Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Beyond the maze?

What is the difference between left and right?

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.

25 comments:

  1. Eckersley says: "While young people are materially better off, and have more opportunities for education, leisure and travel than ever before..."

    Material prosperity has helped in part give rise to a baseline, laissez-faire liberalism-- it allowed the leisure time for "rebellious" thinking and activism in the 1960s and on. But now, as related by Eckersley himself, all that kinetic energy has built up while the forces of oppression it worked against for the "liberation of human potential" are greatly diminished. How is all this energy then redirected or dissipated?

    This entry made me think of this as one of the major problems of sorting things today: social frustrations and also potentially creative energy from the right and left without any clear channels to follow. A reformation period of sorts, perhaps, that demands an equally vigilant participation as any revolutionary period.

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  2. "Historically, it has been a progressive force, loosening the chains of religious dogma, class oppression and gender and ethnic discrimination, and so associated with the liberation of human potential."

    It would certainly be interesting to study which system encourages humans to reach their fullest potential historically. The problem may be his definition of 'potential.' I suspect it has to do with defining yourself exclusive of natural born traits as opposed to working with your natural born traits and accepting weaknesses and strengths as God (or in liberal autonomy's case luck) has given a human.

    "increasing young people's understanding of themselves"

    How can this be done if their identity is totally self created? If their can be no historic tradition or predefined social role for someone how could they ever go about figuring out who they are? Would the person "increasing" begin to create the child's understanding?

    This goes along with the problem of the blank slate hypothesis. If we have no inborn traits, then we a subject to any influence because we have no starting point.

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  3. Eckersley is trapped in his own liberal mindset and incapable of thinking outside the square - quite an irony for a champion of progressive theory and author of an article titled 'Beyond the Maze'. On example suffices to prove this:

    While Eckersley claims that educational reform geared at helping the youth discover its 'potential' is the answer to its existential problems, he fails to see, i.e. is quite literally blind to the fact that 'potential' is premised on inherent characteristics. You cannot have 'potential' as a completely self-determined being. Acknowledging inherent characteristics will necessarily be a departure from liberal autonomy theory, or what Bork calls 'radical individualism.'

    These faux intellectuals are clueless.

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  4. Great post Liesel Libertarian,

    Eckersley wants "liberation of human potential"? Hmmm, I wonder what that would be like? Well, I did see this one movie/book called “Lord of the Fly’s” but I think they should have called it "liberation of human potential". My favorite part of the book/movie was when the wild boys were confronted with a reality check at the end. I always like good endings.

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  5. Free Market is a dark force against human solidarity. Free Market accentuates differences and fosters selfish individualism.

    Free Market is inherently and anti-family and anti-Identity entity. It demotes each human interaction to one of profit and value.

    It is odd that conservatives support tradition and Free Market.
    Both cannot co-exist.

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  6. Bhanu said, “Free Market is a dark force against human solidarity. Free Market accentuates differences and fosters selfish individualism.” I agree with you 150 percent, however I believe we humans are faced with an earthly dilemma. This dilemma is choosing between two evils. Not to go into detail; Communism you have no choice, Capitalism you have more choices. So based on a lesser of evils, Capitalism is the better choice. But one can suggest there must be a better way than both? I personally believe there is a better way, but it requires selflessness, charity, humility and good old fashion work. I’ve heard it too many times, “Can’t we all just get along?” Answer: NO! So that’s why we practice the lesser of good, but while hoping and trying to make the world a better place for our future children.

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  7. Some excellent comments, thanks.

    Liesel, you raised an interesting point. Eckersley wants the education system to focus on helping young people "understand themselves". What is there to understand, though, if we are all blank slates to begin with, as liberalism claims?

    For liberals, there is only a negative process by which we are "other-defined" by outside processes. So helping a child to understand himself would really mean deconstructing these influences - revealing the hidden, negative, other-defining influences. Stripping things away.

    So where does this leave the identity of the child?

    Kilroy, you got to the crux of this point when you wrote:

    "You cannot have 'potential' as a completely self-determined being."

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  8. I think some of the basic assumptions made here are contestable, if not plain wrong. For instance:

    Both start out with the ideal of an autonomous self-defining individual. So the mainstream left and right both share an underlying liberalism.

