What does it mean to be on the left?

by Harry on July 28, 2009

My contribution to the Open Left Debate at Demos is here. I offered them a long and a short version, and am rather relieved that they went with the short version, mainly because it contained something that on reflection I wish I hadn’t said (but, since its not published I’m under no obligation to divulge it!). For what its worth, the long, and more didactic (but also more tentative) version of my answer to the first question, “What is it about your political beliefs that put you on the Left rather than the Right?” is below the fold; but please go to Open Left to join that debate.

I believe that everyone should have equal prospects for a flourishing life; one in which they are able to find fulfillment and contribute to the wellbeing of others, in which they can attain self-knowledge and can act on that, and in which their interdependence with others is tempered by social conditions which prevent those others from tyrannizing them with the arbitrary use of power.

Equality, in this sense, is a centrally important moral value; and only the left, over the past two centuries or so that we’ve had a left, has consistently pursued it. That’s not to say that the movements pursuing equality on any particular dimension are naturally of the left. The pattern tends to be that while a group is struggling for equality on some dimension – think of gender, or sexuality – it is allied to the left in some way, but as it becomes more successful, it ceases to be so closely allied to the left. The recent fracas over whether the Tories or Labour are more gay-friendly is symptom of the success of the gay lesbian and transgendered movement, and as it becomes more successful (as, surely, it will) it will become even less closely connected to the left. What makes the left the left is that whereas each dimension of unjustified inequality (class, gender, race, sexuality) triggers action from some interested parties, the left is concerned with all dimensions.

Equality is not the only important value. If it were necessary to diminish everyone’s life in order to attain equality, I’d oppose doing so, and operationally, in the highly unequal societies we know, the left rightly prioritizes improving the lives of those whose prospects are least over trying to achieve equality. Personal liberties contribute a great deal to human wellbeing by enabling people to live by their own judgments, and protecting them from the arbitrary power of others, and it is usually an error to countenance undermining personal liberties for the sake of equality; because doing so jeopardizes the preconditions for the flourishing we want to see equality of. Among the most vexing issues that face the left today concern culture – the deep ties of ethnicity, religious belief, and nationality, which simultaneously support and threaten people’s ability to live their lives in ways that support their wellbeing.

The left doesn’t ever have some beautifully crafted set of reform proposals that would, if implemented, endure the end goal of an equal society. During some historical periods – think of the post-World War II period or Eastern Europe in the late 1980s – radical change is possible, as long as the political skill and will and institutional imagination are there to make it happen. In other periods all we can do is limit the damage to our goals (I think the 1980s were like this, and would have been even if Labour had been in government). In yet others, what is possible are incremental and scattered changes that create specific improvements (I think this characterizes the past 15 years and I’m optimistic enough to hope that it characterizes the next 15). Even in these periods, political will, skill, and institutional imagination are needed, and they are needed regardless of who is in government. If the Conservatives win the next election they will do some things that advance the cause of equality, and the Left should identify and support those things, while opposing, or trying to amend to make less harmful, other things. There will also be space – there always is in a modern democracy – to improve things in small ways in local government, through NGOs and, for those people with certain kinds of jobs, within schools, hospitals, businesses, etc. Making small improvements within the available spaces is almost always better than doing nothing in anticipation of big changes later on.

{ 64 comments }

1

walker 07.28.09 at 6:11 am

What is there to endorse about equality that is separate from the political structures that bring about its material and cultural existence? I think I follow you all the way to the point where you say:

Personal liberties contribute a great deal to human wellbeing by enabling people to live by their own judgments, and protecting them from the arbitrary power of others, and it is usually an error to countenance undermining personal liberties for the sake of equality;

What would you say about the honor killings during the summer of 2007? What do you say about the institution of sharia law as a semi-autonomous system within British common law? It comes down to a question of how you define your terms. “Personal judgment” seems agreeable to us only so long as it doesn’t consent to abhorrent acts. Self-determination and individual autonomy, two mainstays of a reasonable liberalism, only work in so far as they do not violate the bounds set by society as a whole: the reason France bans the Burqa is not because they have an overriding interest in determining the sartorial tastes of women: it’s because they see in it a radicalism that is fundamentally opposed to the ideas you so succinctly set forth at the beginning of your piece.

If the foundation of liberalism is that everyone should have “equal prospects for a flourishing life,” then it is those who abuse this prospect who give rise to reactionary conservatism.

2

Chris Bertram 07.28.09 at 6:39 am

My quibble would be that your “equal prospects” formulation doesn’t go far enough. It could be true of two societies that they each, and to an equal degree, met this criterion. And yet one of those two societies might be marked by significantly more inequality than the other, with, perhaps, poverty and considerable riches (as a consequence of uncoerced choice). I take it that to be on the left is also (ceteris paribus etc) to prefer the society with less actual inequality even where both secure equal prospects?

3

Henri Vieuxtemps 07.28.09 at 7:46 am

If you accept the existing framework as a given (private property, a state to enforce the property rights, and everything that follows), then all this sounds like a sensible proposition; and yet 100+ years ago some on the left already rejected the framework itself. It’s been a while, but I believe it’s addressed in Critique of the Gotha Program.

If a social-democratic program is Left, then what do you call those who reject it as… oh, I don’t know – too collaborationist?

4

alex 07.28.09 at 7:53 am

We call them Marxists who have somehow failed to notice that in the almost one-and-a-half centuries since the death of Marx, his followers consistently failed to make a positive contribution to human happiness except insofar as they were prepared to bend their particular brand of nineteenth-century dogmatic system-building to the reality that most people didn’t buy into it, and weren’t prepared to accept its consequences when imposed on them.

