophobic’; oppose the EU and you’re a ‘Europhobe’; raise concerns about the trajectory of the politics of environmentalism and you’re a ‘denier’. Certain moral and ideological outlooks are being rebranded as sicknesses, whether sicknesses of the soul or mind. There’s something worryingly GDR about it all. This, too, is part of today’s straitjacketing of public debate and ringfencing of acceptable thought.

It’s a big problem for us at spiked, because we are determined to look in depth at the major issues and controversies of our time, and to raise critical questions about lazily accepted and problematic wisdoms, which means we are frequently labelled ‘bigots’, ‘deniers’, ‘phobes’, and all the rest. But I take comfort from the fact that pretty much every radical thinker in history, from Copernicus to Marx, was likewise denounced as a deviant for daring to step outside the bounds of decent thinking. Every great leap forward in mankind’s understanding of the world started with someone daring to be a denier.

How does the vision for a prosperous future of plenty, of robots working for us, magnetic super-fast trains and space travel, fit in with capitalism and the inability it shows to promote progress for all? Oh, and the ‘this is a distorted capitalism and when we release market from the bonds of the state, all will be good’ is a bit unconvincing for anyone giving any validity to the lessons of Marxian political economy. Nikos Sotirakopoulos

I don’t recognise the second part of your question, which sounds like an insinuation that spiked has said that ‘all will be good’ when the market is released from the grip of the state. We’ve never said that. We have said that today’s state - slothful, risk-averse, unambitious, allergic to the ideal of progress - should not be expected to lead us into a land of milk and honey, but that doesn’t mean we believe the market will do that instead.

I agree with you that capitalism is fundamentally incapable of promoting progress for all. But today, right now, I am far more worried about the fact that the people who once seriously considered it their historic role to promote progress for all - that is, radicals, the left, progressives - have not only abandoned that ideal but have turned on it with all the intense reverse-fury of a poacher turned gamekeeper. All the energy that was once devoted to arguing for, in Sylvia Pankhurst’s words, a ‘great production’ that will supply ‘more than all the people can consume’, is now devoted to demonising production as dirty and eco-unfriendly and depicting people who consume stuff as daft and vulgar. To be a radical today is to be opposed to the very things radicals once fought hard for - progress, growth and ‘abundance for all’ (Pankhurst again).

Indeed, I’m always struck by how similar is the thinking of capitalists and anti-capitalists today. Both accept that limits should be placed on growth, in the name of ‘protecting the planet’, replacing consumerist greed with individual happiness, creating a more ‘sustainable’ future, and so on. Consider the current debate about austerity, which is not a debate at all, but rather the elite promoting austerity on one side and radicals calling for austerity to be shared out more equally on the other side, through easing the burden on the poor and heaping it more firmly on the well-off. Both sides accept that it is not possible, or is certainly unwise, to create more, and so they restrict themselves to working out how what currently exists can be more equitably shared around. The 200-year-old ideological war between capitalism and socialism has been replaced by an historic and disastrous meeting of mealy minds between our rulers and radicals.

spiked, by contrast, takes the ideal of economic growth seriously. We genuinely believe in liberating people from need. And today, making that argument means challenging the broadly accepted, allegedly radical anti-growth agenda, rather than aiming all one’s fire at a largely mythical rampaging free market.

I heard you on Woman’s Hour. How come you don’t have an Irish accent? Janet Makeham

Because I’m a Londoner! People often expect me to have an Irish accent, because of my ridiculously Irish name, but I was born and raised in London, by Irish parents, of course. I probably inherited their quick Irish temper and intolerance of eejits, but not their accents.

Why have you closed ranks with the rest of the press in deliberately seeking to confuse the creation of an ‘independent press complaints body with statutory backing’ with ‘state control of the press and restrictions on freedom of speech’? Our legal system is not presumed to be less than independent just because it operates within a statutory framework. Why should the press be any different? Why do you suppose that accountability should hamper freedom of speech? Nigel Scott

spiked has never actually used the term ‘state control of the press’, but we have talked about state meddling and state interference in the press. To my mind, it is indisputable that that is what we currently have. The very setting up of the Leveson Inquiry was an act of state interference in the press, representing the setting of a dangerous precedent which suggested that a judge, appointed by a PM, had the authority to rule not only on possible instances of criminality at one tabloid newspaper but on the ‘culture, practices and ethics’ of the whole press. The hauling of various hacks and editors before the Leveson Inquiry, where they were expected to explain themselves and their morality to a judge and his modern-day Star Chamber consisting of handpicked ‘experts’ from the great and the good, demonstrated how far the pendulum has swung towards state oversight of the work and antics of the press. In a sense, it didn’t really matter what Leveson eventually proposed - because the idea that the press is too free to sabre-rattle, and that it is incumbent upon an enlightened section of the elite to find a way to curb or keep in check that freedom, was established on the day David Cameron announced the Leveson Inquiry and when the vast majority of the media nodded along with him sheepishly.

