Corbyn, Consensus and Martyr


I’m a bit worried about this new liberal consensus. Those important agents of socialisation and mediators of our political reality, Twitter and Facebook, seem to be having a blanket effect on liberal discourse. Everyone, that is, everyone I know, is doing and saying the same thing: jezwecan.

But when we talk about social or cultural issues on faceflap and tweeter, we rarely acknowledge that the main role of government is to manage capitalism, and throughout my lifetime variations of neoliberalism have proved more effective at managing capitalism than the alternatives (for my parents’ generation, a Keynesian economics of nationalisation and full employment was the most effective way to ensure steady growth). And since I’m not an economist, I don’t know whether that’s suddenly changed, but, then again, neither do you and neither does Jeremy Corbyn (whom I like, by the way).

The difficulty is that whenever I’m drawn into a Corbyn discussion – and a trip to the staff room kettle is taxed by at least two – if my enthusiasm is even slightly muted, I’m assumed to be adopting the political position recently vacated by General Pinochet. To try to interject some effort at a socio-historical political-economic argument contradicts the liberal consensus and is, judging by the reactions of friends and colleagues, just frightfully rude.

And I was thinking about all this last Friday night – this question of the liberal consensus. I went to see a play called Martyr (Marius von Mayenburg; dir. Ramin Gray; Unicorn/Actors Touring Company Production), which, in serendipity, seemed to be about just this: liberalisation and how far one might go for what one believes.

So here’s the spiel: a teenager refuses to go swimming and we quickly ascertain it’s not due to uncontrollable erections or dysmorphia; it’s related to his new found hatred of female exhibitionism (the bikini etc.) due to his religious zeal. Now he’s got God. He transposes his particular biblical reading onto all areas of his worldly experience: biology class, in particular his learning about sex and evolution. He shuns organised religion, tries to perform miracles and is critical about his mother’s divorcee status. We’re not supposed to take him too seriously; ‘the boy’s confused’, says the Headmaster, in relation to some of his more subtle acts of pedagogical terror; but it gets a bit ‘we need to talk about Kevin’ when he starts fantasising about diluting his teacher’s brake oil – mostly to teach her a lesson for being Jewish.

And the world of the play is, and this really annoyed some people in the US’s premiere, our liberal world where it’s okay to be anything as long as it’s benign, lifestyle-y, and inclusive. Ramin Gray says that, in this liberal world of the play, what people are really after is a degree of compromise, the ability to talk about things easily and openly. If citizens counter this for whatever reason, they’re made other, because as far as the liberal consensus is concerned, there isn’t an assumed standard of normal, but there is a social contract and a dominant attitude: compromise.

This alliance of compromise with a left liberal position intrigues me. In the play, it allows Benjamin, the youth, to be repeatedly and increasingly the figure of ridicule for negating the ability to compromise – his beliefs are just too fundamental. And the stronger someone’s beliefs are seen to be, the less liberal they become. Ramin Gray has argued about left-liberal compromise elsewhere; in the introduction to Gregory Motton’s book, he discusses the need in some theatre buildings to compromise what one believes in order to get on with the workaday profiteering of the theatre. And compromise is the political tenet driving his version of Martyr, but is this play reflective of a wider, and more concerning, proximal relationship between compromise and contemporary left liberalism?

Yes – totes. The promo for the play reads: ‘how far will you go for your beliefs?’ and the answer, from anyone other than the literal fundamentalist, Benjamin, is not very far. That compromise, in this contemporary epoch is the most rational and right on response. And maybe it is. But as we’re meandering into what some people are calling a new phase of liberal politics in the UK, it’s important that our desire for tolerance and compromise makes room for more radical views, including views that cannot easily compromise with the liberal consensus.

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