There is a level at which it can be said that a Marxist analysis is ‘correct’; but there is also a level at which it can be said that most of my left hand is empty space. In practical everyday terms both contentions are irrelevant.

5

ejh 07.28.09 at 8:18 am

his followers consistently failed to make a positive contribution to human happiness

Well, except for those large numbers of them who have been involved in almost every movement for civil freedoms and social progress that has existed during that time. If we ignore them, perhaps.

6

Henri Vieuxtemps 07.28.09 at 8:34 am

Hmm, alex, without getting into the shortcomings of Marxism, when you say “I am on the Left”, wouldn’t you want to signal somehow that you’re, in fact, just a garden variety social-democrat? Center-left on some issues, center-right on some other issues.

There’s nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with being a social-democrat, but to my ear “Left” implies some degree of radicalism that is just not there. See, you’re trying to find a good (to your taste) balance between liberty and equality, while leaving enough space for culture (“the deep ties of ethnicity, religious belief, and nationality”).

That’s all fine, but how is this “Left”? Aren’t you trying to define more radical Left (with all its shortcomings) out of existence?

7

Chris Bertram 07.28.09 at 8:41 am

Two minor addenda to my #2 above:

1. Given the location of publication of your remarks, I take it that “prospects” refers to wealth and income, chances of getting the “top jobs” in society (cf Alan Milburn) rather than to some all-things-considered assessment of well-being.

2. I don’t want to be understood as committed to the view that to be on the left you necessarily have to value equality as such (in ways that might trump individual well-being – as in the LD objection). Rather, since I think we’re discussing at the level of policy rather than deepest normative commitments, I take it that there is an overlapping consensus of leftists who prefer more to less unequal outcomes (as opposed to the focus on prospects alone) for a variety of reasons which might include attaching value to equality as such, but also considerations of solidarity, desire to avoid shame, humilation, arrogance, overweening pride etc., the value of relations of fraternity among citizens, etc etc. (Cf I suppose, Scanlon’s “The diversity of objections to inequality”.)

8

John Quiggin 07.28.09 at 8:55 am

Following up on Chris, I find the “equality of opportunity” formulation to be generally unsatisfactory since it either reduces to an absence of formal discrimination or can’t be sustained for more than one generation in the presence of substantial inequality of outcomes and the capacity (almost impossible to preclude in a free society) of parents to pass on advantages to their children.

9

Timothy 07.28.09 at 11:27 am

To generate a thought experiment. Suppose that every member of society, upon turning eighteen, partook in a lottery. If they won this lottery all success and wealth would be theres. If they lost, a poor lot they’d have of it. While these people have equal prospects for a flourishing life I think that there is something fundamentally un-left wing ( though perhaps not right wing either) about this society.

Meritocracy doesn’t seem to work as a formulation either, since a society can be completely meritocratic while still being unfair, i.e if the development of the relevant merits depends on a certain standard of living a vicious intergenerational cycle will be created.

10

Timothy 07.28.09 at 11:27 am

Just thinkin’ out loud.

11

Harry 07.28.09 at 1:09 pm

Its equal prospects for a flourishing life, which I then go on to describe in some detail, so no, its not about prospects for income and wealth, top jobs, etc. I think that equal prospects for flourishing requires a fairly radical restructuring of both the economy and jobs themselves (which is why I say in answer to the third question that equality “demands a much more egalitarian society than I can imagine being achieved within a few generations, so anything I say to describe a society regulated by that ideal will sound hopelessly utopian”.)

I agree with what both CB and JQ say. I think that departures from equality of flourishing can be just when they are 1) fairly small and 2) result from actions that people must be allowed to perform and bear the consequences of in order for people to be able to have some authorship of their own lives. In a society with very robustly egalitarian social norms and basic structure this class of actions may be more extensive than in this society. But I realise that many on the left think (and I don’t think that this disqualifies them from being on the left) that more inequality of flourishing is ok than I think, and I wanted to state things in terms that did not restrict the left to those who agree with me in too much detail.

Relatedly, though, I deliberately, and perhaps wrongly, use the term “prospects” rather than “opportunity” (and avoid talking about “choices”, too) because it seems to me that “opportunity” tends to be taken to imply that the outcomes described by Chris and Timothy are necessarily just. I don’t think that’s true, in fact, for the reasons John gives (I agree with him that equality of opportunity, properly understood, implies something close to equality of outcome, given the existence of the family, which I think is justifiable on other grounds; and anyway, if outcomes are guaranteed to be equal then, trivially, people have equal opportunities to attain those outcomes). So I use the term “prospects” to avoid that inference; adhering to equal prospects is consistent with thinking that there may be some inequality of outcome, caused by various acceptable mechanisms, but also with thinking that no inequalities are legitimate. Perhaps the rhetorical move doesn’t work.

12

Phil 07.28.09 at 1:33 pm

This is all a bit Whiggish for me. On one side we’ve got all the people and groups of people with unnecessarily curtailed prospects for a flourishing life, with the Left as a kind of ideological intersect set which values them all; we’ve got an overarching context of civil and cultural liberties which is necessary for anyone to flourish, which the Left must also value; and on the other side we’ve got… what? Who actually opposes equality of flourishing in this model, and (perhaps more importantly) why? To be on the Left is surely to recognise that group A is keeping group B down because it’s in their interest to do so, and to side with group B’s assertion of their own collective self-interest.

