Sunday 28 March 2021

What Centrism Is

 What centrism is

The rhetoric of centrism is pervasive. 

It’s so pervasive, even people who aren’t centrists use it without thought; usually about their political opponents, but even so, they use it. The word ‘extremist’ for example. What is the extremist extreme in relation to? In relation to the centre of course - but where or what is the centre? 

That fact is, in itself, instructive; both with regard to who or what the centrists themselves think they are, and with regards, perhaps, to the extent to which they are thought to be correct, even by their political opponents. 

So: who or what are they? What are they, or what do they believe they are, at the centre of? 

It would seem facetious, glib, possibly even insulting to suggest that centrists believe themselves to be at the centre of the universe; however, it wouldn’t be entirely wrong. 

What terms do centrists apply to themselves, claim as their own and use to self-identify? Sensible would be one. This would suggest that they see themselves, or at least see their ideological position (because it is an ideological position, something that I think many centrists would actually seek to deny), as the serious one, the one that is sober, calm, reasonable. None of these are, of course, absolute terms, and none are innocent. 

Centrists also see themselves as mature. As ‘grown-ups’; as ‘adults’. They say ‘The adults are in charge now,’ for example. This obviously casts anyone who doesn’t agree with them as children or adolescents. Regarding left-wing positions in particular, they use phrases like ‘sixth-form’ or ‘student’ politics. Of course, when they do this they delegitimise ideas they dislike, feel threatened by or even just disagree with, (in a way that is clearly an insult directed at the young, at youth itself) but without the bother of actually engaging with them at all. 

So they are sensible: serious; reasonable; mature. 

When centrism presents itself in this way, it presents itself as being outside of politics as such. To be sensible, to be serious, mature: all of this is to be reasonable. To be reasonable is to be rational. Centrism is presented as rationality as such. And therefore, of course, rationality as centrist. 

This returns to the notion, brushed lightly past above, that centrists might want to deny that their position is ideological. This is tied up with the idea that they are the epitome of rationality, of good sense, of the sensible. 

As I think this through, as I’m writing this, I feel as if I’m conjuring up an image of a 21st century version of the Victorian gentleman; and it strikes me that, actually, that’s exactly right. 

If centrism is genuinely ‘merely’ good sense, rational, sensible, then it is not a political position at all. It is, really, natural. It is the point of rest and of balance at the centre of the political see-saw. Centrism (and according to its own understanding of itself it’s not even an -ism) is the natural, in fact the only (reasonable, sensible, natural) position of any government. After all, if we are to be governed, who doesn’t want to be governed by the adults, sensibly and rationally? 

So far, this has been, essentially, a question of language, which might suggest that centrism is no more ultimately, than a language game; but it’s not. It’s not only that. Nor is it simply ideology in the old (vulgar) Marxist sense. 

Centrism is both at the centre of contemporary politics and outside politics altogether, or at least it thinks it is. This is because centrism can be mapped onto, and is perhaps an aspect of, the concept of “the majoritarian”, developed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. 

Despite the term “majoritarian”, this concept has nothing to do with numbers; the majoritarian, or the major, are not those who are greatest in number. It might be more fruitful to think of it in terms of major and minor keys in music; or, as Deleuze and Guattari famously introduced the concept in relation to the work of Franz Kafka, in terms of major and minor authors. 

For a first real taste of this concept, though, I’m going to turn to Deleuze’s essay “Literature and Life”, taken from the book Essays Critical and Clinical, in which he states that “man presents himself as a dominant form of expression that seeks to impose itself on all matter”. This is the major or the majoritarian. It dominates and seeks to impose itself on all matter. It is ultimately that to which every thing else, everything other, is referred and to which it refers itself. It is the source of judgement and the measure against which all others are judged. It is man, or rather, perhaps, Man. It is, we might say, bourgeois or, if you prefer, Establishment. It is male. It is heterosexual. It is white. It is able bodied. It is cis. It is centrist. 

I’m not, of course, making the absurd claim that every centrist is actually rich, or white, or male, or straight, or cis, or actually able-bodied. 

I might want to make the claim that centrism is virtually all of these things. 

I do want to make the claim that centrism is in support of a world in which these elements continue to dominate - and does not want that world challenged in any fundamental ways. 

The majoritarian model can assimilate and neutralise difference but it cannot accept difference as such. So Rupert Murdoch and Condoleeza Rice can both join the establishment, can become the bourgeoisie, can be assimilated to it; but that doesn’t change anything fundamental about it. Condoleeza Rice’s membership of the (global) establishment will not change that establishment, it will not acccomodate itself to her; she assimilates to it, she accepts its lore when she joins it. The same will ultimately be true of Angela Rayner as she continues her journey into the centre. 

This is because the majoritarian is not a collection of individual people who can be influenced. It is not a conspiracy. It’s not even a structure. It’s the dominant cultural overcoding of contemporary capitalism; and centrism is its current political expression. 

In a sense, whatever is the current political expression of the dominant cultural overcoding of capitalism is always ‘centrism’ insofar as it is, by definition, at the centre; however, it’s not always necessarily clear where that is.

