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Left, gauche and Syria

7 September 2013

Has it occurred to you as odd that the only two leaders committed to military action in Syria, Barack Obama and François Hollande, are both supposed to be left wing? I say “supposed” because, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, Obama is considerably to the right of Richard Nixon in the political spectrum. But before he took office few would have seen him as taking a militaristic stance in the face of domestic and worldwide public opinion. Some have speculated that there is a secret briefing US presidents receive on taking office which completely transforms their view of the world. Or is it just power, and the delusion of an absolute dose of it…?

French President Francois Hollande smiles as he chairs a round table discussion on the changes in the school timetable set out by the government during a visit to the primary school Michelet on the first day of the new school year in DenainHollande (seen here in a photograph withdrawn by AFP when someone noticed his “air un peu benêt”) is perhaps more surprising. He has taken a “soak the rich” approach to taxation which has made him deeply unpopular in some circles, and is unlikely to be placed to the right of many past présidents de la République even by Chomsky.

But to me most surprising of all was the frightful mess Ed Miliband has made of what should have been a great political opportunity to outplay David Cameron, who, with his Earl of Grantham approach to running the country, had completely misjudged the public mood. Instead of taking a simple position (that intervention without a Security Council resolution was illegal) or even a straightforward one (intervention without a clear exit would simply bring more misery on the Syrian people), Miliband accepted that military action could be justified, provided certain conditions (differing minutely from Cameron’s) were met. (As an aside let me point out that a military strike which degrades Assad’s conventional military capability without removing him makes it more, not less, likely that he will resort to chemical weapons in future.)

Why did these figures from the left get things so wrong?

The answer I think lies in the phrase “from the left” – with the help of insights developed by Carl Jung in his work on psychological types. Put simply (and this is an area that would repay a Ph.D. thesis, if not a lifetime’s research), people have a natural type, an habitual mode of mental functioning in which they are relaxed, comfortable – and competent. That doesn’t stop them from taking on a different type – as a temporary expedient, possibly because of some external constraint, perhaps because they are in a situation when they themselves have concluded (perhaps by intellectual analysis) that nonhabitual behaviour is called for. Think of a genial boss who reluctantly decides to fire a worker, and proves to be so inept at handling the situation that the worker feels even more upset than if he had been handed a P45 by the HR manager. Or those situations where armed police are instructed to take out a suspected terrorist, and end up firing far more shots than training or public safety require. What Jung noticed was that, when people operate out of what we would now call their comfort zone, their behaviour becomes unpredictable, inefficient, even twitchy, as the balance between their conscious and unconscious is no longer under control. In a word, people who are normally smooth operators become gauche.

I don’t think you need to be a Jung to detect these signs in each of these figures. They have, for various reasons, taken positions (away from the left) of which they have become persuaded intellectually rather than to which they warm emotionally.

The cynical may believe they have been motivated by the desire to be electable: that is not necessarily a bad ambition. But I should point out to the Labour party that in Miliband’s case it is woefully misplaced. You need to ditch this man now if you are to have any hope of winning a majority at the next election.

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