13

bianca steele 07.28.09 at 1:39 pm

Harry, it’s possible I’m just not understanding you, and I don’t want to pull the thread off-track if others are more interested in discussing equality, but I’m interested in some of the implications of the last paragraph of your post here. If the Left is interested mostly in proposing changes that others will decide whether and when to enact, and not radical, then it’s almost apolitical (in the sense of not really participating in electoral politics): what does a Left that is not political offer to the ordinary citizen who feels he or she is on the left but finds politics is the best or only way he or she can participate?* Worse, (and I think this is different from what Henri V. said, and also from the old disputes around Marxism) the Left you describe could end up being more comfortable with a right-wing party, and prefer, say New Labour, or Blue Dog Democrats, to those unable to see the right-wing vision even as a status quo that might be preserved.

* Moreso in the US, where this is almost the definition of “independent”? (In fact, in Massachusetts, they created a party, the Independent Voters’ Party, though they are, I think, right-libertarian and anti-tax.)

14

Chris Bertram 07.28.09 at 1:40 pm

“Who actually opposes equality of flourishing in this model, and (perhaps more importantly) why? “

Libertarians, conservatives, and classical liberals would all reject the idea that equality of flourishing is a legitimate aim of public policy.

15

harry b 07.28.09 at 2:03 pm

Gosh, I hope you have misunderstood me, bianca. No, I wasn’t implying that the left isn’t, or shouldn’t be, an organised political force, just that it shouldn’t restrict itself to thinking about what to do when it has power, and shouldn’t think that when it has some power it is a failure if it doesn’t push through a maximalist program. What is possible varies by time and place, and successful political movements are sensitive to what is possible. In the UK, the party that has traditionally been the party to which the left belongs is about to spend 5 (and possibly 10 or more) years out of power, and the left needs to figure out how nevertheless to have some influence.

16

bianca steele 07.28.09 at 2:30 pm

@15, Well, I hope they don’t spend those years convincing themselves that they will always be out of power, as some in the US seem to have. I agree that the differences between countries are important. For example, many highly educated Englishmen and women seem to believe everyone knows the Right has all the power in society, and pace Curtis Sittenfeld, I think most reasonably well-off Americans younger than Lemuel Pitkin come through school convinced of the opposite. Not recognizing this can produce comical results.

17

alex 07.28.09 at 2:44 pm

“Libertarians, conservatives, and classical liberals would all reject the idea that equality of flourishing is a legitimate aim of public policy.”

Many of them would rather argue that if ‘equality of flourishing’ means anything, it would be that individuals have the capacity to ‘flourish’ to different degrees, and that should be respected by government. I.e. that the ‘equality’ lies in the equal opportunity to ‘flourish’ as much as you can, and not to have artificial constraints imposed on your ‘flourishing’.

This may be bullshit, of course, but then so is much of any such discussion of what ‘everyone’ ought to have, in the absence of any acknowledgement that some, indeed many, of the people that we might want in theory to ‘equally flourish’ are arseholes, and that such a quality in them is pretty much bound to fark up whatever great scheme we can imagine.

This is the one great question that any kind of ‘left’ finds it hardest to face: is there any sense in which people, taken in the aggregate, can be good enough to live well together – to allow each other to equally flourish? Conservatives are happy to answer ‘no’, but for them it is just an excuse to justify particular prejudiced varieties of constraint. One suspects that nominally-leftist authoritarians [like many of those making up the current UK govt] don’t really believe it either, which does make you wonder why they’re bothering except for the power-trip. But is answering ‘yes’ anything more than a forlorn hope that at some point in the future we will all get what we want, and a pony?

18

Phil 07.28.09 at 3:59 pm

Libertarians, conservatives, and classical liberals would all reject the idea that equality of flourishing is a legitimate aim of public policy.

I dare say they would, but that’s not really the question. Who’s actually stopping it happening, and why?

19

Substance McGravitas 07.28.09 at 4:17 pm

My quibble would be that your “equal prospects” formulation doesn’t go far enough.

It entails protection from catastrophe, whether that be job loss, medical condition, etc.

20

Sebastian 07.28.09 at 4:32 pm

“To generate a thought experiment. Suppose that every member of society, upon turning eighteen, partook in a lottery. If they won this lottery all success and wealth would be theres. If they lost, a poor lot they’d have of it. While these people have equal prospects for a flourishing life I think that there is something fundamentally un-left wing ( though perhaps not right wing either) about this society.”

A leftist might be against this, but what about a society where when you lost you got to have a pretty darn good life (say upper middle class US) just not as much as the winners? I think at least some legitmate leftists would be ok with that.

21

Billikin 07.28.09 at 4:46 pm

harry b: “I wasn’t implying that the left isn’t, or shouldn’t be, an organised political force”

Will Rogers: “I do not belong to an organized political party. I am a Democrat.”

One difference between the Right and the Left is that the Right knows what it is for, the Left knows what it is against. Therefore the Left is less cohesive than the Right.

22

Billikin 07.28.09 at 5:05 pm

Equality of opportunity, in the U. S., anyway, is rhetorically embraced by both the Right and the Left. America sees itself as the Land of Opportunity. In practice, however, the Right often opposes measures intended to ensure that equality. In part, IMO, that is because equality of opportunity threatens vested interests, which conservatives tend to favor. This kind of contradiction is akin to that in the phrase, “free market capitalism”. As history has shown time and again, capitalists do not really want free markets, they want markets that favor them.

23

bianca steele 07.28.09 at 5:32 pm

Sebastian@20: What if not? What comes to mind is the Asimov story, “Examination Day,” I think, where the hero’s friend Trevelyan can’t get a good job because the bureaucracy decided his mind was cut for Bessemers and nobody is hiring them anymore.

24

Uncle Kvetch 07.28.09 at 7:14 pm

The recent fracas over whether the Tories or Labour are more gay-friendly is symptom of the success of the gay lesbian and transgendered movement, and as it becomes more successful (as, surely, it will) it will become even less closely connected to the left.