    Arguably, this hasn’t been the case for at least a couple of hundred years. Western philosophers, beginning with Kant, and including Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, thoroughly undermined the notion of the ‘autonomous’ subject, each in different ways. In a different way, the ontology of Heidegger also challenged the idea of autonomy, since no subject could be properly conceivable outside of Mitsein and so forth.

    The notion of an unconscious aspect to the self, beyond conscious apprehension and the autonomy of the ‘will’, has been fundamental to psychoanalysis for over a hundred years. Even the psychological paradigms hostile to Freud’s tradition do not necessarily dispute this basic idea. From a political standpoint, the Marxist tradition has theorised the unconscious as it applies to class struggle (i.e. ‘ideology’ is a kind of political equivalent to the psychoanalytic unconscious). These 19th Century traditions evolved throughout the 20th Century, and I could name plenty of more recent thinkers who belong here. What I am getting at here is that the notion of liberalism that you hold as ‘mainstream’ has been taking a battering for a long time. Even the possible attempts to revive autonomy (such as in Sartre’s existentialism) have not fared well with the passage of time.

    From this, I think we can conclude that the idea of an ‘autonomous self-defining individual’ is an illusion. Nonetheless, you make this statement:

    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?

    Autonomy can be illusory, but it does not follow from this that society is not atomised, or individualistic. Your statement also begs the question, namely, what are the alternatives to the atomized human subject? More precisely, which of these alternatives do not involve recourse to an equally illusory return to conservative mythology (i.e. glorification of nationalism, restoration of patriarchal authority, etc)?

    Finally, one of your commenters makes an important point about the free market. It seems to be willful blindness on the part of conservatives to pretend that neoliberal modes of production and consumption have nothing to do with the disintegration of ‘traditional’ societal norms. Marx predicted as much in the mid-19th Century. Furthermore, it is utterly disingenuous to assert that we should accept the free market as the only alternative is Soviet Russia, or totalitarian communism. There are plenty of alternatives.

    I realise this is a long-winded comment, so in sum, I’ll conclude by saying that conservatism, as espoused here, is utterly lacking in the tools for a proper theorisation of the problems, much less the solutions, and is so thoroughly mired in contradictions as to be incoherent.

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  9. Bhanu said, “Free Market is a dark force against human solidarity. Free Market accentuates differences and fosters selfish individualism.” I agree with you 150 percent, however I believe we humans are faced with an earthly dilemma. This dilemma is choosing between two evils.

    Or you could go with an alternative family friendly economy, like distributism.

    http://www.distributism.blogspot.com/

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  10. Mark I say this truthfully you are one of the writers with the most insight on the web, why dont you have your own webpage instead of a low level blog?

    Your pen is a stick of dynamite compared with most of the idiots working as "Columnists" in the mass media.

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  11. Thank you for that link Louise, very interesting.

    I have though that before Bhanu but the alternatives are terrifying.

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  12. Louise said, “Or you could go with an alternative family friendly economy, like distributism”. Yes this could be a possibility, but like I said, it would require selflessness, charity, humility and good old fashion hard work. If you had a billion dollars and you were asked to give it all up for the “good” of society would you hesitate? Why would you hesitate? A rhetorical question indeed, but this question pricks the heart! I am an American and in America we only have two parties that seem to dominate all the way back to their inception. However there are multiple parties, but somehow they never win an election? As a result I believe Americans are faced with a dilemma. This dilemma is choosing between two evils, just like choosing between Communism and Capitalism. But one so happens to be better than the other, so I choose the better because that’s all we have for now; that’s unless you want to join a marginal commune like the Amish. But somehow Britney Spires is more popular than the Amish, I wonder why?.........

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  13. thr, perhaps you are digging too deeply re: autonomous self-determination. To me it means simply the idea that in the liberal West, where a generic sort of liberalism prevails, people have assented to the idea that no ideological (political or social) force should impinge on their will to expression as individuals. Of course there is no actual autonomy or total independence, but this illusion actively constrains against preserving traditional mores and often with knee-jerk hostility. Thus atomization and excessive individuation.

    "...conservatism, as espoused here, is utterly lacking in the tools for a proper theorisation of the problems,..." What do you expect from a blog? I cannot speak to Mark's intent but I have got a lot out of reading his blog. Society does not move along on skids of theoretical understanding. It moves on social perception and individual prioritization.

