Book Review: A Duty to Offend.


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I still have a schoolboy tendency to mumble when faced with a pretty girl. The Blackwell’s till girl smiles with pleasure at the name of the book I am trying to order. A Duty to a Friend. How beautiful!

Brendan O’Neill is one of the UK’s most talented polemicists. He writes for Reason, the Spectator, the Telegraph, the Australian, and Spiked, the online magazine which he has edited since 2007. His articles are always exhilarating and after a while you begin to automatically seek them out as the most sensible word on their chosen topics.

O’Neill is perhaps typical of the right in this country in coming from a working-class family and being maddened almost to pathological obsession by the middle-class left. A trademark image recurs throughout all of his writing of a chattering “Twitterati” who convene at Islington dinner parties, along with their poncily-named overachieving children, to sob about benefit cuts or the closure of food banks into whatever poncy organic beverage O’Neill has assessed to be the most sneerable of the day. This dinner-party tableau is basically, for O’Neill, what now remains of the left.

It is rather an indictment of progressive politics that many of the UK’s most prominent right-wing commentators are disillusioned leftists. Richard Littlejohn and Peter Hitchens both began their careers as industrial correspondents and Labour party members, whilst Melanie Phillips wrote about social services for the Guardian. I cannot, for the life of me, think of a writer who has made a comparable journey upstream. The lesson must be that we should not listen to Owen Jones for the first twenty years of his career, until his leftism is fixed securely into place.

Still, the blokeish humour and tabloid commonsense within O’Neill’s writing only ever covers the Leninist sternness which is always underneath. O’Neill leads the second generation of that informal “network” of journalists and political commentators which had replaced the Revolutionary Communist Party following its disbanding in 1997. The journalist Nick Cohen has called them “a very weird cult.” In 2012 Claire Fox, a former member of the RCP, was asked in an interview, “How did you travel from Bolshevism to right-wing libertarianism with such apparent ease?” She replied:

…this is not a journey that I have travelled… For me, Bolshevism was precisely a revolutionary struggle for freedom. I am happy to stand in that tradition… I am acutely aware of the temptation of calling upon my Marxist heritage to cover myself from accusations that I have moved to the right. But that too easily prostitutes Marxism.

If those who now inhabit the RCP’s afterlife are wont to style themselves as radical humanists, their practical achievement is instead the lonely centrism of Tony Blair. Like exasperated New Labour politicians they maintain that, in O’Neill’s words, we should “move beyond the antiquated language of left and right.” And like New Labour, they are distrusted equally by the left and right. For the left, George Monbiot has supposedly paraphrased O’Neill “flogging his USP” as “”though all my views are rightwing or extreme rw, I’m a left-winger. Honest.”” The Catholic blogger Cum Lazaro provides an amusing summary of many of the suspicions on the other side:

…on a number of issues, I and fellow Catholics have often found ourselves cheering the lad on: ‘Go on, Brendan! You tell them!’ I’ve always been slightly uneasy though, not being quite sure whether he is just a genuinely free thinker content to follow the arguments where they go, a clickbait merchant relying on contrarian views to generate, well, views, or some sort of cunning Commie who wants to suck the desperate sad loons like myself in, where, upon waking up, we’ll find ourselves living in a caravan and selling copies of the Trotsky Newsletter round social housing ghettos.

For my part, I enjoy O’Neill’s writing with a lingering unease that there could be something mixed in there which is authentically alien to my own, softer leftish politics. I am going to be arguing, however, that the RCP, and Spiked, and all of the twenty-five articles in A Duty to Offend, might constitute the farthest inroad that Marxism has made into the twenty-first century. But firstly a short interval about me.

As a student, I read along to the “new” anti-globalisation left, a regime of articles by Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Naomi Klein, and Tariq Ali. I was particularly influenced by Ali, who I saw lecture in my first week of university, barely a month after the 9/11 attacks. Theirs was a worldview in which the military-industrial complex and ruthless corporations were always set against stirring grassroots. The flashpoints in this struggle were visible, not in Nuneaton and Ipswich, but in remote, dusty places such as Palestine and Columbia.

The inadequacy of the “new” left was brought home to me by the 2003 Iraq War. I believed then, as I believe now, that the war could not have been stopped unless a leading figure within the Labour cabinet, most obviously Gordon Brown, had resigned and sided with the anti-war protestors. Yet I grew ever more conscious of the gap between the grave responsibility which the Stop the War Coalition had assumed and the undeniable irresponsibility of their tactics. They only ever wanted to screech at power, in between pointlessly lecturing each other about subjects on which they already, thoroughly agreed. Their marches were demonstrations of powerlessness.

My hunt for a greater professionalism initially had disastrous results: I joined the Green Party. Upon surveying the entire left, I decided that the Greens were the most intelligent and credible part of it. This appraisal was immediately reversed, however, once some foxes had trotted on to the scene. The Greens sounded inspiring to me when they were condemning the hundreds of thousands of civilians who had died in Iraq, but the problem was that they condemned the deaths of foxes with exactly the same passion. This struck me as being essentially depraved (I also privately admired the pageantry of foxhunting) and so I was soon back on the road again, continuing my solitary journey in search of a left-wing politics which worked.

