Sunday, April 10, 2005

Rethinking the left: Paul Kingsnorth

Generally speaking there are two kinds of liberals. Both kinds believe that people need to be "liberated" from whatever impedes their individual will and reason.

Right liberals, though, have a special focus on economic activity. They see the individual more as an economic unit and stress the removal of restrictions on labour and capital.

Left liberals prefer to focus on social activity. They typically emphasise the "liberation" of the individual from unchosen forms of national identity, family life, sexuality, gender etc. They are more supportive of the idea of state planning over the economy and society than right liberals.

Usually, most of the political debate in the West is between right and left liberals. Even though they share a common philosophical starting point they still often see each other passionately as the enemy.

Paul Kingsnorth is a young British writer. He is a left-liberal, though more opposed to the role of the state than most on the left. He has written a column for the Melbourne Age (The Citizens of Nowhere 20/9/03) which is interesting in the way it goes beyond the usual distinction between left and right liberalism.

In part the column follows the usual pattern. Kingsnorth, as you would expect of a left liberal, hammers the enemy (right liberals) for their focus on the individual as an economic unit.

Kingsnorth chooses, for instance, to criticise Bill Emmott, editor of The Economist, by claiming that Emmott's version of progress is "posited on turning everyone on earth into a wap-wielding, choice-chasing consumer, drifting through a global pleasure garden in which each place is much like every other and everything is for sale".

It's usually difficult for a conservative to remain patient with these kind of left liberal attacks on right liberalism. It's not because conservatives can't see some truth in the claims. Conservatives don't want a society based on a shallow consumerism any more than left liberals.

The problem is that left liberals usually remain blind to the way that they themselves have prepared the way for a consumeristic, materialistic, globalised culture. After all, it is the left who have led the charge to break down alternative standards of culture based on national traditions, a stable family life, accepted standards of morality and so on.

Having "deconstructed" such traditions, it seems a bit naive for the left to then complain when the gap is filled by a shallow commercial culture.

Kingsnorth, though, is different. He is willing to admit that the left has contributed to the rise of a globalised, commercial culture. He says of the supporters of globlisation that:

it is not just The Economist reading right who swell their ranks ... While the neo-liberal [ie right liberal] citizens of nowhere celebrate the birth of a global market ... another group, the liberal [ie left liberal] citizens of nowhere help them along...

Nor does Kingsnorth see this as being only a recent phenomenon. He notes that:

For longer than a century, sections of the idealistic left have dreamt of a world made up ... of "global citizens" casting off the chains of geography and nationality

Kingsnorth gives the particular example of the left-wing novelist H.G. Wells who in 1933 encouraged "modern-minded people" to reject traditional governments and to "make over the world into a great world civilisation."

Kingsnorth is to be congratulated, therefore, on his clear-sighted recognition that left-liberals, in wanting to be "unrestrained" by national traditions, have helped pave the way for right-liberal economic globalisers.

Which leaves one final question. How does Kingsnorth choose to oppose the globalism of both left and right liberals? Remarkably, Kingsnorth takes a conservative approach. He views the attempt to break down traditional forms of connectedness in order to create an unrestrained, unimpeded individual as creating not true liberty, but an unhappy rootlessness and alienation.

This is implied, firstly, in his description of the new global class:

Rootless, technocratic, unburdened by the baggage of locality or the complications of history, they exist in every nation but feel attached to none.

It is more explicit in the following comments:

It has long been a touchstone of "progress" that place, and attachment to it, is an anachronism ... Barriers are broken down by the mass media, technology and trade laws. Rootless, we gain freedom, placeless, we belong everywhere. Yet placelessness and rootlessness create not contentment but despair...

The rising tide of this global progress, we are told, will lift all boats. The trouble is that some of our boats are anchored; anchored by place, tradition, identity, a sense of belonging...

...the citizens of nowhere ultimately inhabit an empty world ... Disconnected from reality, they can make decisions that destroy real places, to which people are connected, at the stroke of a pen.

The rest of us can join the citizens of nowhere in their empire of the placeless, or we can build new relationships with our own landscapes and our own communities. We can build on our pasts or dismiss them ...

As you might guess, Kingsnorth, coming as he does from the left, is not very reliable in his conservatism. I took the trouble to read a book he has recently published called One No, Many Yeses. It was disappointingly orthodox in its left-liberalism (or more exactly left-libertarianism).

Still, I think he's to be congratulated for the approach taken in the newspaper article. He has thought his way through to a more consistent opposition to globalisation than most left-wing writers.

(First published at Conservative Central 26/01/2004)

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