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  14. Thr, I don't entirely disagree with you. There have been important currents within Western thought which don't fit in well with autonomy theory.

    It remains the case, though, that autonomy theory has remained central to liberalism and that liberalism has remained central to Western politics.

    By the way, I'm a little surprised that you cite Kant as someone who undermined the notion of the autonomous subject, as Kant is often cited as a key promoter of the autonomous subject. For example:

    "Kant is the great spokesperson for the value of autonomy. Kant takes autonomy (moral self-determination, political sovereignty, personal freedom and intellectual independence) to be the highest result of the Enlightenment maxim - "dare to know" - and the founding value of bourgeois ethics."

    From the same article on Kant comes the following quote, which underscores a point made in my post, namely that liberals are confronted by the problem of regulating competing wills:

    "Kant is trying to respond to the anxious question posed immediately before the French Revolution - 'isn't a society of autonomous individuals precisely the anarchy of opposed wills, that is, the war of each against all?'"

    According to the writer, Kant's solution was to reject a coercive regulation by an authoritarian state or religion and to assert instead that true autonomy was only possible when individuals acted from a sense of duty alone, one instructed by conscience, and that this would form "a harmonious and just society that uphold the supreme good".

    From the conservative point of view this is not the worst possible answer, but nor is it an adequate one.

    Mostly, though, conservatives would reject the whole framework within which Kant was operating.

    We wouldn't begin with the idea of abstract, atomised, selfish individuals with no natural forms of connection to each other. Nor would we set out to make individual autonomy the supreme good.

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  15. Thr, I know you have a particular interest in Marxism. The twentieth century Marxists were materialists. They thought of this as their intellectual methodology. Therefore, they more than anyone should have thought of the purely autonomous subject as an illusion.

    But they were inconsistent. The political aim, as distinct from the intellectual methodology, often remained the achievement of autonomy. They continued to follow a kind of autonomy theory.

    A good example is Alexandra Kollontai, a spokeswoman for Lenin's Bolshevik government.

    This is how she described the aims she set herself as a young woman:

    "That I ought not to shape my life according to the given model ... I could help my sisters shape their lives, in accordance not with the given traditions but with their own free choice ... I wanted to be free. I wanted to express desires on my own, to shape my own little life."

    It's classic liberal autonomy theory: the idea is that "freedom" means rejecting inherited roles in favour of defining your own being.

    Kollontai praised the New Woman for having "broken the rusted fetter of her sex" in order to become "a personality," a "human being".

    Again, this aim derives from autonomy theory in which we are thought to be human only when we are self-determining; therefore we are supposed to treat our sex, the fact of being male or female, as a negative restriction on the individual, as something set in opposition to our human personality.

    Kollontai the Marxist, regardless of her commitment to a "scientific materialism", could be any other liberal thinker.

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  16. Jeff, thanks for your comment.

    I do what I can to build up the readership of the site, though I operate under the time limitations of having a demanding job and a young family.

    Readership is, at least, continuing to rise steadily.

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  17. It is a consequence of autonomy theory (defining reality through shere will) that one could claim the "free market" as a "dark force" or Capitalism as the "lesser of two evils."

    In the abstract, both are inherently good. "Free markets" are in reality free people interacting and transacting freely.

    Capitalism is fundamentality about creditability in all its essence. It starts first with the creditability of the capitalist.

    Those who think the free market system a "dark force" or capitalism as the "lesser of two evils" more often than not work to oppress free people and undermine the creditability of capitalism.

    We are in such a time.

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  18. Thordaddy said, “Those who think the free market system a "dark force" or capitalism as the "lesser of two evils" more often than not work to oppress free people and undermine the creditability of capitalism.” To suggest you’re oppressing free people by acknowledging Capitalism as a lesser of evils is not only a far stretch, it’s absolutely ridiculous! Please explain yourself more clearly? However, undermining the creditability of capitalism? Yes, I absolute agree! For example, why should I give any creditability to Capitalism when Capitalism promotes selfishness and greed? It is because of greed that the world, or at least America is in an economic crisis; and Capitalism is the vehicle that got us there. However, I am one that is a great supporter of Capitalism, not because I believe it “oppress free people” rather it gives humans more freedom when compared to Communism. But that does not mean Capitalism is the best way! Clive Lewis said it best, “And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history – money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery –the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.” (Mere Christianity, pg 54)

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  19. Anon,

    You need to read more carefully. I said those that take the view that free markets are a "dark force" and capitalism is the "lesser of two evils" more often than not work to oppress free people and undermine the creditability of capitalism.

