WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be a radical in the 21st Century? Listening to RNZ’s “Nine To Noon” this morning, I realised it may mean subscribing to the views of Matthew Hooton.
Every Monday morning the host of “Nine To Noon”, Kathryn Ryan, talks to the right-wing PR maven, Matthew Hooton, and what’s become a revolving-door of allegedly “left-wing” spokespeople. This morning (11/7/16) it was Stephen Mills.
I characterise Matthew as “right-wing” only because I’m lazy, and because what he really is doesn’t yet (as far as I know) have a name. Yes, Matthew still believes in the power of the market, and he reacts viscerally against the principles and programmes of the traditional Left, but beyond these touchstones of traditional right-wing politics, he traverses unchartered territory.
Perhaps the most radical aspect of Matthew’s political praxis is his utter rejection of, and disdain for, all forms of historical consciousness. For Matthew, not only is the past “a different country”, it’s one with whom we should sever diplomatic relations. Listening to him pour scorn on poor Stephen Mills’ enthusiastic recitation of the Labour Party’s historical achievements, and laugh at the notion of Andrew Little “talking to a 25-year-old voter about Michael Joseph Savage”, I realised that in Matthew’s Utopia universal historical amnesia would be the norm.
This attitude goes much further than Orwell’s dystopian formula: “He who controls the past controls the present; he who controls the present controls the future.” Matthew has no desire to control the past, for the very simple reason that he no longer believes the past has anything important to contribute to the present.
Until this morning, the only people I’d ever heard refer to the great thinkers of the past as “Dead White Males” were post-modern radical feminists. Their principal avenues of critique were at once anti-Western and anti-patriarchal. Their purpose, to challenge the canonical thinkers of the traditional university. But one thing Matthew certainly is not, is a radical feminist. So, to hear him dismiss the philosophical foundations of the Labour Party as the ideas of “Dead White Males” was more than a little disconcerting.
What about a post-modernist? Could this be the philosophical direction Matthew has chosen? It would certainly explain his impatience with history and tradition. Post-modernists reject the all-embracing religious and ideological “metanarratives” of the past, in favour of an untrammelled individualistic relativism. No matter what sort of world it may be, if it works for you, then it is the best of all possible worlds.
Except, of course, a post-modernist is as likely to draw inspiration from the past as the present. Matthew will have none of that. No 25-year-old voter is to be troubled by stories about people who lived 80, or, one suspects, even 8 years ago.
My suspicion is that Matthew’s radical ontology rejects both the past and the future in favour of a perpetual present. His is a world in which the individual needs neither memory nor conscience: a world in which one moves according to, and is guided by, complex algorithms that, ultimately, may, or may not, have human authors.
The terrifying thing about Matthew’s radicalism is that its ability to describe our present reality may, already, be superior, to the traditionalism espoused by an old greybeard like me.
The great Roman jurist and legislator, Cicero, wrote that: “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”
I would answer Cicero that such a life would have no worth at all.
Matthew, on the other hand, might argue that we are moving rapidly towards a world in which it is no longer necessary to grow up at all. A world in which living in a state of perpetual childhood will be the norm. Already, the solipsism of the child finds less and less in our increasingly virtual reality to contradict its expectations. We may have reached the point where the very idea that there was a world before us, and that there will be a world after us, has become deeply disturbing.
In an age when young people risk fatal injuries in pursuit of Pokemon GO’s virtual creatures, Matthew Hooton’s view of politics: as the entertaining clash of ruthlessly competitive, but essentially trivial, fictional narratives; may already have more going for it than we left-wing conservatives dare to contemplate.