Monday, June 22, 2009

So this is our choice?

What is the way forward for the left? That's the theme of an article by Jonathan Derbyshire in the New Statesman.

According to Derbyshire the mainstream left in Britain is "intellectually hollowed out". He thinks it timely that a new pamphlet has been released titled What Next for Labour? Ideas for the Progressive Left.

One of the contributors to the pamphlet, Sunder Katwala, argues that the technocratic management of the market isn't enough. Instead, the left must focus on elaborating,

an autonomous moral conception, independent of, and ultimately sovereign over, the mere notions of efficiency and rational 'tidying up' of capitalist society into which socialism is in danger of degenerating.


Katwala is a Fabian socialist who wants to go back to basics. He wants more emphasis on the autonomous individual rather than on technocratic efficiency.

Then there is the suggestion made by Jon Cruddas, a Labour Party MP, and Jonathan Rutherfod, an academic:

New Labour, Cruddas and Rutherford imply, has worried too much about individual liberty and not enough about equality. The key 'fault line' in the coming debates on the left, they argue, will be between those who see the market as the best mechanism for delivering the autonomy so prized in modern societies, and those who think that genuine freedom is a collective achievement. Or, as Katwala puts it, between those for whom autonomy is the ultimate end (call them "liberals") and those whose principal concern is with how autonomy is distributed (call them "social democrats").


Read this carefully and you'll see just how limited a choice we're being offered here.

Katwala's "liberals" think that individual autonomy is the ultimate end. So do his "social democrats". The only difference between them is that the "liberals" (in the European not American sense) believe that autonomy is maximised by individuals pursuing their self-interest in a market; the "social democrats" are more focused on the equal distribution of autonomy through "collective" (by which they mean state) action.

This debate is generations old. It is politics with a walking stick. And it is radically reductive: we are supposed to assume that the ultimate end is one single good, namely individual autonomy - with politics divided between those who favour equality (in the distribution of autonomy) and those who favour liberty (fewer impediments to the practice of autonomy).

The task for traditionalists isn't to take sides in this debate. It's to move beyond its limitations.

What we should be discussing is whether autonomy (or any other single good) can be taken as the sole organising principle of society; what we are logically committing ourselves to when autonomy becomes the highest end; what other goods must be sacrificed in the attempt to maximise autonomy; and whether the pursuit of autonomy has internal coherence.

4 comments:

  1. I think this quote from Gilbert Keith Chesterton relates to this post, or at least the post reminded me of it.

    “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”

    For me, this quote helps me not to be just conservative or just progressive, but conservatively progressive. It also reminds me to constantly check my belief windows.

    ReplyDelete
  2. How in God's name can "individual autonomy" be reconciled with an all-powerful and intrusive state? If the state decides everything and allocates all resources, how can any individual be held to be autonomous?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Post-modern liberalism is exhausted. But this exhaustion includes Left-liberalism, which focuses on egalitarian entitlements for (typically minority-identity) members of the under-class. And Right-liberalism, which focuses on libertarian proprieties for (typically majority-identity) members of the upper-class.

    What is needed is therefore a revision of liberalism, one that conserves what was good in the liberal tradition.

    Conservatism is about the conservation of identity. Which in the human case is inextricably bound up with ones individual antecedents and ones institutional associates.

    Antecedents and associates are, in the nature of things, not really subject to the individual will. One cant choose ones parents or ones fellow citizens. (Unless you foster yourself out or emigrate.)

    A conserved identity, whether biological or sociological, is therefore in someways at odds with complete individual autonomy.

    That is why liberals - those who want society to be composed of unfettered individual autonomies - are most anxious to condemn conservatism. The dead hand of the past.

    Genetic science if therefore anathema to liberals. Genes are, by nature, generally conserved. They have to be to preserve the fidelity of information structure which is necessary for the generation and re-generation of life.

    But if genes are conserved, and if they are significant constituents of behaviour, then they are not subject to the autonomous individual will. They are, in effect, constraints on liberty.

    That is why so many minority groups, whose identity in someway corresponds to lower-status, are so antagonistic to genetics. They feel that it might lead to the scientific ratification of their oppression.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The key 'fault line' in the coming debates on the left, they argue, will be between those who see the market as the best mechanism for delivering the autonomy so prized in modern societies, and those who think that genuine freedom is a collective achievement. Or, as Katwala puts it, between those for whom autonomy is the ultimate end (call them "liberals") and those whose principal concern is with how autonomy is distributed (call them "social democrats").


    Right-liberals typically subscribe to a libertarian version of democratic capitalism called "free-market". Left-liberals most commonly subscribe to an egalitarian version of democratic capitalism called "social-democracy".

    These ideological inflections broadly correspond to the interest groups that these ideologues purport to represent. The Right supports the high-status who wish to become established. The Left support the low-status who wish to become empowered.

    The Right believe that self-direction is best achieved through individual initiative, since their constituency are on average endowed with greater individual powers. The Left tend to rely on more institutional initiative since their constituency are not endowed with great individual powers.

    Of course whether you have become established at the top or being empowered down the bottom your overall aim is still individual autonomy ie power of self-direction within ones environment.

    ReplyDelete

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.