An excerpt of ‘Vexed’ was published in the August issue of the New Economy Journal.
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If you had to pick a defining characteristic of the year 2020, you could do worse than nominate polarisation – the division of people into two sharply contrasting groups or sets of opinions/beliefs. Everywhere across the Western World, deep splits are entrenching on fundamental issues of public interest: from climate change and clean energy, to racial equality and public policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, to immigration and borders. Derision and distrust are the modus operandi of those seeking to engage across political lines, and common ground is becoming harder and harder to find.
In light of these cleavages in the social and cultural fabric, it seems almost quaint to read a book interrogating political tribalism organised around issues that are decidedly less existential. And yet James Mumford’s Vexed: Ethics Beyond Political Tribes (published in March by Bloomsbury), which is oriented around six topics– assisted dying, social welfare, sexual liberation, gun control, transhumanism and the rights of former felons – nevertheless provides a thought-provoking and informative discussion on “package deal ethics” and their pernicious consequences for the body politic.
“Morality”, writes Mumford, has “become thoroughly politicized”, resulting in “two opposing political visions govern[ing] how to act, and how to think about how to act”. When subject to sustained scrutiny however, Mumford argues that many of the “instinctive positions of both the Left and the Right are riven with contradictions”, necessitating a break with package deals and a return to first principles as the basis upon which think “afresh” about these and other issues.
Mumford makes his argument, in part, by exploring how some positions have been “tacked onto [others] for historical contingent reasons”. One example of this is the “pro-life” (anti-abortion) stance baked into the Republican Party platform, which Mumford explains was initially espoused primarily by New Deal-era liberals who believed “it was the prerogative of the law to protect the vulnerable”. It was only later that Richard Nixon, whose Republican administration was pro-choice during his first term, conspicuously appropriated the reverse position for conservative ends, after he realised “his chances of re-election hinged on bringing Catholics into the fold”.
Mumford’s object with Vexed is to affirm principles across both sides of the political spectrum, which he uses first as a vehicle to suggest that the (mainstream) left and right are guilty of hypocrisy in specific, chapter-length, contexts; and then as the infrastructure for a new moral policy platform bearing little resemblance to the conglomerations put forward by major parties in periodic elections.
And so, in Chapter 1, after exploring and applauding the Left’s historical achievements in protecting the elderly from destitution by implementing the age pension in the 1930s, which reflected a steadfast commitment the principle of inclusivity, Mumford argues this principle is betrayed by liberals’ support for assisted dying, which could conceivably impose pressure on members of our quickly ageing populations to “relieve their family and society” of their burdensome existence. Then, in Chapter 2, Mumford interrogates the conservative fixation with family values – again, a position he is supportive of and wants to affirm – before rebuking the Right for its patently hypocritical opposition to higher minimum wages and a stronger safety net, which are economic policies demonstrably good for the stability and sustainability of the family unit.
This formula is applied by Mumford through each of the remaining four chapters, with varying levels of persuasiveness, as he seeks to affirm the principles of sufficiency (reflected in the Left’s proud tradition of anti-consumerism but betrayed by its “unwavering commitment to sexual liberation”) the, sanctity of life (manifest in the Right’s anti-abortion stance but ignored in respect of gun control), personal responsibility (the Right’s go-to talking point, except as it relates to ex-offenders) and reverence. The last-listed ethical “case study” is easily Mumford’s weakest, as he attempts to argue that the transhumanism movement represents a departure from the principle of reverence inspired by the left-wing environmental programme. The only problem that transhumanist cause is today predominantly occupied and controlled by right-wing and libertarian figures (such as the infamous “techno-utopian” and tech oligarch Peter Theil), and is in any case an exceptionally niche political issue – leading one to suspect that Mumford may simply have needed an even three positions on both sides of the political spectrum to critique.
It’s Mumford’s fidelity to this framework which at times make the 190-page book feel less like a treatise on political tribalism than a collection of short essays which offer thoughtful and thoroughly contextualised analysis of otherwise disconnected topics. Equally frustrating is Mumford’s failure to situate his arguments – whether about minimum wage, the prison-industrial complex or aged care – in the context of neoliberalism, where obviously aberrant “packages” can be just as much attributed to a lack of “moral imagination” as they are a pervasive market logic that has subverted and distorted the ideologies and principles on both sides of the political spectrum. In this regard, I was reminded of this passage from Waledy Aly’s excellent 2010 essay on the uneasy and nonlinear relationship between traditional conservatism and neoliberalism, which Mumford may have benefited from reading:
By its nature, neo-liberalism embraces risk and the unknown; conservatism is cautious and risk-averse. Neo-liberalism respects only those social institutions that are compatible with the market; conservatism cherishes established institutions for their own sake, and for the stability and continuity they provide. Neo-liberalism is, therefore, quite prepared to sweep away cultural norms and social structures that cannot be rationalised in market terms, quite inconsistently with the conservative reverence for the mysterious qualities of society and the desire for gradual change that is organic rather than ardently ideological in origin. Neo-liberalism regards judgments about the quality of people’s living and working conditions as arbitrary; conservatism has a tradition of seeking refinement in people’s living and working lives, based on non-market ideas of what is desirable. Neo-liberalism promotes its political program as a universal truth; conservatism is suspicious of such claims and is attentive to the limitations imposed by local circumstances. (my emphasis)
Ultimately, Vexed is an appeal to individuals to think independently and critically on polarising issues and to reimagine ethics separate from, or with a healthy scepticism towards, prevailing political orthodoxies. Though somewhat limited by its choice of subjects, and its unwillingness to consider more closely the structures which have produced today’s package deals, it is a well-researched and stimulating contribution to the discourse on political tribalism. Given the growing prevalence (and institutionalisation) of tribalism in an ever increasing number of domains, one could do worse than read books like Vexed for ideas on how to respond.