Tuesday, September 04, 2007

What's wrong with the liberal-left?

The latest person to ask the question is Anthony Andrew, and his answer has prompted much battering of the keyboards. Being of a Eustonian disposition, I agree with much of the analysis offered by people like Norm, Oliver Kamm and others - but there's a couple of other reasons that I think are worth considering too.

One is that the liberal-left is a victim of its own success. It's hardly an original observation but I was reminded of this when I came across Michael Ancram's insipid alternative manifesto (pdf) for the Conservative party. Consider the context: Ancram's complaining about Cameron supposedly 'trashing Thatcher's legacy' and calling for a return to conservative fundamentals. But these 'conservative fundamentals' turn out to be rather liberal ones, if the language of rights, freedom, limited government and promotion by merit is to be taken seriously in Michael Ancram's hands.

It's a disagreement, in other words, between two different liberal visions of the Tory party. Think of the way conservatives routinely justify inequality in terms of a price worth paying for liberty; hardly any conservative these days is prepared to argue against both liberty and equality in a Scrutonesque fashion.

This isn't a new development: British conservatives since Burke have absorbed much of the liberal tradition in a way that their continental counterparts never did. Neither is there anything new about the left retreating from the primacy of liberal and democratic principles in favour of what they perceive to be the cause of equality. Leftists didn't begin making excuses for authoritarianism and outright tyranny in the 1990s: the division between those who think the causes of liberty and democracy sometimes collide with the goal of greater equality and those who insist on the primacy of the former has been in evidence on the left at least since the Bolshevik revolution.

Perhaps it's just something that just has to be replayed for each generation, following the pattern of that old cliche: those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat its mistakes. Here's a few of them that we've seen before:

1) It was the liberal left that originally made the case for limited government and democracy in the face of opposition from those who preferred the preservation of rank, patronage and deference. Having won the argument, it seems absurd for the left to retreat from these and dismiss them as 'bougeois' simply because the right launched a fallacious, but apparently successful, attempt to claim these as their own.

2) The Soviet model doesn't work, end of. So why do some leftists continue to effectively support it, as the Chavez groupies clearly do? I suppose if you lived in the 1930s and were either ignorant of, or chose to ignore, Stalin's tyranny you could just about make the argument that central planning would prove to be more efficient than the then creaking capitalist model. But the idea that this case can be made, still is being made, post-1989 in face of all the contrary evidence beggars belief. Central planning and the problem of knowledge: Hayek was right - get over it.

3) This point serves as an answer to the previous one. The reason why people make preposterous ahistorical defences of the USSR and the caves in this world where its shadow can still be seen can only do because they think any opposition to capitalism is worth supporting. And they can, surely, only think this is worth doing because capitalism is the worst thing in the world. The problem is, in terms of the material standard of living that capitalist states deliver, this has been rather difficult to do for some time - something Dave Osler has talked about here. Certainly in terms of the 'immiseration' of the worker, the Soviet model has to be dismissed as an alternative. And it has to be dismissed with regards to liberty too, which brings us to the final point:

4) No-one could suggest that the American worker was less free than the Soviet worker and expect to be taken seriously. And although I've come across a number of people prepared to put themselves through mental contortions to argue the opposite, most on the left chose to focus on something else instead: foreign policy. This focus is a perennial problem for the left. Consider the way that morality is understood as a function of the position one takes on big geo-political issues - the accusations and condemnations that are made, the anathemas that are dispensed. It is because it is felt by many on the left that it is in this areas that the struggles of the age are played out in primary colours. For the self-styled 'anti-imperialist' left it is in the capricious realpolitik of the Western powers that the iniquity of the 'system' is made flesh.

I believe this is a function of the fact that they are still trying, against all the evidence, to insist that liberal capitalism is the worst thing on earth. That's their problem. But I'm thinking, and not for the first time, that it's our problem too because whilst engaging with it, we're speaking the same language of primary colours. And it's an odd thing to do, if you think about it, because where else but in the area of states and their foreign policies can the human stain be more clearly seen?

You might respond, how can anyone who supports fanatical and homicidal religious movements consider themselves part of the left? Of course I agree. But then again, how can anyone who does this consider themselves humane or even sane - never mind placing themselves somewhere pleasing to their own self-image on the political spectrum? I mean this sort of thing: Conor Foley, arguing against the Anthony Andrews case linked above, attempts to show that the left has not shifted from its core values in 25 years. I think it's indicative of the problem that in doing so, he talks exclusively about foreign policy and has nothing much to say about liberty and equality.

All of which brings me back to the original point: what's wrong with the liberal left? It might have something to do with the fact that we keep allowing the Right to nick our best ideas, partly because we've been too busy having a conversation with ourselves. A conversation, moreover, that is of little interest to the sane majority who are fortunate enough not to have been afflicted with what Eric Hobsbawm called the political disease.

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