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Why the Left Needs to Think About Religion (And Other Big Questions)

“The political right has long been better at playing the Nietzschian game of values than the political left.”

Russell Kirk’s 1953 classic The Conservative Mind is widely praised for providing philosophical and historical support for American conservatism. More importantly, at the time, it helped rally conservative forces in the Anglo-American world that were caving to the demands of progressives. As Kirk observed in his weighty book, Keynesian-style welfare states were ascendant across the developed world. Even right-wing stalwarts such as Winston Churchill, the victor of the Second World War, could not resist the pressure to expand or at least retain the immense volume of welfare programs which were emerging. This tendency was so widespread that in 1965 Milton Friedman could attribute to Republican Richard Nixon the sentiment that “we are all Keynesians now.” 

Things have changed quite markedly since then, with the rise first of neoliberalism in the 1980’s and now post-modern conservatism in the 21st century. In a sharp inversion, which might have pleased and disturbed Kirk in equal measure, progressive forces largely seem to be in retreat—or at best engaging in holding patterns. The relative downward movements have turned into a rapid slide over the past few years. While there have been some local successes—including the election of Andres Obrador in Mexico and the rise of Podemos in Spain—the news has almost uniformly been bad for progressives since at least 2015.  What is worse is that many of the post-modern conservative movements currently ascendant have not limited themselves to the neoliberal ambition to simply curb or roll back the welfare state. They have either flirted or openly embraced the kind of xenophobic rhetoric and policies many hoped had died in Berlin in 1945.  This is a profoundly worrying development that has rightly been the subject to intense scrutiny and analysis—including in many of the recent stories published by Merion West.

Much of this scrutiny has been directed at progressives and their failure to block or prevent these recent developments. This has been explained in many different ways. For some, progressives lost touch with their working-class constituents, who consequently turned to right-wing populists who seemed more in tune with their concerns. For others, the problems lie in an unwillingness on the part of progressives to engage in the kinds of low-ball tactics right-wing populists embrace. This runs the gamut from telling blatant lies, to engaging in immense gerrymandering efforts, voter suppression and so on. Finally, there are some who believe that the Left has become far too associated with politically correct culture and identity politics. This fractured the support for progressive parties, while leading to the negative impression of progressives as puritanical moralists. This made the rise of figures like Trump and Viktor Orban inevitable, since whatever the content of their statements, their willingness to say what they thought without concern for PC culture was refreshing. I believe there is something to each of these arguments, and they deserved to be looked at carefully.

But, in this essay, I would like to posit another reason why progressives have increasingly failed to connect with many people. This is because progressives have long failed to link their policy preferences to any larger or more inspiring vision of human life and society. In an increasingly transformative post-modern culture, this has encouraged many to turn to conservative movements. Many of these movements at least posit some source or narrative of transcendent value, which provides their followers with the sense that they are part of a meaningful enterprise. For the Left to inspire people in these uncertain times, it needs to discover and articulate equally compelling sources or narratives about transcendent value.

The Political Right and the Problem of Meaning

“There is a boundary to men’s passions when they act from feelings; but none when they are under the influence of imagination.” – Edmund Burke

As I have pointed out in these pages before, the political right has long been better at playing the Nietzschian game of values than the political left. Russell Kirk articulated many of the reasons why in The Conservative Mind. Many on the political right have long stressed that the source of our moral obligations lies in the particular loyalties we have to other individuals and entities. These particular loyalties flow from the association of these individuals and entities with our sense identity. Families, ethnic groups, and religious communities provide many with a sense of who they are and what they should value. They are stabilizing influences that both reinforce the continuity of a given society and enable us to form non-rational but not less powerful moral obligations to others on the basis of these particular loyalties. I feel loyalty to my parents and siblings because I grew up with them, to my ethnic group because I speak their language and practice their traditions, and to my religious communities because we hold to the same metaphysical outlook on life. In totality, these reciprocal loyalties provide for my material needs—but more importantly—my sense of identity and values. In other words, to invoke Jordan Peterson, these reciprocal loyalties provide me with a sense of meaning. 