Having said that, Leveson’s proposals are themselves deeply problematic. There is an element of sophistry in your attempt to make a distinction between a regulatory body with statutory backing and state intrusion in the press. Leveson and his cheerleaders make out that they are only proposing self-regulation of the press, but they also insist that such regulation must be independent of the press - which is it? Their onus is, of course, on it being ‘independent’ - that is, external to the press, made up largely of non-journalists, people with an apparently enlightened insight into when a story is and isn’t in the public interest and when invasions of privacy are okay and are not okay, and so on. Some supporters of Leveson say this isn’t state meddling with the press because in fact politicians are being kept at arm’s length, and all they want is for lawmakers and other officials or experts to oversee the smooth, respectable workings of the press. But the state extends beyond parliament. Judges - whom the Labour Party wants to oversee the press - are as much a part of the state machine as the Cabinet or the queen is.

Finally, I don’t think it’s accurate to say spiked has closed ranks with the ‘rest of the press’ on this matter. On the contrary, it is striking how much the ‘rest of the press’ accepts the need for the press to be tamed, watched from without, even if not all of the press accepts the need for a statutory body. There have been a few admirable voices willing to challenge the regulatory logic of the whole Leveson showtrial, including, of course, our own Mick Hume, but sadly much of the press, especially the misnamed liberal press, welcomes regulation as madly as a turkey welcomes Christmas Day.

You’ve described yourself as a libertarian Marxist. The materialist elements of your writing are clear, but to what extent do you still subscribe to ideas of dialectical social change and revolution away from capitalism? On a similar note, if you were growing up in Britain today, do you think it likely that you would identify as a Marxist? Alexander Willemyn

I’ve described myself as many things over the years, including, yes, as a libertarian Marxist. But the more I think about it, the more I’m not certain that political labels are useful in this day and age. I started my political life as a Marxist, joining the Revolutionary Communist Party when I was 20, and I am a libertarian, in the sense that I believe very much in freedom, particularly freedom of speech. But all political labels come with a lot of baggage from the past, meaning they are open to misinterpretation. Also, one curious thing about our time is the way people adopt a political label before having hard arguments about the world or thinking through what they really believe; the label presupposes their development of a worldview or political stance. There’s a strong element of self-enforced pigeon-holing here, where the political label is really a signal of your identity rather an expression of a thought-through belief system. Among young people in particular, including those who characterise themselves as Marxist, to be left-wing simply means loving the NHS, hating Israel, not wearing a suit and tie, eschewing the consumerist lifestyle in favour of something more fulfilling, and so on. It’s a posture, a pose, rather than an indicator of a coherent worldview.

So I think I might give up on labels. The way I think about individuals or groups these days is not through the question ‘Are they left or right?’, but rather ‘How do they view human beings? Do they have faith in individuals’ capacity to run their lives, and in humanity’s capacity to fashion a better future, or are they downbeat about those possibilities?’ That, I believe, is the true dividing line today. And I’m open to talking to or working with all sorts of people who fall on my side of the divide - that is, on the faith-in-humanity side - be they left-wing, right-wing, Tories, anarchists, Catholics, or whatever.

Do you consider yourself a ‘libertarian’. What do you mean by libertarian? Martin, France

I believe in liberty, so I must be a libertarian. I’m intrigued, and more than a little peeved, at how ‘libertarian’ has become a dirty word these days; it’s used as a term of abuse against anyone who dares to criticise the growth or increasing noseyness of the state. If you criticise state intervention in society or people’s lives - even if you do it in the measured, consistent way that spiked does it - you risk being branded a paranoid, cranky, narcissistic libertaaarian (always said with a long sneer). I think this rather reveals the low esteem that the ideal of liberty is held in these days.

I’m a libertarian for both practical and principled reasons. Practically, I just think state intervention into our lives makes the problems we face worse, rather than improving them. As Brendan Behan famously said, ‘I have never seen a situation so dismal that a policeman couldn’t make it worse’. For example, Cameron’s Conservatives want more state intervention to help everyone be better parents and to ensure the stability of the family - but actually state intervention weakens family and intergenerational bonds by fundamentally undermining the authority of parents and replacing it with the apparently more enlightened authority of the state. Officials are always enforcing new measures to prevent young adults from drinking alcohol, in an effort to curb ‘out-of-control’ youthful drunkenness - but the end result of expelling youth from pubs, from adult spheres, is that they never learn to drink in a grown-up fashion and thus their tendency towards immature pissedness gets worse. And on it goes. The state’s overriding of people’s ability to learn through experience, to decipher right from wrong and determine their futures, intensifies social atomisation and disarray.