As a gay American, reading this makes me want to tear my hair out. I don’t see us getting anywhere remotely near there in my lifetime.

25

Mg 07.29.09 at 12:21 am

Alex @17

The way a government can take action to allow “equality of flourishing” rather than merely respecting it is to remove those arbritary constraints such as unequal access to education, jobs, and so on. So the idea is that if you don’t flourish in your lifetime then that’s because of mistakes made on your part that were justly punished, as opposed to being because the school you went to could never give you the education you needed because it was unnecessarily underfunded or poorly designed. As some people need a lot more to flourish than others this may necessitate an inequality in education/income/resources/etc , and inevitably some people will have their ability to flourish constrained for the sake of others. The artist who “flourishes” by making diamond encrusted skulls may have his ability to flourish constrained if it means that the money for those diamonds can be spent on giving kids a decent education so that they can flourish by becoming lawyers or whatever, and maybe that’s not a nice thing for the poor artist but in a world like this someone’s got to bear a burden. However this problem is hardly fatal for the ideal of equality of flourishing, which is one we must try and strive for.

26

Gary Farber 07.29.09 at 4:01 am

“The left doesn’t ever have some beautifully crafted set of reform proposals that would, if implemented, endure the end goal of an equal society.”

I’m thinking perhaps you meant “ensure,” not “endure”?

27

Don Arthur 07.29.09 at 7:07 am

I believe that everyone should have equal prospects for a flourishing life; one in which they are able to find fulfillment and contribute to the wellbeing of others, in which they can attain self-knowledge and can act on that, and in which their interdependence with others is tempered by social conditions which prevent those others from tyrannizing them with the arbitrary use of power.

It’s so difficult to separate fact from value in statements like this — the two are fused together in way that’s not always obvious.

It seems to me that the reason many people on the right would reject this view is because they believe that ‘finding fulfillment’ and ‘contributing to the wellbeing of others’ are often deeply incompatible.

The view on the left seems to be that when people achieve self-knowledge, they will discover deep-seated desires and capabilities that — when developed — help others to develop and reach fulfillment too.

But many conservatives believe that people have some desires and capabilities that are profoundly antisocial. As a result, it is civilization’s role to suppress these desires and capabilities and perhaps even prevent people from becoming fully aware of them.

Many people on the left seem to believe that things like sadism can never be a true expression of who a person really is — that they are a symptom of a diseased social environment. But this is something many conservatives deny.

Economically minded classical liberals seem to have a different view again. Many of them seem to think that ‘flourishing’ means consuming and that leftists want to achieve equality by reducing the overall level of human flourishing.

I’m not sure how to have the argument given that the key terms mean different things to different people.

28

alex 07.29.09 at 7:53 am

@25: I don’t disagree, I was merely pointing out that others do, or rather that they have different conceptions of what such processes might mean.

None of that, however, addresses the basic problem for the left, which continues to be that, when given the choice, the population at large consistently rejects solutions which are, in the pure hearts of leftists, the best thing for everyone. It is not just Kansas that has something the matter with it, but apparently pretty much everywhere.

29

Mike Otsuka 07.29.09 at 11:31 am

“What makes the left the left is that whereas each dimension of unjustified inequality (class, gender, race, sexuality) triggers action from some interested parties, the left is concerned with all dimensions.”

My one disagreement with this sentence is that some who are on the left are fundamentally opposed to people going without what they need in order to flourish, where this concern encompasses all dimensions of human needs. They will acknowledge that inequality is often a cause, and an effect, of unmet needs. But what bothers them is that needs are not met rather than that those who are deprived are worse off than others. (I have in mind views along the lines of Frankfurt, Raz, and Wiggins.)

So perhaps it would be better to replace ‘inequality’ with another term – maybe ‘deprivation’ – that encompasses both a concern about inequality and a concern about unmet needs.

That reservation aside, I think the above sentence is insightful and useful. Among other things, it makes clear why support for labor unions or for civil rights is not necessarily left-wing. Someone who supports unions because they’re good for white working class people like him, but who is also anti-immigration because these people are ‘taking away our jobs’, is not even left wing insofar as his support for unions is concerned. The same goes for someone who supports civil rights because these measures benefit people of his race even when they privilege the more fortunate members of his race over more disadvantaged whites. These people are, in one significant respect, no different from those on the right who rail against inheritance tax and call for the lowering of the top rate of taxation because these measures benefit people like them.

Of course, people will usually take themselves to have principled rather than self-interested reasons for the above patterns of support. But the selectivity and self-serving nature of their concern suggests that these principles aren’t more than rationalizations.

We need to search for a pattern of concern that is along the lines Harry articulates in the above sentence.

30

Phil 07.29.09 at 12:03 pm

Harry – your “left as ideological intersect of multiple partial campaigns for greater equality” model has an interesting echo here. My own problem with it is also summed up in the passing reference to “areas like class, which have been under-discussed”. Whether it’s because I’m an able-bodied heterosexual White male, or because I’m on a part-time contract which ends in two days with no certainty what’s going to follow it, I feel that any Left which doesn’t start from the realities of class and class interest has seriously lost its way.

31

Phil 07.29.09 at 12:08 pm

Someone who supports unions because they’re good for white working class people like him, but who is also anti-immigration because these people are ‘taking away our jobs’, is not even left wing insofar as his support for unions is concerned.

Hmm.

“The boss has taken our jobs”: left-wing.
“Immigrants have taken our jobs”: right-wing.
“The boss has taken our jobs and given them to immigrants”: right-wing? Always?

32

Henri Vieuxtemps 07.29.09 at 12:30 pm

Yeah, I don’t get the example with the unions either. If someone is anti-immigration, does it mean he or she is a racist, really? Is syndicalism a right-wing ideology?

