30 September 2015

Attention young Corbynistas: the free market works


Some simpler-minded Tories have been disappointed by the Labour Conference. They had hoped for chaos, blood in the aisles, hatred. Although there was plenty of hatred just below the surface, Jeremy Corbyn was determined to sound kinder and gentler. His looks also help. This is a man who would not get far in an audition for the part of Robespierre or Lenin. Yet there is a role for him. All he would need is a couple of leather patches on his elbows to play an old-fashioned, hapless school-master who was hopeless at keeping order, but whose former pupils tell affectionate stories about him. “D’you remember the time when we shut old Corby in the stationery cupboard?”

It was crazy to make him a headmaster. But I have been pointing out to despairing Labour friends that he is not the most unelectable leader whom their party could have chosen. That would be John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor. Even so, wise Tories should be contented with what they have and grateful that the Corbyn leadership did not disintegrate this week. He is perfectly acceptable – if you are a Tory.

It would also be absurd to deny that the man’s views have an appeal. There are lots of idealistic youngsters with red stars in their eyes who will continue to rally to Corbynista banners. Many of them will seize any opportunity for a violent protest. We almost have a new generation of soixante-huitards. There will be unrest over the next few months.

On the face of it, that might seem absurd. Do these people really know nothing about the history of the Twentieth Century? Corbynite socialism and Marxism– a distinction without a difference where their victims were concerned – started out with idealism. Noble intellects were attracted to the cause; many of them fell victims to it. But revolutionary socialism is a battle to transform human nature. It seeks to remove the protection of civil society, personal freedom and the rule of law – all of which serve to insulate man from his worst instincts and attributes. Socialism denies original sin, and in so doing proves that it is still a crucial insight into the human condition.

This is not just a theoretical argument. If you still believe in socialism, just look at the casualty lists. This might not deter the undergraduate-aged Corbynistas. Wordsworth caught their mood:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven! – Oh! times
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in Romance.

That romance ended in the guillotine, but the young are always eager to believe that with them in charge, everything will be different. At twenty, such naivete has an exasperating charm. At forty, the charm has gone.

By then, or even earlier, anyone with half an intellect should have drawn an obvious conclusion from the state of the world. Free markets work. Countries which allow them to flourish will grow in prosperity. Thanks to markets, billions of people in the developing world have escaped from subsistence level – in many cases, sub-subsistence level – poverty. So why is it so hard for free-marketeers to win a conclusive victory after which belief in socialism would be as rare as belief that the earth is flat?

There is one basic problem. Although free markets work, they lack aesthetic appeal, especially among those of student age. It is no use trying to refute them with common sense; that is the one sensual activity which does not interest them. Nor is there any point in telling them that the facts of life are free market. They may be passionately interested in the facts of life, but not in that one. In affluent societies, the young are easily stirred to look down on the production of goods and services, especially when they themselves can take both for granted.

The Corbynistas may not realise it, but their belief in the vulgarity of trade lies in direct descent from Victorian snobbery. That snobbery has another aspect. The Marxist historian Perry Anderson (no relation) once wrote that England had the earliest, least pure and most mediated bourgeois revolution. Although that is a contentious description of the Civil War, he has a point. As the English bourgeoisie never reshaped institutions and society in their own image, they may not have the self-confidence of their equivalents in France, Germany and America.

In a book about the middle classes which he wrote in the early Sixties (with Roy Lewis) Angus Maude said that England was the only country in the world where a self-made millionaire would feel socially uneasy in the presence of a retired major and a country clergyman. Since then, the movement from status to contract has gained momentum and these days, it might need a general and a bishop. Even so, our middle classes may still lack the elan vital to brush off routine disparagement from the BBC, and from their own undergraduate young. Margaret Thatcher did inspire the animal spirits of the English middle classes; it was one of her greatest achievements. But there is more to be done.

It may be that every generation has to renew the case for the free market. But that should not be impossible. The facts of life are free market. When Jeremy Corbyn talks about “kinder, gentler” he is merely offering us a kinder, gentler Marxism. There is no such thing.

Bruce Anderson is a political commentator.