04 October 2016
Writing about the arts, ideas and sciences, as it seems I mainly do, I am used to dealing with clarity of thought and high intellectual and aesthetic ambition. Not that I often find them – and almost never in myself – but I do at least know they are there to be found. Not one of these things, I concluded some time ago, was to be found in politics. Here, instead, is a sort of Wreck of the Medusa, a storm-tossed sea with people clinging desperately to a botched-up raft, delusions intact but hope fading.
The raft is, of course, ideology. I have previously written about Corbyn, but ideology isn’t his problem, mere stupidity is. He’s all at sea but there is no raft other than the one in his imagination. A friend suggests the nearest thing to an ideology in his party is anti-semitism and, gloomily, I see the point. There is, I suspect, a concealed ideology which is belief in a popular overthrow of Parliament and its replacement with a sort of commissariat led, I presume, by the comically (and I hope it is no more than that) sinister John McDonnell.
But the left is an easy target, drawn as it is to rafts, the more battered and unserviceable the better. In recent decades it is the right that has been the worse offender. The raft here is generally called neo-liberalism – though neo-conservatism with its impetuous love of foreign wars was almost as water-logged – which means many things but, essentially, it always involves the superstition that the free market will solve all our problems whereas the state will solve very few or none.
I thought about this while considering the matter of Donald Trump’s declared loss, in 1995, of $915 million which seems to have relieved him of taxes for the next two decades. The Democrats seized on this. He’s a rotten businessman, they said, and the poor pay taxes but this rich guy just gets away with it, cheating the system. True and deplorable enough, but that is a charge that actually strengthens Trump’s position vis-a-vis his base. He believes, as he let slip during the debate, that paying no tax makes him smart and he then flipped this to say he would be smart on behalf of all Americans. I think we can call that a draw.
The Democrats missed the big point that would diminish Trump and, at the same time, expose the absurdity of the neo-liberal superstition. What happened in 1995 was not only that Trump lost $915 million but also that he never had to pay a penny of it back. This was because of a law that gives companies limited liability, the most effective means of controlling greed and encouraging risk-taking so that they benefit us all. Then what happened was that Trump was relieved of his tax burden for years to come – again because of the law underpinning the tax code. In short Trump was bailed out by the government on behalf of the taxpayers. He was bailed out as surely as the banks and the motor industry – in fact, more blatantly because there were no conditions attached.
This is undeniable, it is the supertanker next to the battered raft, but nobody seems to see it because the rhetoric of both left and right is so bogged down by ideological superstition.
And so I sail away on the rowing boat of ideas, art and science and buoyed up by a chirpy New York gay, a greater soul than anything on offer in politics. This is the ending – a lesson in how to sail sanely – of Frank O’Hara’s wonderful poem To the Harbormaster.
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.’