It is important to take note of the nature of these reciprocal loyalties. Conservatives such as Kirk and many of the writers at the Nation Review are prone to dismissing progressive’s attraction to so-called abstractions. The connotation is that these abstractions are somehow unreal relative to a conservative’s particular loyalties to family, ethnicity, and religion. This outlook occasionally leads some conservative pundits, notably Ben Shapiro, to claim that the Right privileges “facts” over “feelings.” It prefers to deal with the real world, over these so-called abstractions. But when one actually analyzes many of the particular loyalties of the conservative worldview, from a purely philosophical standpoint, they are no less abstract than their progressive counterparts. There are no reasons, for instance, why the “nation” is a philosophically less abstract concept than “humanity.” Why religious truth and “God”—perhaps history’s most philosophically disputable concepts—are more concrete than say the “international order.” Or, to speak of moral values, why “merit” is less abstract a principle for distributive justice than a more egalitarian principle such as Rawlsian fairness. 

Each of these is an eminently abstract concept, as evidenced by the ongoing disputes about them. But many conservatives do not think this way because the philosophical truth (or lack thereof) of these concepts is less important than the meaning they play in people’s lives. This was well put by Russell Kirk in The Conservative Mind. When discussing Coleridge, Kirk observes that the tendency of many progressives has always been to ask “is an idea true?” This sentiment applies to figures as diverse as Bentham, Marx, and Stephen Hawking. The tendency of conservatives has instead been to ask “what does this idea mean?” In many respects, this is not a question about the rationality of believing in these ideas. It is rather about the emotional and spiritual attachment people have to them.

Because conservatives have been prone to asking this latter question, they have often been better at playing the game of values. They are sensitive to the fact that for many people, the fact that the nation is little more than an “imagined community”—or that proving God’s existence one way or another seems almost impossible—isn’t that important. What matters is the meaning the ideas of the nation or God inspire in people, because these flow from the particular loyalties many people have in their daily lives. This is also why so many on the Right complain about alleged “elites” who condemn conservatives as ignorant and God-loving dullards, who cling to their ethnic communities, churches, and guns. Whether a Harvard educated professor can demonstrate statistically how immigration leads to economic growth—or comes up with a clever proof about the inconsistency of Christian teaching—has little bearing on the meaning these ideas play in people’s lives. And unless said Harvard professor can provide an alternative source of meaning that provides as much of a sense of meaning as these particular loyalties, many people are unlikely to endorse various progressive worldviews. No matter how rationally one can criticize them, people will strongly retain their emotional and spiritual attachment to them and will be unwilling to give them up.

Conclusion: The Left and the Problem of Meaning

Individualism, the ideology called individualism, “was born in hell; and look to it, for some of you shall be the father.” It is a denial that life has any meaning except gratification of the ego; in politics, it must end in anarchy; its philosophers are Godwin, Hodgskin, and Spencer. It is not possible for one man to be both Christian and Individualist.”- Russell Kirk, Academic Freedom

As Russell Kirk observed, this source of meaning was not provided by many on the Left throughout the 20th century. The grandest and imaginative narrative of left-wing thought, Marxist communism, was immensely discredited by the atrocities committed by the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and others. The moderate progressive efforts of the welfare state were more practical in their ambitions. These are important struggles; rampant inequality produces immense inefficiencies in the use of resources which could be better deployed to help the world’s most vulnerable populations.

There are few compelling utilitarian reasons why incentive structures need to be so extreme that some people will be worth billions while 815 million people are still starving. Millions of people in developed countries live in relative poverty working extremely long hours, while billions of dollars are inherited by families and individuals who may never work a day in their lives. Then there are more modern left-wing calls for greater inclusivity and participation in the civic community—whether for long-marginalized ethnic minorities, women, and LGBTQ individuals. These struggles are all essential for the advancement and democratization of society and should continue. Far too many people have been denied opportunities for equal participation in the polity for morally arbitrary reasons. 

