Sunday, May 08, 2005

Rethinking the left: Judith Brett

Are we given a political choice in Western democracies? The answer is yes, but only within limits. We do get to choose between a left wing and a right wing political party, but these represent the left and right wings of liberalism.

In other words, we don't get a choice when it comes to political philosophies, as the major political parties are all liberal in their underlying principles. Both the left wing and right wing parties have a common starting point of liberal individualism: the belief that individual autonomy is the highest good, so that the goal of politics is to break down impediments to individual will and reason.

Where left and right liberals differ is their understanding of how best to create the autonomous individual. Right liberals focus on the idea that the economic activity of the individual should be unimpeded. They also tend to believe that a big central government is destructive of individual autonomy.

Left liberals, on the other hand, are willing to regulate economic activity, because they are more focused on social autonomy. They are also more likely to believe that central governments can create the best conditions in which individuals can maximise their individual autonomy.

For the parties to win office they tend to aim at the middle ground, which means that these differences tend to be downplayed in practice. But still, the basic distinction holds that right liberals support the free market and small government, whereas left liberals prefer economic regulation and a larger role for government.

A problem for the left

There are some left liberals who realise that their political approach has been self-defeating. By breaking down social impediments to individual autonomy, they have created a vacuum into which a free market, globalised, commercial culture has been more than willing to step. In other words, their own efforts have been preparing the triumph of their traditional "enemy", the free market right liberals.

The Australian academic Judith Brett is one left liberal who recognises this problem. She has written that:

Those on the left who are critical of the unfettered free play of market forces, but all for the freedoms of cultural transgression, also have to see how their cultural values and activities have enabled the progress of the forces they decry. (The Age 24/10/97)

She goes on to give some examples of how left wing movements have cleared a path for inroads by market forces:

The attack on religion, for example, has contributed to the processes of secularisation which are opening up all of nature and most areas of human life to exploitation by the market.

The commodification of sex and the body which has resulted in part from the liberation movements of the 1960s is an obvious example, as is the loss of any sense that nature is sacred.

Less obvious is the way the emphasis on the rights and freedoms of the self-realising individual undermines the commitments and obligations on which stable family and community life depend.


Judith Brett also recognises that both left and right have sought to break down (transgress) those boundaries which limit or constrain individual autonomy, with right liberals focusing on economic constraints.

She uses the artist Andres Serrano as an example of a left liberal transgressor, and the Australian Prime Minister John Howard as a right liberal one. She asks:

What do Andres Serrano and John Howard have in common? They both represent, in different forms, Western civilization's deep intolerance of limits and the belief that the overcoming of limits is the sine qua non of progress...

Serrano's exhibition at the National Gallery was closed after fierce protests from people offended by his depictions of a crucifix in urine. Serrano is part of the last gasp of the Western avant-garde's fascination with the transgression of the codes of respectable bourgeois decency ...

Howard is not excited by cultural transgression ... His intolerance, however, is of limits which constrain economic rather than social or cultural activity.

Brett then makes the point that there is also a contradiction in the politics of right liberals. Right liberals commonly want society to be supported by civil institutions like the family rather than by big government, but their support for the free market often undermines such institutions.

As Brett puts it, one failing of John Howard's right liberalism is the refusal:

to see the ways in which continuous economic change undermines social and cultural stability.

He is quite happy to press for the abolition of penalty rates at the same time as he promotes the values of stable family life; or urge the unemployed to uproot themselves ... as he bemoans the breakdown of community values


In thinking through the reasons for the triumph of right liberalism, Judith Brett has made some clear sighted criticisms of both the right and the left.

The question remains, though, of what the alternative to traditional right and left liberalism should be.

This is the point at which conservatives should be pressing to become a real alternative to both kinds of liberalism. Because individual autonomy is not a starting point for conservatives, we are in a much better position to defend the culture, traditions and institutions with which most people in a society naturally identify and feel connected to.

There is no contradiction in conservative philosophy to prevent us from effectively defending a stable family life, an inherited national tradition, or a settled moral code.

Depending on liberals to think through the limitations of their own philosophy is not a good strategy; we need to put forward conservatism as a clear alternative to both the left and right forms of liberalism.

(First published at Conservative Central 01/02/2004)

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