THE MARXIST REVIEW OF BOOKS
James Heartfield examines why conservative intellectuals
are coming out against individual rights
It is without precedent that the free market should fail to the extent that
it has in the current slump without provoking a critique of market economics.
While its opponents are in disarray the establishment feels little need
to qualify its support for the market, however grim its prospects seem.
But despite the absence of any substantial criticism of the market economy,
its failure is provoking real fears about whether it is possible just to
go on in the old ways. Where there are no economic alternatives that would
allow a reconsideration of the free market, these fears are displaced from
economics into ethics. Where an economic critique of the free market is
untenable for the powers that be, a moral critique of free market individualism
appears to be gathering steam.
- The Loss of Virtue, Digby Anderson (ed), Social Affairs
Unit, £15.95 hbk
- The Foundations of Liberalism, Margaret Moore, Clarendon
Press, £27.50 hbk
- Goliath, Beatrix Campbell, Methuen, £9.99 pbk
- The Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity,
Charles Taylor, Cambridge University Press, £40 hbk, £15.95 pbk
- Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Iris Murdoch, Chatto
& Windus, £20 hbk
All of these authors, despite their various political backgrounds and concerns,
are forcing the pace of the move away from rights-based individualism in
favour of a more conservative idea of a society based upon tradition. In
most cases their language is liberal (in some cases in the extreme), but
nonetheless their common trajectory is to compromise individual rights in
the name of the community.
Digby Anderson, of the Thatcherite Social Affairs Unit has gathered the
most obviously right-wing arguments against unrestrained individualism in
his occasionally comic but robust collection The Loss of Virtue. By
contrast, Margaret Moore's drily argued Foundations of Liberalism purports
to defend classical individualistic liberalism. By rendering liberalism
as a set of traditional values, however, she compromises the claim to individual
freedom. Radical journalist Beatrix Campbell's Goliath looks at the
state of Britain through the prism of the riots of 1991 in Tyneside, Cardiff
and Blackbird Leys in Oxford. Unlike the inner-city uprisings of the eighties,
she argues, these latter disturbances are the consequences of an unrestrained
and destructive selfishness, the brutish legacy of the Thatcher era.
Moral philosophers Charles Taylor and Iris Murdoch are not newcomers to
the critique of rights-based individualism. Along with Alasdair MacIntyre,
Michael Sandel and Michael Walzer they have been fighting a rearguard struggle
against individualistic liberalism for many years.
Murdoch, probably better known for her novels from Under the Net to
The Good Apprentice, has nonetheless maintained a reputation as a
critic of the dominant individualistic ethical philosophy in Britain since
the publication of The Sovereignty of the Good in 1971. Her Metaphysics
as a Guide to Morals returns to the themes of The Sovereignty of
the Good, arguing for an intuitive moral order that overrides mere self-interest.
Canadian professor Charles Taylor wrote for the New Left Review in
the seventies but has since made a reputation rehabilitating moral philosophy
with his studies of the German idealist, Hegel and Hegel and Modern
Society, and the more recent Ethics of Authenticity. In the Sources
of the Self he seeks to show that even the rights-bearing individual
of liberalism is founded on a long tradition that stretches from
St Augustine, through the natural right philosophy of John Locke to the
romantic loner of the lakeside poets. His argument is that so far from being
natural, rights are established through traditional communities and practices,
and, therefore, are subordinate to the well-being of those communities.
Collectively this loose school of moral philosophy earned the title of 'communitarians'
in opposition to the 'contractarian' model of the state based upon a free
contract between citizens (see M Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of
Communitarianism, by contrast, sees the community as logically and morally
prior to the individual. As Taylor puts it 'there is an important set of
conditions for the continuing health of self-governing societies...these
include a strong sense of identification of the citizens with their public
institutions and political way of life' (p505) .
Furthermore, for Taylor, these conditions are eroded by the right's stress
on an unqualified individualism that Taylor calls 'atomism': 'the atomist
outlook...makes people unaware of these conditions, so that they happily
support policies which undermine them - as in the recent rash of neo-conservative
measures in Britain and the United States, which cut welfare programmes
and regressively redistribute income thus eroding the bases of community
These arguments, coming from a protagonist of the New Left in the seventies
might seem to be an unremarkable harking back to old left ideals of welfarism.
However, similar views are to be found in Digby Anderson's collection of
more traditionally right-wing ideologues such as Christopher Dandeker:
'Without a citizenry active in the public sphere, the moral framework of
individualism atrophies - lack of respect for the rule of law, selfishness,
lack of compassion - and becomes an empty shell in which egoism or civic
privatism flourishes. That is to say that there is a retreat into competitive
success at work, the family and the domestic sphere, leisure and concerns
for "personal development"'. (C Dandeker, 'The obligations of
Dandeker adds, 'the public sphere and the civic virtues attached to it are
crucial factors in the moral development of the self through the realisation
that the good of the self and the other are interdependent' (p87).
Taylor and Dandeker disagree on the immediate causes of the problem. For
Taylor, it is the privatising zeal of the eighties. For Dandeker, welfarism
itself promotes too individuated an idea of the right to state assistance.
