Monday, May 02, 2005

Left-wing values

Philosophy, etc considers the question of what are, or should be, the core values of left-wing thought? His answer is pretty much the same as mine: that it is about freedom, but a freedom that is substantive, rather than merely formal.

As Philosophy, etc notes, the right's conception of freedom is very "thin", and does not consider at all the question of whether such freedom can actually be exercised. It is also concerned only with freedom from state interference; it does not consider private individuals to be capable of limiting freedom (or else that such restraints do not matter). Combined, these render the right's conception of freedom nothing more than a cruel joke, leading to absurdities such as people still having "freedom of religion" even when some forms of worship result in private punishment no different from state oppression, or having "freedom of movement" even when they are forbidden to step out of their house and onto the privately-owned sidewalk. The only sort of "freedom" this is is freedom for the pike.

By contrast, the left's vision of freedom is one that can actually be exercised:

This means preventing the powerful from limiting other people's freedom (justifying employment law and anti-discrimination legislation), enabling people to make the most of themselves (hence state-provided (or at least regulated) education), and insulating them from the vagaries of fortune, of ill-health or poverty, so that they will be able to pursue their vision of the good (or at least not completely lose sight of it) regardless of circumstance (giving us social welfare and a comprehensive health system). In other words, your standard redistributive liberal-democratic welfare state, supported on the grounds that freedom is for everyone, not just the rich.

Those grounds point to a second left-wing value: equality. Historically, this has mostly been seen in the quest for (greater) economic equality, driven by the stunning inequalities of wealth and hence life-chances between rich and poor that were so graphicly displayed during the Ancien Regime and industrial revolution, but there are other strands as well. One is for equality of opportunity - for everyone to have a decent start in life and a chance to reveal their talents regardless of the circumstances of their birth. Another is moral equality - the equal valuing of all regardless of wealth or status. And these latter strands provide a modern justification for the former: to the extent that economic inequality interferes with either moral equality or equality of opportunity (or substantive freedom, for that matter) we are justified in limiting it (though ideally by raising the bottom rather than lowering the top).

Finally, I'd add democracy to the list. The belief in moral equality has led to a sustained effort to widen the circle of government and put power in the hands of the people. Even those strands of the left which took a markedly anti-democratic turn at least claimed to be attempting to do this (unfortunately, they were poisoned by their belief in false consciousness, the idea that people are deceived about where their "true interests" lie). And in the west, where Marxists have been less successful in seizing power, left-wingers have been consistent in their support of extending the franchise to the poor, to women, and to ethnic minorities.

This is of course a liberal conception of left-wing values, but I think it provides a far firmer ethical grounding than the traditional grounding in social class.


haven't you just provided the main tenets of liberal democracy?

Posted by the other 'Che' : 5/02/2005 03:37:00 PM

Social class is a pretty useful concept as long as we keep in mind that it's a sociological one, ie it can tell you useful things about very large numbers of people, but it doesn't have much to contribute when looking at situations involving individuals or groups.

Posted by Psycho Milt : 5/02/2005 04:56:00 PM

I think to both sides democracy is fundimentally a compromise not an ideal.
ie the left doesnt want there to be democracy in regard to punishment for criminals etc...
the left supports democracy when the government is to the right of public opinion and opposes it when government is to the left.

Posted by Genius : 5/02/2005 07:05:00 PM

I think talking about freedom as either 'thick' or 'thin' is a little, well, the first one of those.

The only freedom that is relevant in politics is freedom from coercion,and the only practical method of protecting from coercion is the recognition of individual rights.

Posted by Peter Cresswell : 5/02/2005 07:32:00 PM

I'm interested to know why you say that freedom from coercion is the only relevant type in politics. Is there no place for freedom to "do", or positive freedom as Isaiah Berlin called it, in politics. This ties in with the point in the OP about equality of opportunity as a key tenet of left-wing or liberal politics: negative freedom is somewhat diminished if one is unable to take advantage of it. Of course, positive freedom taken too far can lead to a dangerous paternalism from governments that intrude unnecessarily into individuals' lives, but isn't a little bit of social development (based on our valuing of positive freedom) a good thing if it allows more people to take advantage of their talents and circumstance?

Posted by Anonymous : 5/02/2005 08:15:00 PM

I'm going to have to agree with PC on this one.

Posted by Lucia Maria : 5/02/2005 10:10:00 PM

Che: well, left-wing liberal democracy. But social democracy and liberal democracy tend to fade into one another anyway.

PC: to which I'd respond by asking what the hell sort of "freedom" it is when you can be "free" while effectively being under house arrest? I think these sorts of examples show that freedom is a somewhat "thicker" concept than the libertarians would have it.

