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Monday, November 14, 2005

leftist political philosophy?

A disturbing post over at the College Dems' blog Demapples caused me to nearly rip my hair out. The author's basic claim is that the left does not work in the realm of political philosophy and doesn't need to:
We don't really ask abstract questions about how we conceive of politics, what the dangers to modernity are, what justifies property rights, etc., because we don't really need to. By contrast, the right is all about political philosophy. The religious right, libertarians, strict constructionists, all of them focus their arguments on a very broad vision of what society ought to look like. I think that this reflects the fundamental fact that modern leftist assumptions are more self-evident than rightist ones, meaning that we don't have to invent some new philosophical justification every generation.(more in expanded post)
I think that the obvious nature of our beliefs is really a reflection of how successful they have been over the last century, between the New Deal, Civil Rights, the Great Society, the sexual revolution, and so on and so forth. Every so often we need to be reminded that we live in a pretty liberal country, regardless of who runs it.
My response in their comments section (now spell checked) was as follows:
While I think this would be a nice reality to live in, I don't think any of us do. First of all, to the premise that the modern left does not think about political philosophy: I think that this is true of most "politicos" who populate the IOP and Dems board meetings (I love you guys but it's true), and absolutely not true of the activist and intellectual left. What is true is that the politico left essentially ignores the activist/intellectual left both at Harvard and in modern politics, and instead plays games of tactics and targeting that have little or nothing to do with shifting the modern day discourse and reestablishing a leftist ideological cohesion.

To argue that the New Deal, Civil Rights or the Great Society simple came out of the "known" liberal tradition of America is simply bad history. The New Deal found its intellectual basis in leftist intellectuals of the 30s, post-Marxist intellectuals from New York who studied Trotsky and Dewey and Lippman. The Civil Rights movement found its intellectual bases in people like Reinhold Riehber (sp?), southern religious traditions, and radicals like C. Wright Mills. The Great Society found its intellectual foundations in the children of the Old Left like Michael Harrington and Tom Hayden.

While I think it would be safe to say that much that goes on in modern American leftists intellectual circles is not helpful (moral relativism, for instance), there is a ton going on that, quite frankly, most people involved in mainstream politics simply don't pay attention to either because they are 1. not interested, 2. worried of being perceived of as "radicals" or 3. lazy. Take your pick...

The reason that it's important for the left/democratics/liberals (whatever you want to call people who seek social justice, equality of opportunity and coherent communities), is that it is simply not possible to have a sustained life of political sacrifice fueled on the ideological fumes of when you read "Theories of Justice" freshman year. To truly commit yourself to a set of principles, and fight for those principles your entire life, you need to have a deep and profound set of beliefs that rises above bad pop history and superficial platitudes from the likes of mainstream democratic politicians.
As you can tell from my shoddily done intellectual history, it's not really where I'm at my best. If I retyped it I would distinguish between Harrington and Hayden, for instance. I would have including W.E.B. DuBois and Gandhi and Dr. King in my discussion of the Civil Rights Movement. I would have moved Mills into the column of inspiration for the New Left/Great Society (not that the two were actually THAT linked) as opposed to the Civil Rights Movement. Well, there are a ton of people I should/could have included, and I'm sure many I don't even know to include...

But that's neither here nor there. The point stands and the original sentiment is an incredibly important one to defeat in our political allies. We absolutely DO need a political philosophy, we need a set of analysis that asks and answers the questions: How can democracy truly function in the bureaucratic world of corporate media? How can solidarity be maintained in a country that is increasingly personally isolated? How can our capitalist system be checked at a time at which it increasingly seems to put profits before people? How can the left negotiate post-modern concepts of power in relationship to things like free speech, gender, sexuality, race and still maintain an open liberalism? These are not simply logistical questions, but philosophical ones that requires thinkers like C. Wright Mills (my newly discovered favorite) or Michael Harrington or W.E.B. DuBois or John Dewey.

While I don't know who that person is for us today, to not look for them would be the biggest folly. Intellectually, the modern left is a generation that is adrift, with different branches of our movement finding refuge in widely different intellectual ports, and no unity in sight. If we ever want to move as one again, if we ever want to be able to truly exist within an ideological movement for social justice and equality, we need to rediscover what those vague concepts mean in relation to the modern world, and John Rawls ain't cutting it.


At 10:46 AM, Anonymous Guess Who said...

Great post Andrew...I think you basically knocked this one out of the park. As far as adding to the discussion, I think what has happened in post-1970s "Left" philosophy was, as you alluded to in your pithy comment at the end about Rawls, obsessed with the grand project of social justice (largely defined by wealth redistribution) implemented by a democratic, liberal welfare state at the same time the Right was able to exploit racial, religious, ethnic, and ideological tensions (and the excesses of the 1960s and 70s "counterculture") to justify the dismantling of the relatively modest welfare state of the 1930s-1960s. This, of course, is a US-based timeline of events, but if you stretch it out until the 1980s and 90s, it would fit Old Europe as well. A major question for anyone trying to found an intellectual basis for the Left has to be around how this sad state of affairs happened. Maybe part of it was an early failure to adequately address communitarian (particularly religious) and feminist/minority objections to the major ideas in "Leftist" philosophy. Perhaps this left them unable to anticipate and co-opt (or defeat) the right-wing backlash? Or perhaps these aformentioned objections, at first salient, over time began to degenerate into moral relativism or unsubstantive identity politics (not that all or even most identity politics lack substance, but perhaps the so-called politics of recognition have become self-indulgent in some respects)...These are all very interesting questions that I do not claim to have the answer to, but might spark a better conversation on these issues. I think one area of philosophy that will show some promise for the Left in the future is the field of virtue ethics, which returns to the age-old question of "what does a good life entail?" and attempts to answer that in a way that makes adequate room for religious and cultural difference, but still upholds a common vision of good that we can devote the resources of our society to attaining for all people. Anyway, good post...take it to those College Dems...


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