Both agree that the nature of the problem is untempered individualism and
the disintegration of the community.
The pressure that is forcing this reconciliation between right and left
is the all too practical problem of mass disenchantment with the institutions
of the state. In an age where few politicians could command more than a
quarter of the electoral vote and many governments are embroiled in corruption
scandals, the crisis of political legitimacy is a pressing issue.
Communitarianism attributes the crisis of political legitimacy to economic
liberalism. The economic man of individual rights theories, motivated by
self interest alone, is shown to be an inadequate basis for social cohesion.
Extra-economic values of care, duty and citizenship are introduced to shore
up the atomistic individual and make him part of a community (Loss of
Virtue, ppxv-xxvii). The anxieties about the failure of the free market
to advance human needs are bent to justify a moral case for holding society
together. Disquiet about the free market is displaced into a moral critique
The communitarians moralistic critique of individualism might at first appear
harmless enough. In most of these books the arguments are studiously soppy
(even Christopher Dandeker's argument for national service in The Loss
of Virtue suggests creche duties as an alternative to military combat).
However the implications of an elevation of duty to community over individual
rights are thoroughly conservative.
The communitarians' criticism of the free market is not of the extent to
which it actually subordinates individuals to the power of capitalism. Rather
they object to the extent to which it frees individuals from subordination
to administrative authority.
The force behind the communitarian criticism seems to be its rejection of
the dehumanising effect of the free market. But if anything their real argument
is that the free market is not sufficient to control individual behaviour.
It is an argument that is relevant insofar as the market fails as a social
regulator. But the communitarian solution is not to substitute a truly human
self-regulation, but rather to augment market domination with the power
of state administration, to be wielded in the name of tradition and a preordained
pattern of community.
In some ways, Taylor's argument seems justified. It is fair to say, as against
Margaret Thatcher, that there can be no such thing as the individual outside
of society. But while that is true on an analytical level it leads to quite
different conclusions to say that the well-being of society takes precedence
over that of the individual. To accept that point one would have to be able
to endorse the nature of that society as one of truly human ends. Under
capitalism, however, the precedence of society over the individual as a
political principle could only lead to the denial of democratic rights in
the defence of the existing social order.
Of course, these writers would hesitate to say anything so definite. Margaret
Moore 'can conceive of occasions in which individual freedom can justifiably
be limited to support substantive communal values or the community's way
of life' (p188). But despite the anodyne rendition, the argument is taken
from Hegel's Philosophy of Right, where the state 'has supreme right
against the individual, whose supreme duty is to be a member of the state'
(University of Chicago, 1952, p80). As Steven Smith argues in his excellent
book, Hegel's Critique of Liberalism, 'liberalism's critics have
been forced to reinvent Hegel' (1991, p4).
The underlying anti-humanism of the communitarian case is evident in their
affection for non-rational imperatives. In Taylor's case, religion is very
much in the background (though there nonetheless) while green politics seems
to offer a new basis for ethics, because it is not based upon man. 'Modern
identity', by contrast 'remains too narrow [because] it is still entirely
anthropocentric, and treats all goods which are not anchored in human powers
or fulfillments as illusions from a bygone age' (p506).
Taylor, then, defends the illusory and irrational over the wholly human.
Ethics in this case means ignorance.
In practice, too, the case for the community over the individual presages
a greater degree of social domination. Unwittingly this case is made by
Beatrix Campbell's Goliath. On one level the book seems to be an
attack on oppressive policing and at least an attempt to ameliorate the
power of state violence. But in its consequences the book makes a case for
greater police control over people's lives.
Campbell rails against the sort of policing that in 'Operation Swamp' in
1981 occupied much of Brixton. Instead of a police force, she emphasises,
we need a police service. We need the police because we cannot abandon the
innocent Asian shopkeepers to the sort of working class mobs that broke
out in 1991. We need a service and not a force so that it does not provoke
the sort of community response of the inner-city uprising of 1981.
The arbitrary aspect of Campbell's argument is the counterposition of 1991
and 1981. The black rioters of 1981 were not engaged in a community uprising,
but simply reacting to an increase in police harassment. There was looting
in the eighties' riots just as there was in the nineties. Campbell's romanticisation
of the Brixton uprising is as unrealistic as her demonisation of the rioters
of Tyneside, Oxford and Cardiff. All that has really changed is people like
Beatrix Campbell, who have become less radical and more sympathetic to shopkeepers
and policemen with the passing of time.
In particular the idea that in Brixton the rioters were defending the community
while in Tyneside they were attacking it is groundless. The idea of community
here only serves to give the author the illusion of a continuity between
her two different judgements. But the defence of the community also gives
Campbell a basis to support still greater state control.
The distinction between a police force and a police service is one that
distinguishes between an external restraint on the one hand, and a more
intimate state control on the other. The difference is the difference between
the negative idea of the state as a 'night-watchman', guaranteeing the peace
between (formally) free individuals, and the state as the active promoter
of certain moral values.
