I always like a bit of intellectual history ….and last week I alighted on a conversation with Roger Scruton around a revamp of a book which this English Conservative philosopher first issued in 1985
We have been told for several decades that the left-right spectrum no longer has any basis in reality although it remains a label very much in evidence
Now 71, Scruton has been the bête noire of British left intellectuals for more than 30 years, and gives them another beastly mauling in his new book “Fads, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left”. It is a tour de force that, the introduction concedes, is ‘not a word-mincing book’, but rather ‘a provocation’.
In just under 300 pages he Scruton-izes a collection of stars, past and present, of the radical Western intelligentsia – the likes of Eric Hobsbawm and EP Thompson in Britain, JK Galbraith and Ronald Dworkin in the US, Jurgen Habermas, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze in Europe. An expanded and updated version of his controversial Thinkers of the New Left (1985), the book ends with a new chapter entitled ‘The kraken wakes’ dealing with the ‘mad incantations’ of Alan Badiou and the left’s marginally newer academic celebrity, the Slovenian Zizek.
A copy of the book was lying in Bucharest’s English bookshop when I popped in there on Sunday - giving me the chance to read its opening pages which, I have to confess, made a great deal of sense even to an old lefty like me.
“Why, he asks, use a single term to cover anarchists such as Foucault, Marxist dogmatists like Althusser, exuberant nihilists like Zizek and US liberals like Dworken, Galbraith and Rorty? Two reasons – they call themselves this and they all have an “enduring outlook” – some belonging to the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s and others to the post-war thinking according to which the state is or ought to be in charge of society and empowered to distribute its goods…..”
This - the dimension of economic ownership (monopoly through oligopoly to cooperatives/shared ownership to private owners) - is indeed one of the axis you need to make sense of world views. But it is not the only one – particularly these days when the social dimension has become so important. Class (rarely talked about now) is only one form of group identity – with race and sexuality being the new entrants. So an additional axis is needed for the strength of social norms - with totalitarianism being at one axis and anarchy at the other. There is a third – for the role of the state, for example, in welfare provision and general regulatory measures – but that’s a bit complicated for this blog.
So I will start with four quadrants which we can use, for example, to plot the old and new left and right-
- Old Left; supporting a strong state sector for infrastructure and health (inc insurance although the religious and cooperative sectors could equally have responsibility for this last)
- Old Right; recognizing the role of the state in sustaining property rights and traditional ways of doing things
- New Left; which has supported the liberation struggles of repressed groups and the onward march of post-modernism….
- New Right; which tends to divide strongly between the economic agenda of the Neo-liberals (whose eulogies for “the market” conceals support oligopolistic licence and the spread of “commodification”) and the more traditional social agenda of the American Neo-Cons.
In Fools, Frauds and Firebrands Scruton attacks the left idea of thought for a cause, ‘politics with a GOAL’.
‘Conservatives are by their nature people who are trying to defend and maintain existence without a cause’. Simply to keep things as they are? ‘We obviously all want to change things, but recognise that human life is an end in itself and not a means to replace itself with something else. And defending institutions and compromises is a very difficult and unexciting thing. But nevertheless it’s the truth.’
For Scruton, the left intellectuals’ apparent attachment to a higher cause only disguises what they really stand for: ‘Nothing.’ He writes that ‘when, in the works of Lacan, Deleuze and Althusser, the nonsense machine began to crank out its impenetrable sentences, of which nothing could be understood except that they all had “capitalism” as their target, it looked as though Nothing had at last found its voice’.
More recently, ‘the windbaggery of Zizek and the nonsemes of Badiou’ exist only ‘to espouse a single and absolute cause’, which ‘admits of no compromise’ and ‘offers redemption to all who espouse it’. The name of that cause? ‘The answer is there on every page of these fatuous writings: Nothing.
So, what is all this Nothing-ness about? ‘My view’, says Scruton, ‘is that what’s underlying all of this is a kind of nihilistic vision that masks itself as a moving toward the enlightened future, but never pauses to describe what that society will be like. It simply loses itself in negatives about the existing things – institutional relations like marriage, for instance – but never asks itself if those existing things are actually part of what human beings are. Always in Zizek there’s an assumption of the right to dismiss them as standing in the way of something else, but that something else turns out to be Nothing.’
Scruton’s is not the only book this year to explore “the culture wars”. A site I must consult more often is the Society for US Intellectual History which carried recently an interesting comparison of a couple of books which throw light on all this -
‘Ideas,’ Rodgers writes, ‘moved first in the arena of economic debate.’ Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the dominant tropes in economics had been institutional, even among conservatives. Right-wing critics of the welfare state and state-managed economies did not speak of the market; they spoke of corporations and banks and ‘championed the rights of management and the productive powers of the free enterprise “system”.’
The idea of the market that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s – ‘self-equilibrating, instantaneous in its sensitivities and global in its reach, gathering the wants of myriad individuals into its system of price signals in a perpetual plebiscite of desires’ – dispensed with these settings and constraints.
It also dismantled the ‘troubling collective presence and demands’ of social democracy, turning unions, workers and the unemployed ‘into an array of consenting, voluntarily acting individual pieces’.
Everyone became a buyer or seller, everything – kidneys, pollution – got bought and sold. The only thing holding it all together was the magnetic energy of these individual acts of exchange. Like most scholars of the free-market movement, Rodgers assigns great weight to Milton Friedman, ‘the University of Chicago’s most forceful politiciser’, and the right’s answer to J.K. Galbraith. He wrote columns for Newsweek, advised presidents (and dictators), and organised the ten-part PBS series Free to Choose as a counter to Galbraith’s 15-part BBC series on capitalism.
With his focus on the money supply as the source of economic well-being, Friedman helped popularise a ‘radically simplified model of aggregate economic behaviour’, in which ‘state, society and institutions all shrank into insignificance within a black box that translated money inputs directly into price outputs.’
Yet, as Rodgers points out, Friedman’s monetarism was also far more state-centric – the Federal Reserve played an almost heroic role in determining the direction of the economy – than most market theologians would have liked.What truly pushed the market into the culture – high and low – were the adjutants of Friedman’s revolution: the law professors and jurists, not just on the hard right (Richard Posner) but also on the squishy left (Stephen Breyer), who made economic efficiency the measure of all things and provided much of the rationale for deregulation; the second wave of free-market economists (Robert Lucas, for example, or Gary Becker), who took apart the field of macroeconomics in favour of game theory, behavioural economics, rational expectations and other individualist approaches; and journalists like George Gilder and Jude Wanniski who recast the market as a popular (and populist) vision of the good society.
For more, read –