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What has happened to the left?

    So the day of action came and went, and depending on your point of view was a 'flop', the Coalition's 'Iraq moment' or merely 'largely trouble free'. Everyone declared success and went away happy.

    The most bizarre aspect of the protests against government cuts is the extraordinary hyperbole they have been attracting from the left, beginning with the student protests against fee increases for higher education last year. It really is weird. In the Guardian last Autumn page after page, online and off, was filled with excited paeans to this repeat of les événements of May 1968. It was our 1968 moment, a defining moment in British politics, "a children's crusade, epic and tragic." There has even been a book rushed out about the "upwelling of resistance that is the latest expression of the social and political turbulence boiling in the heartlands of capital since the Wall Street crash of 2008."

    Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Unfortunately, the most high-profile modern-day soixante-huitard turned out to be the presumably not terribly underprivileged son of an enormously-wealthy rock star. Trafalgar Square stubbornly refused to become Tahrir Square. The bill passed into law, and it all fizzled out.

    As this week's day of action approached, the pages of the Guardian were filled with people bemoaning the general lack of interest in the latest epoch-making moment. One commentator grumbled about the lack of celebrity support at Glastonbury for last week's strikes, whereas the 1984 miners' strike was even backed by the pop group Wham! (this, perhaps, is not a point to labour). Another scratched his head in disbelief that "opposition to the government's radical policies - policies for which it has provocatively little electoral mandate - has not developed in the ferocious way many people thought it would". Ed Miliband was vilified for his lack of enthusiasm (as was NUS President Aaron Porter during the student protests).

    So the upwelling hasn't upwelled quite as tumultuously as some expected. Perhaps it will, perhaps the Coalition will be in real trouble later in the year, perhaps not. Politics is hard to predict and depends on so many contingencies and apparently minor events.

    What leaps to the eye in this week's flurry of frustration is how disproportionate and unworldly the response has been. There is a genuine argument to be had about how quickly the government should work to bring down the deficit. Personally, I am supportive of its haste given the problematic outlook for the long term (where we can expect not only a demographic crisis, but also a long bearish period while households painfully deleverage themselves), but Ed Balls' counterargument that it should be wary of suppressing growth is perfectly reasonable. It is also to be expected that in left-wing rhetoric, the parallels with the 1980s will be laid on thick (though 1926? Please!). Nothing wrong with the normal toing and froing of quotidian politics; what is surprising is how much debate goes well beyond that.

    No-one won the last election, but there was precious little confidence in the performance of the Labour government. The budget deficit had become the biggest political issue, with a big argument within the Labour Party about whether and how it should be addressed. Gordon Brown's mishandling of the economy, and the eclipse of his reputation for financial probity, were vital factors in the election result. The Coalition has had to rein in spending, as a Labour government would have had to do. The process of cutting has just begun, and if entirely successful (a big if), then it will only bring spending down to the levels of 2008.

    In other words, these measures are not too terrible, and it seems that a goodly number of voters buy into them for the moment, for good reason as Lewis James Brown pointed out in this blog. Most people accept that expenditure must be paid for. If young people are to go to university in anything like the numbers of the last few years, money must be found from somewhere to pay for them, for example. Our living standards generally have been inflated by an artificial boom, inflated asset prices and cheap and easy credit. As a nation we have been living beyond our means, and we need to stop. It is not the fault of evil faceless international economists forcing us into austerity; it is our fault for borrowing too much money on too little collateral. Greece is a horrible example of what can go really wrong if politicians are not responsible. The British Coalition government has been in power for a little over a year, and should be given its head.

    This is a narrative that is broadly accepted across the political spectrum (government satisfaction poll ratings have held up relatively well). The left is perfectly entitled to try to challenge it by reasoned debate, yet it has leaped straight into talk of a bright new dawn delivered by a new generation of hopeful revolutionaries (and a corresponding disappointment when we wake up the next morning to find ourselves in the same old epoch as before). One of the reasons May 1968 was such a fascinating moment was that then the left had an alternative model. The model didn't work, and the revolution didn't ultimately pan out; such is life. December 2010 was not so fascinating, because the dixards had no alternative model, except that someone else should pay for what they considered their entitlements.

    It is a shame that so few are prepared to work to develop a positive model of left-wing reform that could survive a minute's contact with reality. Instead, all we have seen is the hope that someone's, anyone's, disgruntlement with government cuts could trigger some unspecified collapse, based on a romantic interpretation of events 43 years ago. Argument has been discarded, and replaced by the "euphoria of dissent" (Mark Fisher's phrase). Even on the international front, so oppositional and unconstructive has left-wing politics been that the Greatest Living Intellectual Noam Chomsky has only just realised that his mate Hugo Chávez is not the democrat he claims to be.

    Does this matter? Yes, I think it does. First of all, a government governs best when it has an effective opposition with sharp ideas. Second, the Coalition may well crash and burn, and it would be nice to think that if that did happen, there would be something vaguely sensible to replace it. Third, an opposition that understood political reality would pick the fights that made sense, rather than needlessly trying to disrupt everyone else's lives on a whim. Fourth, there is no doubt that the altogether necessary retrenchment of governmental ambition will impact on the vulnerable, and the vulnerable need effective and constructive spokespeople. Fifth, if the mass of people opposing the cuts are left with the impression that there is nothing sensible or serious to be said against them, then their frustration is more likely to take an angry, demoralised, destructive and impotent turn, which is bad news for all of us.

    Finally, political philosophy can be extremely stimulating, and it is very boring when the best that one side can produce is a vague hope that someone trashing Tory Party headquarters will "re-establish[] the idea that protest can be meaningful, and even enjoyable".

    Kieron O’Hara is a senior research fellow in Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, and has a DPhil in philosophy from the University of Oxford. His research interests are:
    the politics and philosophy of technology, particularly the World Wide Web; transparency and open data; privacy; memory; and conservative philosophy.

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