Anyway, isn’t it all, in the end, about economics? Any minority group you may be concerned about, as long as they achieve equal economic standing – what more can you do for them; force people who don’t like them to like them?

And if it is indeed all about economics, why not just concentrate on giving everyone (whatever the race, geneder, etc.) equal economic status.

33

Steve LaBonne 07.29.09 at 12:51 pm

@28:

None of that, however, addresses the basic problem for the left, which continues to be that, when given the choice, the population at large consistently rejects solutions which are, in the pure hearts of leftists, the best thing for everyone.

If we tone that down a bit and substitute “better” for “best” I think we can show that it’s not entirely true. For example, polling issue-by-issue (rather than on party ID or candidates) in the US consistently shows that the center of gravity of public opinion- to take a currently newsworthy example, on health care- is well to the left of the center of gravity of the political system, which is in fact rigged to block implementation of the real preferences of the majority.

34

bianca steele 07.29.09 at 1:27 pm

@29: This is simply the reverse of the point that interested me. It should not be political to consider your own self-interest. It can’t be the definition of Right that it means acting from naturalistic or self-interested motives–especially if self-interest is considered immoral. In that case, voting would be immoral if not for ideological rather than mundane reasons, and participation in the political process (considered pretty broadly, I think) even at a low key would be even worse. I don’t think that’s where we want to go.

35

Tim Wilkinson 07.29.09 at 1:43 pm

##31,32 re Mike Otsuka @29 – Isn’t the point something like: a proper (egalitarian) left-winger doesn’t allow national borders – and nationalistic/parochial partisanship – to trump egalitarian considerations? Let the immigrants come, but let them join the union. If they don’t join the union, oppose scab labour, not immigrants per se.

A related – arguable – issue being that the right (UK: Conservative), before the advent of free-market rationalisations, was fairly openly partisan in terms of both nation and class, and the industrial left-wing initially somewhat ambiguous between being an opposing partisan group (focus primarily on class) and a genuinely universalistic, which is to say at least minimally egalitarian, movement (focus primarily on nationality).

36

Salient 07.29.09 at 1:53 pm

And if it is indeed all about economics, why not just concentrate on giving everyone (whatever the race, geneder, etc.) equal economic status.

Only if we throw in “equal safety, security, opportunity, and liberty” as well. You might consider those characteristics part of economic status, but I think it’s useful to distinguish “buying power in the market” from, say, “safety from assault” or “safety from burglary/deprivation” or “chance to hold public office or key positions in the world’s power structures” or “right to be romantic with one’s partner whether straight or gay.”

37

Tim Wilkinson 07.29.09 at 1:55 pm

bianca steele @34 – voting on the basis of self-interest might not count as selfish behaviour (or as you call it ‘acting from naturalistic [sic] or self-interested motives’) if it’s seen as part of an attempt at finding a social optimum. The normative doctrine of the invisible hand supposedly works like this – and not only excuses but also demands self-interested capitalistic behaviour – on the basis of glaringly inadequate empirical justification, I should add.

38

bianca steele 07.29.09 at 2:30 pm

Tim:
Well, there are all sorts of ways to conceptualize why people’s flourishing might not coincide with their immediate, felt perception of their self-interest. Some of these are social, others psychological, and still others assert that education is needed to instruct people where their real or ultimate self-interest lies. But most of those conceptualizations–if not all of them–are extra-political. They’re either academic/technocratic or concerned with adjusting people to their station in life (maybe also with adjusting them to the fact that the world is not as they’d wished it would be, and that either action in the external world or further internal adjustment will be needed before they can be happy).

39

Henri Vieuxtemps 07.29.09 at 5:03 pm

Salient, right to be romantic? Chance to hold public office? Safety from assault? I don’t think any of these are so controversial that they require to take sides. Unless, of course, the Left now is what used to be called Center and the new Right is what used to be the troglodytes.

40

Salient 07.29.09 at 5:32 pm

I don’t think any of these are so controversial that they require to take sides.

I don’t understand what you’re saying. Are you saying that well-of-course-everyone-agrees, for example, that homosexuals have a right to have a partner without it threatening their job security? (I’m thinking of a teacher who I believe was fired, by overwhelming popular demand in the community, for being gay. But surely there are plenty of other examples.)

Unless, of course, the Left now is what used to be called Center and the new Right is what used to be the troglodytes.

Not sure how to respond to this. I mean, depending on one’s definitions, what “Center” used to include people who were OK with lynching and now includes people who are OK with torture. Some center, but it is what it is.

At this point in time I would casually/loosely define “Left” to be anyone who feels that injuring a human being in order to obtain information about a crime is morally wrong, no matter what the crime is. If pressed, I would loosely define “radical/fringe Leftist” as anyone who feels that every human being is equally undeserving of the suffering they incur from forces outside their own control.

Again, though, I live in the US in a state that will never, ever, ever elect a moderate to national office — where “A Soc`alist State is an ObamaNation” T-shirts are ubiquitious — where the hot topic in November was how we had illegally elected a “Kenyan national” to office, etc. So perhaps my notion of what is “left” has been severely skewed by my community.

41

Phil 07.29.09 at 6:52 pm

Isn’t the point something like: a proper (egalitarian) left-winger doesn’t allow national borders – and nationalistic/parochial partisanship – to trump egalitarian considerations?

No, I think the point is that you can be a left-winger without being a proper left-winger – or rather, that the Left is about the act of taking sides with respect to certain fundamental inequalities & injustices, and in practice that act is very seldom ideologically pure. Few acts are.