I had first read Spiked as an undergraduate and been nonplussed by it. To me Spiked resembled a Sunday newspaper lifestyle supplement, with half of its articles seemingly devoted to breastfeeding and obesity. These might have been important issues in Nuneaton and Ipswich, but they were very far from where the front line had been previously drawn. Later, after the fox debacle, I returned to Spiked and began to read it avidly. In doing so, I learned that a lot of the views which I had quietly held as a student, and attributed merely to my own personal lack of sentimentality, were in fact humanist.

Spiked has still always remained a substitute destination, or the only available road forward after every other one was closed. I would like to live in a society which is run by a politically organised working-class and I have always viewed parliamentary democracy as being the very least that we should ask for. But if I tried to live according to my ideals today, I would probably drown in wistfulness.

The RCP may look like they are merely enjoying an active retirement. Spiked is sometimes accused of propagating “revolutionary defeatism.” Admittedly, upon dimming the lights of O’Neill’s rhetorical flair, we are recognisably confronted with the same reaction to history as almost every other surviving Leninist movement. Russia and China are both, to varying degrees, being led by Leninist political structures which have made an inglorious peace with capitalism. Nonetheless the erstwhile RCP might respond that they have been assigned a new and urgent historical role. In a spirit of revolutionary defeat they have returned to the starting-point of the Enlightenment, only to discover to their horror that this is in danger of being defeated as well.

Where Communists were once regarded as dangerous or, at best, impractical, now the same view is being increasingly taken of democracy, the ideal that political power should be controlled by the reason of the masses. Hence the popularity of the UK’s unelected monarchy, the bizarre fervour for the EU amongst the UK’s educated classes, and the confidence of undemocratic regimes in China and Egypt that they have a monopoly on “stability.” Meanwhile, a faith in the intrinsic irrationality of the people lies behind incremental legislative attacks upon freedom of speech and freedoms of personal choice. Environmentalism, for O’Neill, prioritises “the planet” over what it defines as irrational human needs.

Unlike previous generations we can no longer afford the luxury of ideas such as socialism, O’Neill warns, when the capacity for human reason which was once the basis for these ideas is now under attack, everywhere and every day. His consequent defence of the Enlightenment is totalitarian in its application. In A Duty to Offend, O’Neill wheels his guns on to battlegrounds which many intellectuals would dismiss as trivia, such as the UK Director of Public Prosecutions’ querying of the legality of “drunk sex,” the increasing reluctance throughout the media to condemn suicide, and campaigns to promote masturbation to young people. If you can live quite happily alongside such phenomena, O’Neill seems to imply, then you are part of the creeping historical complacency which he is trying to rouse us from.

Although O’Neill is always arguing for progress, his stance is paradoxically one of frantic conservatism. In A Duty to Offend he is constantly touching base with canonical Enlightenment figures such as Spinoza, Kant, and Paine, like a Victorian classicist who is harking back to proven greats. You might interpose that the Enlightenment appears to be in pretty rude health these days, when compared to in preceding historical periods. Slavery, female servitude, colonialism, and fascism have been all deleted from its hard drive. This is only more complacency! You cannot see through the smiles of progress to read how sickly it actually is.

O’Neill’s 2007 article “Marxists for Capitalism” proposes that the right’s exuberance at defeating Marxism has blinded them to the reality that they have also lost. The capitalism which Marx had wished the proletariat to seize and control has been usurped by a welfare-dependent, irrationally risk-averse imposter. Where Marxism was once capitalism’s arch-enemy, both are currently allies in exile. O’Neill maintains that Marxism, if operated properly, is now more attuned to the spirit of capitalism than the consensus amongst today’s capitalists.

This might be the most significant contribution so far from our own century to future anthologies of Marxist writing. O’Neill has colonised the whole of Marxism for the revolutionary defeatists, a virtuoso tactical stroke which is akin to a handful of guerrillas seizing a capital city. You end up being almost convinced that if Marx was still alive today, his analysis would lead him through and around all of the other anti-capitalist movements and straight to the doors of Spiked. But you also distrust “Marxists for Capitalism” simply because it is too entertaining. How can such a delicious, devilish paradox (even if its “War is Peace” title is not in fact doublethink) not be art for art’s sake?

Yes, let us move on to investigate the defects of O’Neill’s writing. He appears to pursue a formula that if the liberal middle-class aren’t squealing then his logic isn’t working. When we read “Marxists for Capitalism” we are implicitly encouraged to picture countless middle-class anti-capitalists gnashing their teeth at the news that Marx is now on the side of Tesco and Starbucks. I imagine that O’Neill’s regular customers have become incurably addicted to that sadistic crunch, when some darling of the Guardian such as Vince Cable, the Dalai Lama, or Banksy gets satisfyingly pulverised. To “offend” in this way is, for O’Neill, not merely a bonus but a “duty.” When defending free speech at the Oxford Union earlier this year, he insisted that, “anyone who believes that humanity only progresses through being daring and sometimes disrespectful, now has a duty to rile and stir and outrage.”