And I am in favour of liberty for principled reasons, too, because I believe people must have the freedom to choose their path in life and to veer from convention and accepted wisdom if they want to. Freedom is the only basis on which a Good Society can be based, because it is only through freedom that people can become serious, sovereign adults, properly responsible for the decisions they make, the things they believe, and the destinies they cultivate for themselves. And I would far rather live in a society of grown-ups who take themselves seriously rather than one of immature individuals who believe only guidance from above will help them make the right choices and deliver them to enlightenment. As John Stuart Mill put it, ‘Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing’.

From blogging at the Guardian to the ‘Torygraph’ – following in the footsteps of Hitchens, are you? Kieran Hunter

Which Hitchens?! Er, not that it matters; I prefer to make my own footsteps rather than tramp around in other people’s.

Having initially disagreed with and subsequently been persuaded by your stance on same-sex marriage, there remains an aspect of this stance that I’m unclear about. You’ve made the point repeatedly that calls for the legitimation of same-sex marriage overlook or undermine the traditional role of marriage as an institution through which families are formed, and you’ve criticised the way that traditional terms such as ‘mother’, ‘father’, ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ have been expunged from official documentation and processes. But recent years have seen the establishment of many ways through which non-traditional family structures can be given formal legitimation, including the use of donor-conception and/or surrogacy by same-sex couples to have children. Are you opposed in principle to legal methods of overcoming natural impediments (such as a couple being of the same sex) to creating a family? And does the premium you place upon ‘organic’ human relationships (that aren’t dependent upon the state) mean that you place a premium upon natural biology, at least when it comes to marriage and reproduction? Sandy Starr

I am all in favour of people overcoming natural impediments to create a family. The development of science in this area is a wonderful thing and we need more of it. That humankind can now make what were once referred to as ‘barren people’ fertile points to a still-existing determination to overthrow ‘natural’ shackles and to expand human happiness and joy.

But I think we need to disentangle the technical matter of how some people choose to or need to create a family through scientific means from the broader cultural debate about the importance of the family as a social institution. At the same time as we can accept and respect people’s ability to get around natural limitations by using medical breakthroughs, we can also have a separate discussion about the role of the family, the meaning of the family, and the pretty relentless assault on the family today, whether through direct state intervention into parents’ lives or through the more subtle demotion of the family represented by the promotion of something like gay marriage, which is really a redefinition of traditional marriage. Just because some people must find ‘unnatural’ means to create a family, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the traditional family is no longer important - certainly it is still important to great numbers of people.

When you have a leading government minister (Michael Gove) arguing that there is a ‘preoccupation with the rights of biological parents’, I find that worrying. If you marry together (no pun intended) the state’s disregard for parental autonomy, its treatment of raising children as simply a ‘biological’ thing that can be overridden sometimes, and its promotion of a gay marriage campaign which explicitly redefines marriage to mean simply a union of two people rather than anything more social or procreative than that, then I think we can see a clear drive towards demoting fathers and mothers, especially ‘natural’ ones. All of this is part of the same process of throwing open the family home and our intimate relationships to more prying and regulation by the state. It is not a progressive development. It’s the opposite - it is elitist and authoritarian. I find it very strange that so many people have been drawn into supporting the pseudo-radical, er, Tory-led campaign for gay marriage, when it seems quite clear to me that it is of a piece with the Tories’ numerous other policies for intervening in and undermining the authority of longstanding private family arrangements.

Brendan, will you marry me? In a church and all? Michael Owens

Sorry, can’t - don’t believe in God.

I can’t imagine you listening to rock or pop music, but I guess you must do? So, tell us, who are Brendan O’Neill’s favourite bands and albums? Who gets those angry Marxist toes tapping? Blake Masterson

Like everyone, I guess, I go through music phases. One of my all-time favourite albums is Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, which is weird because it is fully of hippy bullshit and I am the least hippyish person there is. I mean, I also love Primal Scream, singers of the brilliant track ‘Kill All Hippies’. Also, Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Nirvana, and lots of other stuff that was big when I was between the ages of 14 and 19. My moshing days are long gone, though, so you’re quite right to limit your query to the matter of what makes my toes move.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

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