42

Henri Vieuxtemps 07.29.09 at 6:52 pm

Yes, I do, in fact, think well-of-course-everyone-agrees that homosexuals have a right to have a partner without it threatening their job security. I think the controversy here is merely about the level of zealotry: whether a central authority must always override that overwhelming popular demand in the community you mentioned, or not.

So then, maybe for you the main difference between Left and Right has something to do with the rules being more absolute and universal vs. more flexible and local?

43

Salient 07.29.09 at 8:25 pm

Yes, I do, in fact, think well-of-course-everyone-agrees that homosexuals have a right to have a partner without it threatening their job security.

Well, uh, folks don’t agree on this, any more than folks agree that homosexuals should have a right to raise children in their home.

I think the controversy here is merely about the level of zealotry

I don’t understand what you mean by “zealotry” — whose zealotry? Is it “zealous” for state institutions to step in and defend the rights of individuals when they are violated?

So then, maybe for you the main difference between Left and Right has something to do with the rules being more absolute and universal vs. more flexible and local?

I don’t know what you mean by this. It sounds like: folks on the Left want nobody anywhere to ever get lynched/tortured, on absolute universal principle, whereas folks on the Right don’t mind torture if the person’s skin is kinda brown and they seem kinda foreign and suspicious-like.

…Now, I don’t think that characterization is fair to “folks on the Right,” but I do think it is fair to “folks on the Left.”

44

Henri Vieuxtemps 07.29.09 at 8:42 pm

Salient,
Is it “zealous” for state institutions to step in and defend the rights of individuals when they are violated?

Yes, it could be. You know, the whole “shouting fire in a crowded theater” thing. Typically, rights of individuals are not absolute, and if there is an overwhelming popular demand in the community to prevent a homosexual teacher from working in that community, then one option for this teacher might be to move to another community.

Folks on the Right, though, usually feel that the property rights are absolute and universal, so my generalization is wrong.

whereas folks on the Right don’t mind torture if the person’s skin is kinda brown and they seem kinda foreign and suspicious-like.

Hey, you caricature them, they caricature you, everybody happy.

45

Salient 07.29.09 at 9:05 pm

Hey, you caricature them, they caricature you, everybody happy.

(shrug) I was trying to work out what you meant by “flexible and local,” not advance any serious claim of my own. I don’t think it applies generally — for example, folks who advocate that abortion should be considered murder are not particularly “flexible and local” in their thinking.

46

Tim Wilkinson 07.29.09 at 9:11 pm

Phil @41 – No, I think the point is that you can be a left-winger without being a proper left-winger – or rather, that the Left is about the act of taking sides with respect to certain fundamental inequalities & injustices

Well, that’s a different – opposing – point, isn’t it. I suppose remedying certain injustices and inequalities can be described as ‘taking sides’. But the response of those making the original point might be that among those inequalities/injustices are, or properly ought to be, those arising from the accident of nationality.

bianca @38 there are all sorts of ways to conceptualize why people’s flourishing might not coincide with their immediate, felt perception of their self-interest…But most of those conceptualizations—if not all of them—are extra-political.

Yes, though why must they be considered extra-political? In any case, I’m probably being a bit dense here, but I’m not sure how this remark relates to mine about the possibility of unselfish but (in ‘mundane’ terms) self-interested voting. I’m pretty sure you are disagreeing, but not clear what with.

Are you assuming that in the world of politics all motives, even if other-regarding, must be considered self-interested in some sense, or that the proper (or the only possible) political goal is one’s own flourishing? And iff so, does that position amount to more than stipulation?

I’m assuming that peoples’ (mundane) interests can come into conflict, and that in order to avoid being selfish, one must be prepared to limit, but not entirely sacrifice, one’s pursuit of those interests in deference to those of others. From that, and the possibility of conceiving voting as akin to a utilitarian calculus whereby each person including oneself counts for no more nor less than one, the point about voting seems to follow.

Do you disagree, perhaps on a Platonic conception of real interests? Or do you agree but hold that (genuine) altruism is impossible? Or something else?

47

Salient 07.29.09 at 9:20 pm

if there is an overwhelming popular demand in the community to prevent a homosexual teacher from working in that community, then one option for this teacher might be to move to another community.

I agree and disagree. It is true that one option for the teacher might be to move. In exactly the same sense, it’s also true that one option for the teacher would be to commit suicide. Quit being a bother to the community, etc.

But this is not a very useful definition of “option” from my perspective (and of course, we should note that jobs are scarce; one can’t just pick up and move in mid-semester and find employment as a teacher, one has rent obligations for the year that one can’t get out of, etc).

In a sense, all was resolved: the teacher in question quit.

So far as I understand, the last straw was students writing F-G in large letters in some kind of permanent ink (paint?) on the carpet of the teacher’s room and just getting a “warning” for it — and nobody was assigned to clean up the carpet, so it was still there the next day. This might not have been a last straw if it wasn’t for the daily crowd of five or six students who would hang out outside this teacher’s classroom door before first period and yell things such as, “f-ggy b–ch” (my first familiarity with the ongoing hostility derived from walking by and hearing them and admonishing them for their language). The principal was nonplussed when informed of their behavior, and said, “You could try ignoring them.”

Anyway, he quit, and is probably happier elsewhere. So in a sense your definition of “option” is indeed correct. I don’t know if there were any legal issues to be resolved, if there was a lawsuit, etc — having been accused of being homosexual myself just because I visited with this teacher a couple times in the hall, I learned to keep my head down and not ask or converse about it. (I also left the school that year, disgusted and disheartened, to begin my new career.)

Shucks, that’s a long comment and getting off-topic. I’ll leave further details alone and return to my point: taking advantage of one’s available options is finding a private solution to what’s really a public problem.

