Rod Liddle, Selfish Whining Monkeys: How we Ended Up Greedy, Narcissistic and Unhappy (Fourth Estate, 2014).
Many readers of Catallaxy will be familiar with Rod Liddle from his column in The Spectator, where he regularly and entertainingly debunks the hypocrisy and denialism of the politically correct doctrines propagated and defended by the West’s left-liberal intelligentsia. His new book contains much of the same; it is a critique of what he calls the ‘faux left’, ‘faux’ because whereas it claims to be motivated by concern for the poor and disadvantaged, it is in reality devoted to securing its own careers, incomes and lifestyles, frequently at the public expense. But the book contains a good deal more, some of it quite surprising.
Liddle had two highly personal reasons for writing this book. The first is to confess to his own selfishness and hypocrisy in leaving his first wife and their children, and remarrying (though he is still in touch with his two sons from his first marriage). The second is to pay homage to his parents, who were of the generation that grew up during World War II and inherited the stoicism, frugality and neighbourliness that enabled their own parents to endure the war’s sacrifices and privations. Liddle is not overly romantic about them; he believes that we all do what we can ‘get away with’, but as his parents couldn’t get away with much they behaved markedly better than his own generation, which has contrived to get away with a lot. Economically, we have stopped saving up for things; we demand to have what we want now, and the capitalist system readily supplies the necessary credit. Morally, we have abandoned personal responsibility and, whether we know it or not, we live by fashionable social doctrines that propagate moral relativism and maintain that our conduct is determined by forces beyond our control: we are all victims now.
The central achievement of the ‘permissive society’ is easy, no-fault divorce, and its central self-deception is that children are not unduly harmed by family break-up. In fact, says Liddle, separated adults and the offspring of broken homes make up a highly disproportionate share of the unemployed, the underachievers and the mentally ill. Meanwhile, throwing off material and moral constraints has left us no happier than our parents’ generation was, but prone to mysterious new malaises for which no clear physical cause can be found. The only genuine moral advance that Liddle’s generation has made is to very largely cast off the racial prejudice of his parents’ generation. But on economic and cultural grounds Liddle shares the popular opposition in the UK to mass immigration and multiculturalism.
Liddle is clearly a conservative, but he is also, as he declared in The Spectator soon before the British general election of May 2015, a supporter of the Labour Party. Indeed, he holds Thatcherism as responsible as permissiveness for modern dysfunctional hyper-individualism. In his critique of high finance and globalisation he even seems to be still something of the Marxist revolutionary he was in the 1980s. In fact he is a throwback to the early days of Labour a century ago, when it was part of the movement to emancipate the working class by instilling in it a thoroughly Victorian devotion to sobriety, education and self-improvement. But his stubborn attachment to Labour’s traditional gas-and-water socialism is a case of pure sentimentality. He calls for the renationalisation of Britain’s public utilities and the shunning of consumer choice in services like education and health care in favour of leaving decisions to the ‘experts’. But this wilfully ignores both the extent of government failure in Britain that preceded the Thatcher revolution and the continuing betrayal of white working class children in failing state schools. It also leaves him without a practical means of combating the faux left which is his main target. In one of his best chapters he shows that an internet search can quite quickly establish that the ’quangocracy’ that polices public standards and the terms of public debate is both remarkably small and remarkably unqualified for the multifarious tasks for which its members co-opt one another. But he isn’t prepared to disestablish it by cutting off its money; and merely exposing it (which he thinks is all we can do) won’t do much good when it can simply deflect criticism of itself by denouncing it as politically incorrect.
Still, Liddle poses questions that classical liberals won’t necessarily find easy to answer. How readily can freedom and responsibility be combined? Hayek wanted maximum individual freedom to be contained within a rigorous, traditional moral and legal framework that enforced the rule of law. But once people are used to wide consumer choice, why wouldn’t they eventually choose subversive but congenial moral codes and doctrines as well? Was J. S. Mill right to see public opinion as potentially the greatest source of oppression? Or, as Liddle suggests, are strong social sanctions and norms needed to help individuals behave responsibly? Much has been written about the relation between conservatism and liberalism, but I’m not sure it has come to any firm conclusions.