Good news / bad news
What I said about people who are more receptive to bad news than good was far too simple, as several of you have pointed out. And the suggestion that people who think of themselves as progressive in their politics are more likely to be optimistic than people who think of themselves as conservative was too crude as well.
Matt has a good point (if I follow him) when he suggests that it might be the other way round. Conservatives think that we should be content with the way things are (‘don’t knock it: it’s all we’ve got and it could be an awful lot worse’), whereas progressives think the current state of affairs is intolerable (‘things can only get better’). So who is the pessimist at this table?
What was missing from my earlier discussion was any reference to the element of comparison. Those with a taste for cliché may remind us that politics is the art of the possible, but we need to remember that it is also an art of comparison. Politics, you might say, is always comparative politics: to think politically is to put two different situations (two real, two imagined, or one of each) onto the scales of political justice: Athens or Sparta, Paris or Geneva, Canterbury or Rome, Socialism or Barbarism, Washington or Moscow.
And in the politics of the last two centuries (that is to say, since the invention of the concepts of ‘left’ and ‘right’) political comparisons have always involved a reference to time: they have been comparisons, essentially, of the present with the past and of the present with the future.
The classic right-wing conservative can then be defined as someone who will always welcome good news about the past because it heightens foreboding at any changes that may lie in the future. And the classic leftist progressive will welcome bad news about the ‘old immoral world’ (as Robert Owen called it), because it dramatises the contrast with the good news to come.
Let us stay with a classical leftist for a while.
In 1843, the twenty five year old Karl Marx moved to Paris with his beautiful new wife. They loved each other to distraction, they had a tiny baby, and they lived in an atmosphere of frenetic excitement, though in a state of poverty and domestic chaos that was not entirely to Mrs Marx’s taste.
Karl looked around him and he saw the past:
Bestial barbarisation … man returns to living in a cave, except that it is now contaminated with the breath of civilization … Filth, this stagnation and putrefaction of man, literally the ‘sewage of civilisation’, comes to be the element of life for him … the worker has become a neglected child….
Then he looked again – looked specifically at the groups of workers who were forming clubs where they discussed a new-fangled French concept called ‘socialisme’ – and he saw the future:
Association, society and conversation … are enough for them; the brotherhood of man is no mere phrase with them, but a fact of life, and the nobility of man shines upon us from their work-worn bodies.
It is a perfect piece of classical leftist rhetoric (though it appears in notesbooks that were not published till fifty years after Marx's death): piling on the bad news about the past that still haunts the present, and talking up the good news about the new life that is beginning to stir within it.
Was Marx allowing his observations to be distorted by his predilections? Was he prejudiced? No doubt he was. And indeed, though he could not have known it, one person had already rumbled this rhetoric twenty years before Karl Marx went to Paris.
Referring to the religiously inspired radicals of the eighteenth century, sick with their hatred of ancient tyranny and drunk with their love for the coming epoch of freedom, William Hazlitt had written that they
have a pleasure in believing that every thing is wrong – in order that they may have to set it right
An elementary form of self-display I'd have thought. Or is it a kind of political Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy: conjuring up symptoms that show that the world is in danger, so that you can cast yourself in the role of saviour?