“Small Men on the Wrong Side of History”

Ed West’s Small Men on the Wrong Side of History is a gentle but ambitious political autobiography and set of meditations on politics from the British journalist and writer of several excellent books of popular history. West takes a winding tour of the history of British politics and the emergence of the modern Conservative party, the social science surrounding partisanship and ideology, and the role of the traditional and social media in amplifying and facilitating discord along with cultural whiplash. He intermingles these essays with short and long reminiscences of his father’s idiosyncratic paleoconservatism, his own coming-of-age in 80s and 90s London, and his experience as an oddball conservative among British journalists as an adult. Spanning this miscellany is West’s capacious curiosity and self-deprecating irony, and the book resembles less the familiar political books of recent years- in which the goal is to advance a single soundbite-tailored idea which will get the writer spots on TV and a better columnist gig- than it does an earlier age of eclectic English essayists and diarists in the freewheeling Pepys, Burton, or Boswellian mode.

Insofar as the book has a central thesis, it is a grim one for conservatives: the West is undergoing an ideological transformation akin to the emergence of Protestantism in the early modern era and the triumph of Christianity over paganism during the Roman empire. As Yuri Slezkine does with Bolshevism in The House of Government, West describes a wide range of parallels between modern progressivism and earlier millenarian strands of Christianity both in its earlier and later forms. West doesn’t treat the religious content of opposing views as a win or an own of them- religion is a central human need, and deep belief a powerful aid even to a cause that claims to be a matter of science rather than faith. West presents a near-term future of grinding, relentless culture war in which apparent victories for conservatives are undone by the culture’s steady leftward movement, helped along, as in Christianity’s early days, by popularity among women and the young. Only in the book’s final pages does he allow conservatives some medium-term hope, citing some of the fertility trends I’ve discussed here previously along with a few other forces that might push in contrary directions, even while hazarding that the result will be less a de-escalation of the culture war than its entrenchment and monotonous continuation. The book was published early this year, just as coronavirus was making its decisive moves, and West mentioned to me on Twitter that he was sure it was hopelessly out of date, but recent months have not convinced me that West’s prediction that “it’s going to be long, painful and boring, and both sides are going to get more idiotic and hysterical,” was way off-base.

Like a series of evening conversations with a garrulous friend renting a summer cottage next to yours, the book will convince you some times more often than others. I tend to be skeptical of many of the “Conservatives are from Mars, Liberals are from Venus” neuroscience and social psychology findings West details. More fundamentally, he describes the Left-Right war of ideas across the centuries almost entirely as just about that: ideas and words. Not surprising for a journalist, but I found myself thinking two main elements were missing from an explanation why the turn politics is taking might be more profound than transient. First is what I might call the political economy of family life: as I’ve described before, the shift towards and then away from the integration of the bourgeois family into the market economy as a single coherent unit seems essential to understanding why the current dialectic might be more than just French Revolution Part XVI: This Time it’s Intersectional. Beyond that (and arguably driving that transformation of family life) is the technological and geopolitical shifts that have destabilized the relationship of individuals and national governments to the global economy, and gradually dissolved local and personal bonds in favor of ideological and trans-national identities. If national institutions and electoral will are so utterly powerless before the onslaught of Woke Capital, there probably is something more profound at work than simply the temper tantrums of 23-year-old interns on company Slack channels.

The best of West’s previous books paint a compelling picture of the formation of the nation-state out of the chaos of the pre-political world. In The Path of the Martyrs, he describes how Charles Martel arrested the Caliphate’s advance at the Battle of Tours, paving the way for Charlemagne’s empire and the birth of medieval Europe. Saxons vs Vikings describes how Alfred the Great unified the endlessly warring Saxon kingdoms to end the depredations of Viking invasion and raids and lay the groundwork for a unified England, whose early political and cultural integration was of profound world historical importance. And 1215 and All That describes how the private drama of the Angevin dynasty and John I’s personal failures allowed for the making of the Magna Carta and steps towards the institutions of coherent but limited government that made England and then Britain special. Across these and other books, the message that not just the forms and institutions of government but the armies and other forces of state violence that enforce them are critically important comes across loud and clear.

From an American perspective, the UK can appear often dystopian in the totality of the administrative state’s control over ordinary life and the irrelevance of the elected government- as frequently satirized in shows like “Yes, Minister” or “In the Thick of It.” Regardless of who wins elections, a progressive technocratic bureaucratic state, dominated by globe-spanning quasi- and intergovernmental organizations, exerts day by day more control over speech, health, and ordinary life. Prior patterns of individual liberties and legal institutions are increasingly irrelevant, and West’s pessimism seems fully justified. For the moment, the United States’s more heterogeneous political institutions, disparate population and lingering if tenuous control over the instruments of state violence have somewhat slowed the advance of progressivism. The result is that our political battles have become unsettlingly hot, played not only against the fervor of an emergent popular post-Christian religion of the type West describes but the destabilization of political and electoral institutions favored by globe-spanning, dehumanized, denationalized capital. For the moment, Britain’s political battles appear already won and lost, while America’s- sometimes for better and likely often for worse, are still played for real stakes.

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