I'm not saying that the absence of coercion is unimportant - I think it's absolutely vital - but that more things count as "coercion" or "constraint" than Libertarians would recognise (though they are somewhat schizoid about this). And as coercion is licensed to prevent coercion (something Libertarians implicitly accept with their ban on force and demand that rights be protected), we are entitled to do something about it.

But I also think the Libertarian conception of freedom suffers from not being able to see the wood for the trees. Freedom, whether negative or positive, is simply a means to an end, the end being autonomy (the idea that people are authors and owners of their own lives, and therefore uniquely privileged to make their own decisions). And if we take autonomy seriously as a value, then we need to structure our freedoms so as to maximise it for every individual. It's on this latter point that Libertarianism falls down; it maximises autonomy for the rich, and ignores everyone else.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 5/03/2005 12:00:00 AM

Rich is just a proxy for "powerful" it is inconsistant to oppose rich peopel but not socialy pwoerful poeple. Of course if you oppose power in its social as well as monetary form you preclude being able to gain enough power to overthrow it.

Anyway as a positive liberty fellow (which goes with authortarianism somewhat).. the lack of coersion by one force is just the presence of coersion by another force. The best you can do is make sure those coersive forces are as benign as possible.

Posted by Genius : 5/03/2005 07:42:00 AM

I am basically sympathetic to the content of your description of left wing politics. But its missing the feminist dimension which is the critique of the liberal concept of autonomy- for liberal purposes an autonomous person is implicitly one without dependents. This is an artificial conception of human life. We are all dependents at some stage in our lives:- as children, when ill, when elderly and frail. And most of us will have dependents; children or elderly parents who we have to take responsibility for. In fact taking a broader view we are dependent on other people for the very basics of life- food, water, emotional support etc. The reality of human life is that we are inextricably connected to each other by complex webs of mutual dependencies but that is not to say we cannot also strive for a degree of autonomy.

Too many people just see the world in dichotomies- But actually its far more complex than that...

One of my favourite quotes:

“Community without freedom is a project as horrifying as freedom without community. For better or worse, the life of the autonomous individual cannot but be navigated between the two equally unattractive extremes (Bauman Z 1996 “On Communitarian and Human Freedom” Theory, Culture and Society 15: 11-22

Posted by Amanda : 5/03/2005 10:07:00 AM

MTNW: I don't think autonomy has to mean atomism. I also don't think it means a lack of physical dependence. No man is an island, even in a market economy; the latter simply hides the dependencies by calling them "transactions".

What autonomy means is being the authors of our own lives. Many (most?) choose to share those lives with others to a large extent, and we are dependent on others in myriad ways of lesser importance. Despite this, we can still in a vital sense "be in control", and make our own decisions. And that is what I am trying to protect.

What autonomy does entail, however, is limiting the ability of communities (or families, even) to interfere in the choices of their members.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 5/03/2005 05:57:00 PM

Hmm...maybe core left wing values are Liberty, Equality, Fraternity...

Blair's third way is not left as far as I'm concerned in that they de-emphasise liberty and equality. So you end up with "a Nanny" state being very controlling of peoples personal lives but hands off with regard to economic injustice--all concealed beneath a layer of sickly pseudo fraternal authoritarianism. "You WILL evince the correct emotional attitude and personal habits and you will be included in the community as defined by us, for your own good..."

Posted by Amanda : 5/03/2005 07:42:00 PM

I expect the the Nanny state will be victorious - technology will slowly make it easier to enact and superior to any other solution.
One day it will be fairly simple for one government with the aid of technology to control everyone and calculate what is in the interests.

Posted by Genius : 5/03/2005 08:32:00 PM

One thing that really bugs me is how freedom and democracy are often treated as synonymous, when democracy is actually a way of imposing limits on freedom. Not that this is a bad thing - when two people's freedoms clash, which is inevitable, some way of resolving the conflict is needed and democracy is the best option. The right tends to want to arbitrarily restrict freedoms that don't affect other people (eg same sex marriage), and leave actual conflicts of freedom to be resolved without democratic regulation no matter what power imbalances may exist between the affected parties (eg poor people and loan sharks).

Posted by Commie Mutant Traitor : 5/04/2005 10:09:00 AM

I think that democracy itself is a more leftish view. It is for everyone and it is for the good of everyone. Of course governments who corrupt the democratic system with their right ring propaganda or their meager thoughts that the individual deserves all the rights is sickening.

On another note, Marx himself said that democracy is the road to socialism, a leftish system.

Posted by Anonymous : 3/27/2006 09:53:00 AM