    I don't see this as controversial or contestable.

    To claim capitalism is the "lesser of two evils" is to claim capitalism is still evil. Is this true? A system where capital ideally gravitates towards credibility does not give one the notion of an evil system.

    Likewise, to claim free markets, i.e., free people interacting and transacting freely is a "dark force" is the malevolent thinking of the collectivist socialist mentality.

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  20. Thordaddy said, “A system where capital ideally gravitates towards credibility does not give one the notion of an evil system.” I agree with your statement in this example; by comparing two basketball players’ abilities, one seams to have better skills than the other, but we cannot assume the lesser skilled player is inherently evil? When I mean lesser of two evils, I mean Capitalism is evil in the context of the will of God. This whole discussion of classic liberal autonomy theory is based on the notion that there is a God and God has set standards and wants us to be a particular way. Liberal autonomy theory rejects that notion. But of course we don’t want to talk about God in this blog because that would just be uneducated and ridiculous? To say that Capitalism is a “Dark force” I agree, is a little over the top, but in the context of the will of God it is a true statement.

    If capitalism gravitates towards trustworthiness, then why do we need lawyers and contracts?

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  21. Capitalism itself is not evil. It's when capitalism is unconstrained by any moral precepts and when everything becomes defined by its place in the free market that it becomes problematic.

    Here's a good quote from a blogger speaking about libertarianism:

    "For [pure (my addition)] libertarians, it is not enough to say that the market is the most rational, just, and efficient mechanism for the allocation of scarce resources: instead, it must be the principle by which the whole of human existence is governed. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the Free Market is a kind of God-surrogate. The very thought that the Free Market can produce a bad, wrong, or merely undesirable outcome, is inconceivable; just as, for Christians, it is inconceivable that God might not be good and right. If there's any problem, the Market can solve it; if the Market can't solve it, it's not a problem. Accordingly, all human phenomena are either annexed to the economic sphere, or ignored."

    http://home.earthlink.net/~karljahn/libs.htm

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  22. I can know see by using the phase “lesser of evils” I am frustrating my own argument. I agree with you when you say that Capitalism is not evil itself just like a gun or knife is not evil itself. It is how you use that gun or knife that matters. I guess by saying a lesser of evils I mean a “lesser of good”, because C.S. Lewis argues that everything is good and what makes things bad or wicked is how one uses that goodness or good thing, not the thing itself. My point then is that Capitalism is a vehicle to greed and selfishness. I’m only arguing that God is allowing us to practice Capitalism because of our free will but it’s not His will. Just like he wanted Moses and his people to live a higher law, but because of the free will of the people he gave them a lesser law, the 10 commandments.

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  23. "If capitalism gravitates towards trustworthiness, then why do we need lawyers and contracts?"

    I would submit that nothing in the affairs of men gravitates-- in a natural manner as you imply-- toward trustworthiness. This state is only maintained or renewed by vigilance and hard work. Absent this effort, we are wont to gravitate in the opposite direction. Religion thrives on this principle.

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  24. leadpb said, “Absent this effort, we are wont to gravitate in the opposite direction. Religion thrives on this principle.” Yes, I’m very familiar with entropy and I very much agree with your statement; however that is not the point I am trying to make about capitalism. To be blunt, I believe capitalism is better than communism, but I also believe that capitalism is a substitution of a higher way of living. And this higher way of living requires not only “vigilance and hard work”, but also selflessness, charity and chastity. But in the end what I’m suggesting is merely a hope and wish seeing that most people are selfish and lazy like myself; we want money, things and perceived power to encourage us to be vigilant and hardworking. And it is capitalism that helps us obtain these wants rather than needs.

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  25. Continued: And that is why I enjoy Mark Richardson blog. As he has stated this is not his full time job and to my knowledge he is not making any profit for being vigilant and hardworking. This is the higher way of living I am talking about.

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