“We should be aspiring to establish a far more egalitarian society in accordance with principles of fairness. But this cannot come at the expense of respecting alternative doctrines which have a right to political expression.”
A short while ago, Samuel Kronen responded to my suggestion that he write a short piece summarizing several of his major complaints with left-wing thinking. This is because I have always found Samuel an intelligent and open-minded critic of progressivism, even if we disagree on several key issues. His latest article displayed many of the same virtues, and I am happy to write this brief response addressing some of his concerns. For the sake of clarity, these will be addressed one at a time.
1: The Left and Democracy
One of the more interesting comments Kronen made in his piece was on the question of line drawing. He points out that while it is often relatively easy to determine when right-leaning ideas have gone to an intolerable extreme, the opposite cannot be said of left-leaning ideas:
“…Although the line seems quite clear as to when right-wing ideas have gone too far (i.e. associating national identity with skin color, justifying societal inequalities with appeals to bootstraps, clinging to tradition to numb social change, free market fundamentalism etc.), the same clarity just isn’t there for when left-wing ideas go bad, short of invoking the Soviet Gulag or Maoist China (though I’m sure my interlocutors will bristle at this claim).”
I think part of the reason for this, as even Dennis Prager acknowledged, is that even ideas on the radical left owe at least something to liberal instincts about the moral equality of all human beings. While far-right dogmas insist that people are fundamentally unequal in virtually every respect, radical leftists such as communists and anarchists appeal to the liberal instinct that each person has an equal dignity, which puts them “beyond price” as Kant might say. This is why even critics of the far-left can occasionally opine, begrudgingly, that the ideas of, say, communism sound theoretically appealing. This is part of the reason why critics find some ideas on the far-left so dangerous.
In my opinion, the litmus test for progressive ideas is their respect for democratic pluralism and civil liberties. We should be aspiring to establish a far more egalitarian society in accordance with principles of fairness. But this cannot come at the expense of respecting alternative doctrines which have a right to political expression—or by contravening the standard package of liberal rights to freedom of religion, to life, and so on. One of the major limitations to classical leftism, well-articulated by Axel Honneth in his book The Idea of Socialism (reviewed here), was its fixation on achieving economic equality without regard to other values. This is why I think the socialists of the present must be what John Rawls would call, “liberal socialists.”
2: On Identity Politics
The major focus of Kronen’s commentary focuses on identity politics and its limitations. Kronen criticizes the Left for taking identity to be immutable and glibly insisting that, “all politics are identity politics.” In Kronen’s view, this misses the way in which identity is consistently renegotiated—and also rests on the assumption that all identities are created equal. They are not. Kronen insists that people prioritize different aspects of their identity over others, and he argues that we need a more fine grained approach to interpreting how a person’s sense of self relates to his or her politics.
There is much to admire in Kronen’s analysis, though I think we must be careful in how such controversial topics are approached. Identity politics is not a demand for people not to be marginalized on the basis of arbitrary features of their identity. It instead demands their recognition as an equal precisely through appealing to a history of marginalization. Rather than just demanding to be treated impartially, historically marginalized identities are demanding their struggles be acknowledged and perspectives be respected. In some senses, this is hardly a radical demand; indeed, liberal politics—since at least the 18th century—has long pivoted around such demands. While the domain of liberal politics was initially restricted to propertied white men, gradually we have come to accept that all people should be granted a deliberative say in how society is organized. This is, of course, a seminal accomplishment and is at the root of much of the progress Kronen later applauds.
At the same time, Brown draws on Nietzsche to discuss the dangers of resentment. She points out that victims can develop a “wounded attachment” to their victimization, becoming unable to conceive of their identity without it. This is a serious problem, since individuals who frame their identities in such “wounded” terms are unlikely to fully develop into free personalities.
Where I think the problem with identity politics lies is more subtle. In her brilliant 1995 book States of Injury, the critical theorist Wendy Brown observes that historical victimization produces complex reactions. On the one hand, it can generate laudatory demands for recognition and emancipation—from the Haitian Revolution through to the Civil Rights movement. These are, of course, to be admired and praised for ending many of the great evils of the world. At the same time, Brown draws on Nietzsche to discuss the dangers of resentment. She points out that victims can develop a “wounded attachment” to their victimization, becoming unable to conceive of their identity without it. This is a serious problem, since individuals who frame their identities in such “wounded” terms are unlikely to fully develop into free personalities. Instead, they will fixate on their victimization, despising it while being unable to conceive of their identity without it. At its peak, this can generate a politics of violence and revenge against the world as a whole. One can think of Richard III in Shakespeare’s play of the same name or the prostitute-turned-serial-killer Aileen Wuornos. Brown’s point is not that we should regard all victims as inherently dangerous; instead, we must be cautious in recognizing the different reactions generated by historical processes of marginalization—advocating for emancipation, while guarding against a politics of revenge. I do not think there is any systematic way to accomplish this beyond a case-by-case basis.