48

Henri Vieuxtemps 07.29.09 at 9:23 pm

Yes, but there aren’t too many of those who advocate that abortion should be considered murder; most advocate various degrees of compromise.

I mean, if we choose to throw overboard and ignore radical leftists who oppose the property rights, it’s only fair to pretend that the radical opponents of individual rights don’t exist either.

So, how do you know you’re on the left abortion-wise: second trimester and no parental notification?

49

Henri Vieuxtemps 07.29.09 at 9:24 pm

That was in response to 45

50

Salient 07.29.09 at 9:33 pm

Yes, but there aren’t too many of those who advocate that abortion should be considered murder; most advocate various degrees of compromise.

I… I don’t know what you mean by “various degrees of compromise” but I’m confident the consensus opinion in my community is abortion = murder. As for whether abortionist = murderer = life in prison, I’ve been told repeatedly that it’s the doctor who is the murderer, not the mother, who in detailed conversation that hasn’t turned contentious yet is usually portrayed as either (A) a kind of half-wit who is being conned into getting an abortion or (B) a wild half-wit who doesn’t have sufficient control over impulses to avoid getting an abortion (this would be the conjectured crazily promiscuous female who gets 10 abortions a year due to wild sexual exploits).

The weird thing is, I don’t seem to meet very many anti-abortion people who understand it’s possible for a woman of sound mind to arrive at the logical choice that abortion of the fetus she is bearing is appropriate and desirable. The folks I know seem to commonly presume the woman getting an abortion cannot be of sound mind and healthy psyche: making abortion illegal is seen as a kind of protection for the mother as well as the child.

51

Salient 07.29.09 at 9:35 pm

Oops, that was off-topic again. My apologies — I need to stop bringing up examples as side notes that aren’t directly relevant to the thread topic.

52

Henri Vieuxtemps 07.29.09 at 9:43 pm

I don’t know where you are Salient – but you need to get out of there. Get a bus thicket and head north.

53

Salient 07.29.09 at 10:24 pm

Get a bus thicket and head north.

I think about that a lot, but then (and watch me turn this back ’round around to the thread topic), perhaps it’s better that I’m here and doing what little I can to advocate for adjustments in social norms, to pull the society nearby me Left a little. Which brings me to:

This is the one great question that any kind of ‘left’ finds it hardest to face: is there any sense in which people, taken in the aggregate, can be good enough to live well together – to allow each other to equally flourish?

I’ll be honest: as a Leftist, I’m not terribly interested in equal flourishing. I’m interested in ensuring that every human being has the opportunity to live a life in which:

* Suffering is not imposed upon them due to characteristics beyond their control.

* A physically comfortable though meager survival is possible without work or contribution to society. This includes reasonable accommodations: shelter, food, access to health care. By comfortable I specifically intend “the conditions of survival do not themselves directly impose suffering on the individual.”

* Individuals who wish to work, contribute, and socially cooperate have the opportunity to do so in exchange for money. By “opportunity” I specifically intend the concrete opportunity to do work for which their body, brain, and value system is reasonably well-suited.

* Education and career-matching services are readily available for any individual who wishes to prepare themselves for a life of work and contribution, or improve their ability to work and contribute.

* With work, contribution, and social cooperation, it is possible to accumulate property beyond what is strictly necessary for physically comfortable survival.

54

bianca steele 07.30.09 at 12:10 am

Tim@46,
I didn’t understand what you meant by social optimum and was trying to cover the bases (rather than imply you weren’t perfectly clear, I guess).

interests can come into conflict
Sure. I assume this is inevitable, and not a bad thing. This doesn’t mean self-interest is always and everywhere wrong (or even always wrong but often unavoidable), which I thought you implied by saying self-interest is necessarily selfish. I think a healthy regard for self-preservation ought to be encouraged, and that someone who discounts his own self-interest will be less than concerned about protecting the interests of others: likely to say to them, “but you’re just being selfish, aren’t you?”

though why must they be considered extra-political?
I’m trying to begin from where we are, not to determine a theory from first principles (or to declare loyalty to the spirits of leftists past). They are extra-political.

55

Henri Vieuxtemps 07.30.09 at 8:24 am

Salient, one way to prevent the suffering you’re talking about (caused by cultural incompatibility) is to provide everyone with a bus ticket (which is, in essence, an economic solution). I’m not sure if this is a right- or left-wing outlook, but there’s something to say for ‘live and let live’, local autonomy.

Advocating for adjustments in social norms is fine, but the world will never become culturally homogeneous. For example: rural environments inevitably produce a culture different from that in cities. You might be fighting windmills, I’m afraid.

56

Tim Wilkinson 07.30.09 at 11:57 am

bianca: I think a healthy regard for self-preservation ought to be encouraged
I think self-interest is doing pretty well as it is. Self-preservation, too though the Samaritans do some good work in those cases where it’s lacking.

and that someone who discounts his own self-interest will be less than concerned about protecting the interests of others: likely to say to them, “but you’re just being selfish, aren’t you?”
I certainly wouldn’t suggest giving zero weight to one’s own mundane interests – so I assume by ‘discounts’ you mean ‘doesn’t give infinite [or undue] weight to’. But in any case, the thing about saying to someone ‘you’re just being selfish’ is that it depends on a concern for someone else’s (a third party’s, or one’s own) interests.
‘Don’t take all the food for yourself leaving none for others – that’s selfish.’
‘Don’t you oppress me.’

They are extra-political.
OK, rephrase: ‘why should I consider them extra-political?’, or if you prefer: ‘In virtue of what are they extra-political?’.