Is it, for example, the current political domination of mainstream politics by the Conservative party? Is that the centre? I don’t think so, because it is a particular response to a set of circumstances, such as (to take just one, particularly significant, example) a particular somewhat-but-not-entirely misdirected anti-establishment desire by large numbers of people who felt themselves to be ignored, forgotten, lacking any real stake in the current order; a desire to assert themselves, claim their significance against the assumptions and presumptions of the established dominant ideas - a desire that became Brexit. It was a pull I felt myself, although I voted to remain on the basis that I was never going to knowingly share my position with fascists, not least because that would mean strengthening them in their viciously self-defeating (and viciously dangerous for ‘others’) delusions. Hyper-capitalist populists and pragmatists as they are, and for all that they come very much from the centre of the establishment, the current Tories are not the cultural dominant.

The Tories are very much, however, on a clear continuum with the centre; it is certainly difficult to see clearly where the centre shades imperceptibly into the populist Tory right; it is not, however, difficult to see where the centre ceases to shade into the left, particularly taking the Labour left as a convenient point of focus. It shades imperceptibly into the so-called soft-left and then - comes to an abrupt halt. In parliamentary terms, it stops at the benches of the Campaign Group. In extra-parliamentary terms it stops well before anyone starts talking about producing serious social change; or even a compromise that suggested the possibility of genuine social change. 

The current Tory dominance is not the centre but is on a continuum with it in a way that the Labour left is not. There are some who are perhaps pushing at the edges of acceptability - like Jacob Rees-Mogg - but on the whole, they are taken seriously. They are not, it should be clear, taken seriously because they are in government, but rather they are in government because they are taken seriously. This phrase ‘taken seriously’ in this context does not mean that they are considered particularly clever or impressive, but rather that they are not considered a threat to the current order of things. Many centrists, during the 2019 election, bemoaned their choice between the liar and fraud Boris Johnson promising to Get Brexit Done (Brexit was a problem for centrism because it did threaten to change things somewhat) and Jeremy Corbyn promising greater democracy, socialised broadband and a National Education Service. What centrism really wanted was a return to 2012 - a Tory government maybe, but one that was in many ways almost indistinguishable from the last Labour government; one that, after all, legitimised gay marriage and so, in many ways, legitimised LGBTQ+ more generally (or LGB, anyway). Here, of course, we can read ‘legitimised’, to some extent, as ‘assimilated’. There’s no doubt that marriage was and is a right that should be available to all, whatever their sexual preferences or trajectories, but there’s to doubt either that the legalisation of same-sex marriage was also a way for the majoritarian - for Man - to protect the institution of marriage and the family by extending its embrace and enfolding the LGB(TQ+) community into the bosom of the ‘normal’, bringing them within the pale, and neutralising at least aspects of their threat to dominant expectations and assumptions.  

However, to return to the 2019 election, ultimately it was always clear that they - the centrists of all parties and none - preferred Johnson because, ultimately, Brexit might cause a few problems for a few years but was not considered as great a threat to them and their position at the centre of the known and understood political, social and cultural universe as a relatively mild desire to empower minor people, both ‘ordinary’ and marginalised people. These are people considered by centrism as clients and charity cases to be pitied, helped or imprisoned but never to be given any actual agency. They are not really ‘people’ at all in the dominant imaginary of centrism. Deleuze frequently wrote that ‘the people are missing’ and it may be that it was the intent of the Corbyn leadership - whether or not such a thing might be possible for a Labour government in capitalist context - to find, build links with and mobilise the missing people that centrism found so terrifying that the full force of its political and cultural powers needed to be mobilised against it. 

The very existence of centrism is premised on its assumption that it draws its existence from a Platonic model of perfection, an ideal of political, social and cultural agency that is, as I said earlier, both outside politics and at its heart, destined to rule over the political (and social and cultural) sphere in perpetuity. I’m once again reminded, here, of that Victorian gentleman, benevolent in his heart of course, and his attitudes to some of the same ‘marginalised’ and ‘ordinary’ - workers, women, the colonised, LGBTQ+ people - that he might have seen as being problems it was his duty to tackle and to ‘solve’ from his position at the centre of the universe, his closeness to the ideal of rationality and compassion, but also with a firmness of moral resolve (also central to the same ideal) that would allow recalcitrant transgression to be punished; morality itself is essential to this position and its ideal self-image.

How might these problems be solved? By reform of course; not reform of an intrinsically exploitative economic system and its associated often-brutal social relations, nor by the serious examination or challenge of the social and cultural overcodings of those social relations that allow people to be subject to condemnation and internal exile, or subject to colonisation, on the basis of their distance from the ideal such a gentleman represents. No; the reform must take two forms. There might be no serious examination or challenge of the social overcoding, but it might be tinkered with and maybe slowly, gently, made subject to reform over time. Maybe even, ultimately, it might be allowable for homosexuals to marry (unthinkable, of course, in the gentleman’s own time), as long as the same process allows for the neutralisation of any threat that such deviance might pose to the ‘natural’ and ‘rational’ order. The second form is, of course, of the deviant people themselves. They must be taught, cajoled, bribed, nudged, into behaving themselves. In Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, they might, ideally, be made to make an unconscious, and in fact libidinal (so many people love Boris Johnson), investment in the maintenance of the social order, even if they believe on a conscious level they are challenging it. 

Essentially, ultimately, they must be made to serve capital and its interests, though obviously the goal would rarely be formulated in those terms. 

The Victorian gentleman is Keir Starmer. He’s Jess Phillips. He’s Andrew Marr. He’s Jon Richardson and J.K. Rowling and Femi Oluwole. He’s Sir Alan Sugar and Tony Robinson. 

He is what centrism is.