What I think Kronen and others, like Coleman Hughes, are reacting against is a form of identity politics predicated on such, “wounded attachments.” Kronen and Hughes acknowledge histories of marginalization, but they want individuals to conceive of their identity as more than just being a victim. I think there is something to this, as Wendy Brown points out. But we must take care not to mistake valid demands for emancipation for mere resentment, which I think some conservative commentators are prone to doing.
3: On Ideal Politics
Kronen goes on to criticize the Left for being embedded in what he calls “disparitism.” This is the tendency to compare continuously existing society to some ideal where unfairness is eliminated. Kronen appeals to Thomas Sowell’s comments on the Left wanting “cosmic” justice for support; those on the Left are continuously criticizing society for being unfair and unequal, while failing to recognize that this is often not the result of structural discrimination. Sometimes, life is simply unfair. Kronen argues that we should take more ambitious steps to care for the disadvantaged to ameliorate human suffering, but we shouldn’t give into the resentment-driven conclusion that this suffering is the product of malice from the advantaged.
There are several points worth noting here. The most important turns on questions of fairness. Kronen is relying on an implicitly utilitarian outlook in claiming that the point of politics should be the reduction of suffering rather than “ill-defined” efforts to eliminate unfairness. But the point made by critics like Rawls is precisely that a great deal of suffering arises because we do not take fairness seriously. We tend to take the existing social order as natural (and even develop moralistic rationalizations about “merit” to try and justify them). This ignores that many of the reasons people get ahead or fall behind are neither natural nor depend on an individual’s merit. They are, instead, the result of social institutions being arranged in a way, which privilege some and disadvantage others for reasons that are “morally arbitrary.” This raises serious questions about the justice of such institutions, particularly given the unlikelihood that rational individuals impartially debating how best to arrange society would have established them as such. Such individuals, instead, would have insisted that the arbitrary distribution of such privileges and disadvantages is unjust—and that social institutions have responsibilities to organize matters more fairly. Failing to do so is not only a lapse in our moral duties; it also raises serious questions about the political legitimacy of an unfair situation.
I think one of the reasons we are seeing various forms of “resentment” driven politics such as post-modern conservatism emerging is precisely because we have been inattentive to questions of fairness. Neoliberal governance was predicated on the belief that so long as people were doing well, they would largely accept inequality as a cross to bear for the sake of economic growth. There are, of course, serious and important questions about the need to have incentivizes to spur entrepreneurial activity, and I would never suggest that concerns about fairness should lead to what some people bizarrely call strict equality of outcome on every metric. Individuals have different talents and aptitudes, and benefiting from their exercise is a very great human good. But too much inequality can generate a justified sense that the system is rigged and also produce serious concerns about the elimination of democracy and the emergence of de facto plutocratic rule. We may not be able to achieve “cosmic justice,” but there is certainly much more that could be done to deal with the blatant injustices increasingly staring us in the face.
4: The Left and Progress
Finally, Kronen criticizes the Left for failing to acknowledge the substantial progress human beings have made over the past few centuries. He concedes that there are still serious problems in the world that require attention. But Kronen points out that overall standards of living across the globe have been consistently rising. He dislikes the “social justice vision,” which insists that the world is a dark place dominated by injustice. As Kronen puts it.
“Accepting that humans have made progress, both in the West and across the world, operates in direct conflict with the social justice vision. A crucial part of the social justice worldview, after all, is that the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that rules life on this planet is ultimately making things worse and must be overturned. To admit that some things have improved is to attribute at least partial causation of the positive changes we’ve seen in the world to the very structures we so lament.”
Responding to this point is complicated, and I will only be able to gesture to an answer here. I think Kronen is correct that a Left, which refuses to acknowledge progress when it occurs, will ultimately not be appealing to many. Indeed, unless one is spurred by the possibility that one can alter the world for the better, there can seem little point to undertaking progressive activism. As Marx himself opined in his “Theses on Feuerbach,” the point of radicalism is not just to interpret and criticize the world—but to change it. However, what I think progressives are reacting against is the danger of quietism or complacency in the face of injustice. The mirror image of leftist pessimism is conservative indifference to the problems we face, which are often brushed aside by pointing out that things could be worse. This sentiment is occasionally deployed by pundits like Ben Shapiro to chastise those calling for change, through characterizing them as entitled or ungrateful. The argument against this, of course, is that even if things are going well (and for many of the poor in the developed world facing increasing job precarity and stagnating real wages they are not), that is no reason to not want them to go better. Moreover it does not address the issue I discussed above, which is that for many people, outcomes are not the only thing that matter. Questions of fairness are also important and ought not be underestimated. It is worth noting here that many of the world’s great emancipatory revolutions, including the American Revolution, were not spurred purely by ‘mass want’ but, rather, due to of demands for freedom and equality. People are motivated by more than just immediate consequences, and our politics today needs to be attentive to that.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.