57

bianca steele 07.30.09 at 1:25 pm

Tim, you can’t be serious. If you have any reason to think the extra-political nature of psychology or, say, sociology of religion might be in doubt, by all means bring it to the table. Though, of course, I’m glad to know you think about the importance of the well-being of others from time to time.

58

Chris 07.30.09 at 7:26 pm

there’s something to say for ‘live and let live’, local autonomy.

It doesn’t seem to me that “live and let live” adequately describes the community’s actions toward the teacher in comments 40 and 47, nor the same community’s likely actions toward young women in need of abortions (let alone the abortionists).

In various times and places throughout history respect for local autonomy would involve tolerating such cultural practices as slavery, suttee, genital mutilation of infants, human sacrifice, cannibalism, honor killings, and lynching.

I consider myself on the Left, and I generally endorse the program outlined in comment 53 above; but despite the stereotypical association of the Left with multiculturalism, it’s partly in *pursuit* of those basically liberal goals, ISTM, that respect for local autonomy needs to have limits, particularly when local autonomy comes at the expense of individual disfavored members of the local community. (Although it’s also possible for a society to oppress its own members equally, in practice it rarely works out that way.)

P.S. @Tim Wilkinson, bianca steele: ISTM that you may be proceeding from different definitions of “extra-political”. More detailed definition of the term might avoid misunderstanding (if, indeed, you have one; I could be wrong).

59

Mike Otsuka 07.31.09 at 1:05 pm

Adding to the first part of my comment #29 above:

I mentioned that, on Harry’s criterion of “What makes the left the left”, Frankfurt, Raz, and Wiggins fail to qualify as on the left. One might react to this with a shrug and say “Well, I guess I never really thought of people like them as on the left”.

So I’ll add that Karl Marx also fails, by Harry’s criterion, to count as on the left, at least on Allen Woods’s reading of Marx’s ethical commitments as extending to ‘non-moral’ goods that are tied to human needs and flourishing, but as failing to extend to such ‘moral’ values as justice and equality.

Now Wood’s reading of Marx is a controversial piece of Marx scholarship. But I don’t think anyone would want to deny that, on Wood’s reading, Marx still clearly qualifies as ‘on the left’.

60

Harry 07.31.09 at 8:26 pm

No, I’d put Raz on the left (don’t know about Frankfurt or Wiggins). I like the idea of Marx not being on the left, but I agree with Mike that even Wood’s Marx probably should be. ….

61

Henri Vieuxtemps 07.31.09 at 8:43 pm

It doesn’t seem to me that “live and let live” adequately describes the community’s actions toward the teacher in comments 40 and 47, nor the same community’s likely actions toward young women in need of abortions (let alone the abortionists).

No, I was talking about the attitude of the central authority towards these backward communities. If the community is overwhelmingly against homosexual teachers and abortions, then should we force them to accept homosexual teachers and abortions, or should we provide easy opportunities (economic opportunities) for homosexual teachers and women in need of abortion to relocate? The Amish communities, for example.

I believe the latter solution is much preferable and I’m curious if this is compatible with ‘being on the Left’.

62

engels 08.01.09 at 11:13 am

I’m not confident I’ve disentangled your analysis of the concept of ‘the left’ from your statement of your own convictions. But you do say that ‘[w]hat makes the left the left is that … the left is concerned with all dimensions [of unjustified inequality]’, where ‘inequality’ here refers back to the idea stated earlier ‘that everyone should have equal prospects for a flourishing life’. So to me it sounds like that what you are saying is that in order to be on the left one has to endorse a rather specific brand of philosophical egalitarianism (which sounds to me like a kind of perfectionist luck egalitarianism…)

I’m not really a fan of this conception of equality generally, and I don’t agree with your claim that ‘the left, over the past two centuries or so that we’ve had a left, has consistently pursued it’, or that it ought to do so in the future, but here I’ll just give one reason why I don’t think it can characterise ‘the left’. In general I don’t think it’s likely that the difference between being on the left or on the right could boil down to a difference in normative convictions about how the world ought to be. This is because for practically any principle you can think of (people ought to have equal prospects of a flourishing life, say) it is possible, I think, to find people on the conservative right or in the liberal centre who will endorse it but who maintain either that it already roughly obtains (in America today anyone can succeed in life with hard work and determination, etc…) or that it does not obtain, and is desirable, but that radical social change aimed at realising it would be self-defeating.

So if your intention was to explicate what it mean to be on the left then I think your emphasis on endorsement of normative principles is misjudged.

63

engels 08.01.09 at 4:58 pm

Or, to put it another way, being on the left requires a practical commitment to the collective struggle to overturn the oppressive social conditions under which most of us live. Many on the left are of the opinion that this can only come about by the oppressed themselves becoming conscious of their oppression and acting collectively to end it. At any rate, since the struggle is by its nature a collective one the question of exactly what kind of world we are struggling for must be decided on collectively.

Whatever the merits of ‘Equality of What?’/recipes-for-the-cookshops-of-the-future philosophising may be, it can’t possibly provide a litmus test for who is or isn’t on the left. It’s possible that you could be the only person in the world who has the correct answer to ‘Equality of What?’ By contrast, if you think you are the only person in the world who is on the left, then you are not on the left.

64

Hix 08.02.09 at 3:06 pm

This should be titled:
About the art to define all political conflicts on a single left right scale and defining center right positions as left based on party identifications in a two party system.

Defining “left” based on i vote New Labour or Democrats makes no sense. Those parties represent more than 50% of the voters and voters are on average more right than the population as a whole. Both parties are odd allieances of liberals, labour and environmentalists, pushed together just by a voteing system that alows for only two parties. Only the labour group is really left. The others join those parties based on conflict lines that needs a lot work to get pushed into the left right scale.

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