Both start out with the ideal of an autonomous self-defining individual. So the mainstream left and right both share an underlying liberalism.
The difference relates to a second tier issue. If you think of society along liberal lines as being composed of millions of atomised, self-seeking individuals, then how do you successfully regulate society?
The right have looked to the role of the market. Individuals could act selfishly for their own profit and the hidden hand of the market would regulate outcomes to ensure both economic and social progress.
The left did not accept the priority given to economic man. They held an alternative ideal of social man, one in which society would be regulated in a more deliberate way by a class of experts/reformers/bureaucrats/officials/educators.
There is a strain of thought amongst left-liberals, therefore, which is sceptical of capitalism, markets and the pursuit of material gain.
But here's the issue. If you accept the underlying liberal ideal, that there should be no impediments to the self-defining individual, then human aims are limited to what we can determine for ourselves as individuals. The obvious things that we do get to choose at an individual level are careers, restaurants and dining, consumer purchases, travel and fashion.
But these aims won't seem appealing to left-liberals sceptical about the role of the market. They all seem to show the dominance of market values; they place us either as producers (careers) or consumers (shopping, restaurants, fashion).
So there is a type of left-liberal who is destined to remain discontent. These left-liberals are stuck with the underlying ideal of the self-defining individual, but they can't easily accept the limited materialistic and individualistic aims which follow on from this ideal.
Richard Eckersley, a director of research company Australia 21, appears to be one political thinker caught in this dilemma. He recently wrote an article for a magazine called Melbourne's Child (Beyond the Maze of Materialism, January 2009).
He writes, reasonably enough, about the problems facing young Australians today that,
While young people are materially better off, and have more opportunities for education, leisure and travel than ever before, social changes have made it harder for them to develop a strong sense of identity, purpose, belonging and security; to know who they are, where they belong, what they want from life, and what is expected of them; in short, to feel that life is deeply meaningful and worthwhile. Relational and existential issues, not material hardship and disadvantage, lie at the heart of youth problems today.
What is to blame? He identifies two problems. The first is materialism:
Materialism (giving importance or priority to money and possessions), research suggests, breeds not happiness but dissatisfaction, depression, anxiety, anger, isolation and alienation. People for whom "extrinsic goals" such as fame, fortune and glamour are a priority in life tend to experience more anxiety and depression and lower overall wellbeing ... Consumer culture both fosters and exploits the restless, insatiable expectation that there must be more to life.
Although I agree, if this was all that Richard Eckersley had to say it would be nothing new. It's not uncommon for those on the left to criticise materialism and consumerism.
He ventures further, though, by making a limited criticism of individualism. It's interesting for him to do this, as he veers close to suggesting that the underlying principle of liberalism itself is a factor in what's wrong. But he's much too tentative to get anywhere useful. He starts out by indicating his general support for individualism:
Individualism (the relaxation of social ties and regulation and the belief that people are independent of each other) is supposed to be about freeing us to live the lives we want. Historically, it has been a progressive force, loosening the chains of religious dogma, class oppression and gender and ethnic discrimination, and so on associated with the liberation of human potential.
Having made all these claims on behalf of the liberal autonomy principle, he isn't left with much room to criticise it, even if he seems to sense that it's part of the problem:
However, individualism is a two-edged sword: as sociologists have noted, the freedom we now have is both exhilarating and disturbing, and with new opportunities for personal experience and growth also comes the anxiety of social dislocation and isolation.
The costs of individualism include ... a heightened sense of risk, uncertainty and insecurity; a lack of clear frames of reference ... a surfeit or excess of freedom and choice ....
This doesn't get us anywhere. Criticising individualism for giving us too much freedom and choice is like criticising a woman for being excessively pretty. It's not exactly a complaint which cuts deeply.
There are much more significant charges which can be levelled against liberal individualism. We are told by Richard Eckersley that young people have been left without a strong sense of identity, purpose and belonging. But how could they possibly develop these qualities when liberal individualism forbids so much?
For example, individuals once identified with their own ethnic group. They had a longstanding tradition of their own to belong to and to contribute to, which helped give meaning to their lives. Identity, purpose, belonging. But liberal individualism has made this illegitimate. If we have to be self-defined as an autonomous individual, then how can we accept a traditional, inherited identity that we are born into? Liberal individualism won't permit it, and Richard Eckersely himself tells us in a passage quoted above that by not discriminating in terms of ethnicity we are loosening people from chains and releasing their full potential.
It's the same when it comes to gender. This is another of the chains which Richard Eckersley claims has been broken by individualism, thereby allowing us to live the lives we want. But historically our manhood or womanhood was significant in forming our identity and providing some part of our purpose in life. But our sex is not something we choose for ourselves, it is a "biological destiny" and therefore it is once again disallowed by liberal individualism.
Richard Eckersley isn't able, as a liberal, to go far enough in his critique of modern society. He writes,
one of the most important and growing costs of the modern way of life is, I have argued, "cultural fraud": the promotion of images and ideals of "the good life" that serve the economy but do not meet psychological needs ...
He can go far, as a left-liberal, in attacking the ideal of economic man in favour of social man and he can even recognise that there has been fallout from liberal individualism. But he skates on the surface when it comes to recognising the effect of liberal individualism on identity, purpose and belonging.
And so all he suggests in the end as remedies are very general left-liberal bureacratic responses: reorienting healthcare to a "preventative, social model"; reorienting education toward "increasing young people's understanding of themselves"; and enforcing the UN Charter of Human Rights of the Child, such as the right "to protection from harmful influences".
Unfortunately, I don't think Richards Eckersley has taken us "beyond the maze of materialism". He hasn't dealt sufficiently with the ruling principles of our society, those which make many significant life aims illegitimate.