Vexed by James Mumford review – provocative plea for political nuance

Vexed by James Mumford review – provocative plea for political nuance


An academic’s argument for policy that bridges the left-right divide exposes the shortcomings of political ‘package deals’

A volunteer at Wandsworth food bank, south London: ‘Mumford’s opinions on economic intervention align him with the left’




A volunteer at Wandsworth food bank, south London: ‘Mumford’s opinions on economic intervention align him with the left’.
Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Brendon Kaluza-Graham was born in Spokane, Washington, to parents who were just 14 and 16. His life was split between his separated mother and father and both sets of grandparents, before he was killed, aged 25, by a single bullet to the back of the head. It was fired from a 9mm handgun, as he drove a car he had stolen away from the driveway where he had found it.

The man responsible was one Gail Gerlach. As this book puts it, Gerlach was “an avowed Reaganite conservative”, supporter of the right to bear arms and anti-abortion activist, who could not “fathom how a society that prohibits prostitution, class A drugs, even driving without a seatbelt, can tolerate the killing of an unborn child”. At his trial in 2014, Gerlach’s acquittal on charges of manslaughter sparked no end of controversy, but this alleged legal and moral travesty formed only part of the story. What Gerlach surely symbolised most of all was the fissures that run through the politics of the American right, and the fact that its “pro-life” convictions barely conceal outrageous contradictions.

In Vexed, James Mumford explores such inconsistencies – which are also present on the left – and how awkwardly they sit in political cultures that have fostered ideological camps who cling to bundles of values and prejudices he calls “package deals”. An academic and writer at least partly rooted on the right (for a while, he worked for the Centre for Social Justice, the thinktank set up by Iain Duncan Smith), Mumford has a set of socially conservative sympathies to match, but other opinions – on, say, gun control and economic intervention to help people on low pay – that align him with the left. After recent years spent in both the US and Britain, he wonders why there seems to be comparatively little political space for people like him, and why he has to choose between two unsatisfactory options: on one hand, ultra-liberalism wedded to state interventionism; and on the other, social conservatism fused with free-market economics. The merest research, he points out, soon highlights how some of the most seemingly fundamental aspects of political identities are actually the product of historical accident: being “pro-life”, for example, was not something indelibly associated with one side of American politics until Richard Nixon’s pursuit of Catholic voters decisively embedded it on the Republican right.

A pro-life demonstration in Washington


A pro-life demonstration in Washington. Photograph: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

This is one of those books apparently put together behind a desk, aimed squarely at the kind of airport lounge market synonymous with Malcolm Gladwell, who receives an admiring mention. There is no really solid through-line running through its six chapters, and Mumford is prone to gaucheness: “I want to be a public intellectual lauded for his acute insights,” he says at one point, which is at least honest. He often seems to be railing against something that is not as ubiquitous as he thinks – not quite to the extent of raging at straw men, though he occasionally comes close. Not everybody on the left is as in thrall to ultra-liberalism as he repeatedly makes out: if they were, progressive parties across the west would be advocating legalised everything and open borders, which they conspicuously are not. Equally, in the UK, there is plenty of evidence that the political right is embracing some of the kind of leftish thinking he suggests is absent from its collective mind, as proved by Boris Johnson’s embrace of state aid for ailing industries and an increased minimum wage.

But when Vexed hits its stride, Mumford demonstrates an admirable ability to zero in on things too often missing from political conversations. His chapter on assisted dying moves from a description of how old people are increasingly seen as a burden, through the fetishisation of property, which means that selling a home to pay for care is often seen as a kind of offence against decency, and on to how those things might affect the self-perception of someone who wished to end their life prematurely, despite their apparent informed consent. After reading and rereading this part of the book, I think I remain convinced of the case for assisted dying, but I would not be able to collapse my thoughts into any kind of pat piece of commentary, let alone a tweet. This, I think, is what Mumford wants to achieve: as much as anything else, this book is a plea for nuance and ambivalence, in a world that often seems to be in danger of mislaying both.

In the chapter headed Family Values, he calmly explodes the view that was the accepted wisdom at his old thinktank – that among the fundamental reasons for poverty is family breakdown, when the causal relationship self-evidently works the other way round. This is developed into something advocates of laissez-faire economics have missed: an argument that the rise of precarious work – as Mumford sees it, partly the consequence of huge corporate power, and the ability of firms to treat workers as they see fit – has so undermined people’s ability to be dependable parents that the political right ought to look at its own role in the erosion of the family unit. In turn, he switches his focus back to the left, and focuses on the growing fashionableness of transhumanism: crudely put, the belief that technologies from computing to pharmaceuticals will soon enable us to go beyond the limitations of flesh and blood. If the cutting-edge left now rejects the idea of human “mastery” of the world and accepts the idea that nature should be treated with “reverence”, he asks, why does this not apply to its view of our own brains and bodies?

In the right company, a question like that would trigger a fierce debate, which the author would presumably delight in. Vexed is that kind of book: less interested in hard-and-fast answers than undermining supposedly concrete certainties. That may suggest that Mumford indulges in ethics as a kind of academic sport, but at the heart of what he writes is something much more serious than that. The key argument of his book is that failures of what Mumford calls “moral imagination” do not just sully our political discourse. As the real-life parable of Brendon Kaluza-Graham and Gail Gerlach proves, they can also lead to tragedy.

Vexed: Ethics Beyond Political Tribes by James Mumford is published by Bloomsbury Continuum (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15


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