Perhaps an original feature of the Marxist class struggle has survived intact in O’Neill’s calculation that every liberal consensus must be necessarily opposed to the will of the people. I assume that this calculation ultimately motivates O’Neill’s maddening opposition to gay marriage. Everybody must have a Brendan O’Neill threshold and here is where mine is crossed. How can a libertarian ever be in favour of the state annulling gay marriages and prosecuting those involved in them? O’Neill claims that “gay marriage has nothing to do with liberty… [it] massively expands the authority of the state in our everyday lives, in our most intimate relationships and even over our consciences.” Still, asserting that the state should have nothing to do with marriage carries the logical implication that the two must co-exist.

When O’Neill pulls up the veteran political activist Noam Chomsky for his apparently snobbish remarks about the “empty-headedness of the public,” it is once again too much for me. “Against Chomsky” sounds like bitchiness between colleagues, considering that O’Neill and Chomsky are both libertarians who are openly dedicated to the Enlightenment (indeed Chomsky agrees, for instance, that the legalisation of gay marriage “doesn’t illustrate any commitment to civil liberties.”) Yet I know O’Neill too well by now and I can sense that he is attacking Chomsky only for being “the chattering classes’ favourite radical.” We are back at that eternal dinner party, once again maliciously blowing the foam off those iced chai cappuccinos.

Moreover, the remarks that O’Neill condemns Chomsky for making turn out to hardly malign the rationality of the public. Chomsky reckons that the public’s “high degree of thought and analysis” is channelled into the “fantasy world” of stadium sports due to their own inability “to influence the real world.” This is not unlike the analysis that O’Neill has made himself, albeit of conspiracy theories, which he states “always spring from a feeling of political impotence, from a powerful sense of frustration that public life is not going in the direction you want it to go in. So one starts to fantasise…”

The Enlightenment will not be saved by simply being offensive and it will surely incur significant damage if it becomes associated with irritation. Many of the Enlightenment’s first proponents were convivial, clubbable figures. David Hume, for example, would have certainly offended many more of his peers with his contempt for Christianity if not for his majestically inoffensive personal conduct. As he had urged in his 1738 Treatise of Human Nature, “we must, on every occasion, be ready to prefer others to ourselves; to treat them with a kind of deference, even though they be our equals.”

A broader, more strategic weakness of Spiked is that it is a political party which thinks itself a magazine. If the same articles appear to be written over and over again, by different authors on different dates, then your mistake is to have identified them as articles in the first place. They are actually reiterations of the points on an unwritten manifesto. Spiked is ostensibly biding its time, keeping camouflaged in the media until it has reached the correct historical moment to be incarnated as a political party again. After a while, though, you start to grow impatient. The enchanted sleep is getting boring. Spiked might be fighting for ideas in the media, or for an indirect political influence, but this seems to express a corresponding phobia of placing the Enlightenment in front of the electorate. For a movement which unerringly defends democracy to have internalised this wariness of the voters appears to skirt uncomfortably close to hypocrisy.

We sometimes get exhilarating glimpses of what O’Neill’s ideology might look like in action. In “Forget Corbynomics. We need a new industrial revolution,” a September essay for Spiked, Phil Mullan demands “a special industrial and infrastructure fund in the order of £1 trillion to be spent over the next 10 to 15 years (on top of the existing public-spending plans in these areas).” Any other magazine would chase this figure with an array of exploratory articles and essays, but on Spiked it has only the status of a muttering in sleep. With its hint of massive state expenditure, Mullan’s single, shiny science-fiction remark carries the danger of alienating right-wing libertarians and rendering Spiked’s tactical centrists even lonelier.

Spiked’s day-to-day campaigning against campus censorship, or Operation Elveden, generates an impression of whirring activity, but it slides across the economic landscape at a glacial pace. Maybe Spiked is only ever meant as groundwork for something else. Tychy initially distinguished the futuristic online magazine Aeon, which was founded in 2012, as what the next evolutionary stage might look like. Aeon publishes in-depth articles about science and philosophy, typically from a humanist perspective. It avoids the repetition and trivia which mark a bad week on Spiked. You sense that essays such as J L Schellenberg’s radically-humanist “The End is Not Near” might have appeared on Spiked had Aeon not existed, but in some less imaginative, more politically antagonistic form.

Possibly in being too infatuated with the glamour of Leninist cells, I have mistakenly categorised O’Neill’s Marxism as active and his defence of the Enlightenment as passive. The classical Enlightenment was never anything so limited as a policy programme, especially in Scotland where it had flourished only after the departure of the entire government to London. Marx, Trotsky, and so many other revolutionaries were abler theorists and journalists than they were practical political leaders. Nevertheless, Tychy is impatient to imagine and occupy the left-wing renaissance which on Spiked you have to usually read about between the lines.


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