In his novel 'Necromancer', Gordon Dickson explored the differing traits in human personality. The book acts as a prequal to Dickson's best known work, the Dorsai trilogy. One of the traits or types - alongside military, spiritual and scientific - was one based on faith. In 'Soldier, Ask Not' the second in the Dorsai trilogy, Dickson casts this 'trait of faith' in the manner of a sombre, puritan religion and explores ideas of unquestioning loyalty, community and conformity to rules.
But the origins of these 'Friendlies' that Dickson sets out in ' Necromancer' were what he called marching societies a group of cults whose typical modus operandi was to march through the streets chanting slogans. Now while the book paints these marchers as religious in motivation, Dickson is clear that the link is faith - undoubting belief that something is true regardless of criticism, evidence or argument:
“Let me attest as if it were only for myself. Suppose that you could give me proof that all our Elders lied, that our very Covenant was false. Suppose that you could prove to me”—his face lifted to mine and his voice drove at me—“that all was perversion and falsehood, and nowhere among the Chosen, not even in the house of my father, was there faith or hope! If you could prove to me that no miracle could save me, that no soul stood with me, and that opposed were all the legions of the universe, still I, I alone, Mr. Olyn, would go forward as I have been commanded, to the end of the universe, to the culmination of eternity. For without my faith I am but common earth. But with my faith, there is no power can stay me!”
It's important that, in understanding politics, we appreciate that this faith is as important as the measured, supposedly rational debate that we pretend motivates the politically active. It has, for me at least, been a matter of curiosity why thousands of people who are otherwise pretty normal feel the need to gather in rallies, to stage protests and to march - like Dickson's cults - along the streets waving banners while shouting slogans. When we look back at the Labour leadership campaign, we see the clash of these two approaches to politics - cynical triangulation set against a cult-like certainty of the truth in those chanted slogans. As Nick Cohen argues in this week's Spectator:
Utopias are always banal. Corbyn's Utopia allows his supporters to wallow in the warmth of self-righteousness. They want to end austerity. Stop greed. Bring peace. How they do it is not their concern. Practicalities are dangerous. They take you away from Utopia and back into the messy, Blairite realm of compromises and second-bests.
The problem is (and Cohen - along with many others - misses this) that the Blairite realm has no appeal to the political. It is essentially anti-politics at least in how it deals with the traditional certainties of the left's world view. Those traditional certainties - capitalism exploits workers, socialism is good, businessmen are greedy, Tories are uncaring - are a mantra, exclamations of faith and without them the thing that drives the activist is gone. Without them the left has no purpose and is simply a pale imitation of the cynical, corrupt Tory Party.
If this mantra of socialism, so the left believes, is shouted loudly enough and often enough its message will be heard and the workers' Utopia will come to pass. And, just as in the quote above from 'Soldier, Ask Not', it doesn't matter how often the terrible truth of that Utopia is shown the marchers simply march more and shout louder. The mounds of dead in Soviet Russia and Maoist China make no difference. The warning words in '1984', 'We' and 'Brave new World' don't dent the commitment of the faithful. Riots and bread queues in Caracas merely result in a renewed condemnation of the rich and the greedy.
The rally and the march - things that seem strange and even sinister to most people - serve the same purpose as the Sunday service does to the evangelical. They are shared proclamations of faith, occasions when the believers gather to affirm that belief. These events are as much about this shared experience as they are about changing anything - the 'Save the NHS' march doesn't do anything to achieve that aim but instead brings together the faithful in publicly professing their faith.
Today, with what's called the 'populist' right, we're seeing similar attitudes emerging blinking and unpolished from the right. This isn't really that new - the extreme right has always been a twisted reflection of the far left - except in that there's numbers and momentum. Trump, Le Pen - even Nigel Farage - use that same rhythm of repeated slogans to provide a catechism for the faithful to use. And they use the same targets as the left too - greedy bankers, corrupt politicians, the rich elites and globalisation. There's an appetite for this because the processes of democracy became the realm of marketing rather than debate or discussion. And marketing suits the simple slogans of the faithful far more than the nuanced ideas of the intellectual.