But beyond these efforts, I would argue that progressives also need to be more adept at answering people’s deeper need for a sense of meaning in politics. This is especially true in post-modern culture, as many people’s sense of history and identity are increasingly challenged. One of the reactions to post-modern culture and neoliberal social instability has been a reactionary turn back to traditional sources of identity and meaning, which have been destabilized and continuously thrown into question. So far, the Left has been insensitive to these transformations. If anything, its latter calls for greater inclusivity by marginalized groups are unfairly seen by many as a further source of instability. Such fears are stoked by self-serving post-modern conservatives such as Donald Trump, who promise that the only way to stabilize the sources of meaning in society is to vote for them. Then, they promise they will rid the social body of the foreign elements which undermine it. 

The Left cannot respond to these developments by simply calling for more of the same, especially when these policies are so widely associated with destabilization. This, of course, does not mean compromising with the political right or adopting similarly prejudicial tactics. Progressives need to think of a new way of convincing people that t Left’s policies are not only beneficial and fair—but also meaningful. This means conceiving of and promoting narratives, which provide meaning beyond the particular loyalties so cherished by conservatives. What this will entail varies depending on the situation, and it will be a difficult task. But it should not be impossible. As I highlighted above, the attachment to concepts such as the “nation” and the “religious community” is largely historical contingent. These concepts are highly abstract, and yet many attribute them with tremendous meaning. There is no reason that we cannot conceive of equally meaningful concepts that are considerably less abstract and more egalitarian.  This is one of the key tasks facing the Left today.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf

5 thoughts on “Why the Left Needs to Think About Religion (And Other Big Questions)

  1. “There are few compelling utilitarian reasons why incentive structures need to be so extreme that some people will be worth billions while 815 million people are still starving”

    The compelling reason is that the 815 million figure has been steadily declining over time in parts of the world that operate with the assistance of those ‘extreme’ incentive structures.

    In other parts of the world, where personal incentive structures are replaced by the centrally directed activities preferred by the left, misery, suffering and starvation have shown a stubborn tendency to rise.

    Possibly, the Left’s greatest failure is their incapacity to view those with much envied billions as competent custodians allocating resources among various factors of production better than any Leftist regime has ever been able to do.

    Those with billions are not perfect, but they do a better job than those who, to paraphrase Orwell, hate them more than they love the poor.

    1. Sure, but I never said one should do away with incentives. I suggested emphasizing the need to provide such high incentives at the expense of tax revenue is neither necessary or rational. If you don’t believe me, one can for instance compare income tax rates now with those during the 1960s, when they were much higher. There is little evidence to suggest this had a significant chilling effect on economic growth, at least in countries where policies were carefully tailored. Such policies would be more difficult to put into place today given risks of capital flight, but that is an empirical rather than moral reason to be concerned. If one changes the empirics one changes the situation.

      1. Speaking of empirics, selecting the 1960’s as a benchmark for comparison yields no end of depressing trends for working folk, for that decade was likely their all time peak for relative living standards, perhaps because WWII warriors never stopped giving back. However, the 1970’s were characterized by high inflation, high unemployment and massive government debt binges where everyone lost ground. That may represent the chilling effect you are not seeing.

    2. Moreover it is misleading to claim that all improvements in global standards of living are owed to markets. Central planning is obviously a disaster, but there is a different between central planning of the total economy and sound social and redistributive policy. In many countries-India comes to mind-markets really were only as effective at raising standards of living as the social programs they were aligned with.

      1. I didn’t mean to suggest all improvements are owed to markets. Regulation and enforced rules play a vital role in the balanced development of a mixed economy. But redistribution has productive limits that should be carefully observed. I can’t speak to the situation in India, but certainly, India is not dragging anyone else out of the swamp.

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