Interestingly Patricia Morgan, in The Loss of Virtue, makes a similar
criticism of the law as force from a more traditionally conservative standpoint:
'The demand for "law and order" in a permissive society which,
"at first sight appears to attempt a restoration of moral standards,
actually acknowledges and acquiesces to their collapse". The belief
is that enforcement of regulations, not internal stability, is what keeps
society from disorder....If submission rests on intimidation, not loyalty,
men submit "not to authority, but to reality".' (p116)
This is a demand that more than consenting to be policed, we should collaborate
in policing ourselves.
In practice, the police are steaming ahead with their efforts to transform
their image from that of a force to a service. Through neighbourhood watch
schemes, campaigns against racial or domestic violence and other public
relations exercises, the various police forces across the country are infiltrating
themselves ever deeper into people's lives.
Beatrix Campbell's book joins the chorus of voices demanding that the police
act to defend the community against the anti-social elements on the estates
of Tyneside and Oxford. In doing so it helps to foster the idea that the
police can act to promote positive moral values and regulate individual
At a time when the failure of the market is fragmenting the social order,
it is not surprising that the ruling class should seek greater extra-economic
powers to retain control. Communitarianism, in substituting a critique of
individualism and individual rights for a critique of capitalism, makes
the case for that social control. Sometimes it's better to be forced than
to be serviced.
'Political Correctness', PC, has gotten everybody mad at the campus revolutionaries
with their Newspeak language codes. Right wingers all over America are fulminating
against the way that quite innocent phrases have been outlawed as derogatory
to minorities. 'Black looks' and 'lame excuses' are forbidden for fear of
offending people of colour and the differently abled. And exactly whose
feelings are being saved, challenges Robert Hughes, in the New England
Journal of Medicine's instruction to refer to corpses as 'non-living
persons'? Is it wrong now to distinguish between the living and the dead?
Do the dead have feelings too?
- Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America,
Robert Hughes, Oxford University Press, £12.95 hbk
Hughes has joined the fray with an attack on the culture of complaint implicit
in PC. What really aggravates him is the elevation of suffering into a virtue.
An art critic, whose Shock of the New is the definitive introduction
to modernism, Hughes is depressed to find that radical artists imagine that
the mere evocation of pain is enough to make a good painting or performance
piece. Hughes works outwards from the celebration of suffering in the arts
to attack politically correct whingeing.
But what sets this book apart is the fact that Hughes argues that the right
is also guilty of supreme lack of connectedness to reality. Hughes quotes
former television evangelist and moral majority organiser Pat Robertson,
denouncing an equal rights amendment to the Iowa state constitution as part
of the 'feminist agenda...a socialist, anti-family, political movement that
encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice
witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians'.
'The right has its own form of PC - Patriotic Correctness, if you like - equally
designed to veil unwelcome truths.' Hughes notes the CNN Newspeak during
the Gulf War which called bombing people 'servicing a target' and the use
of the euphemism 'corporate downsizing' for mass sackings.
Hughes delivers a withering polemic against the I-suffer-therefore-I-am
mentality, which accords increasing authority to those least in control
of their circumstances. His most effective example of this cult of the victim
is again drawn from the right instead of the left: he attacks those anti-abortionists
who enshrine fetuses as paragons of that most saintly of virtues, innocence:
'The innocence of fetuses is not in doubt. But it is irrelevant: lettuces
are innocent too.' (p53)
For Hughes, political and patriotic correctness are two sides of the same
coin: an American tradition, the 'priggishness of the Puritan marm, lips
pursed, seeking nits to pick' (p23). They are a product of America's difficulty
in seeing past the end of the us-versus-them mentality, the moral hangover
of the Cold War.
The right wants to recreate a distant past which never really existed, propping
up the communist threat in order to knock it down again. PC, as Hughes notes
has been a godsend to the right, giving it a foe against which even the
most inept can appear noble. The left, he notes, has manned (sorry, 'personned')
imaginary barricades instead of real ones, retreating into obscure theory:
'The world changes more deeply, more thrillingly than at any moment since
1917, perhaps since 1848, and the American academic left frets about how
phallocentricity is inscribed in Dickens' portrayal of Little Nell.'
Hughes' prescription? Multiculturalism. But not the kind of multiculturalism
that has resulted in the excesses of PC. Far from separatism, he insists,
'multiculturalism asserts that people with different roots can coexist'
(p83). Multiculturalism, he says, can reknit the torn fabric of society,
overcoming the difficulty Americans have imagining the rest of the world - and
But Hughes' beloved 'multi-culti', the coexistence of people with different
roots, has existed only in the dreams of postwar liberals, no more real
than the good old days of the right or the cultural barricades of the left.
When exactly, in America's history, or in any other country's history for
that matter, was this golden age when reason ruled, when the different groups
that make up America sat down together like the lion and the lamb, 'coexisting'?
Not only is Hughes' version of multiculturalism just as ethereal as that
of the left, his version of the truth is just as myopic as some of the right
whom he caricatures. In attacking multiculturalism in the name of multiculturalism,
Hughes simply adds on one more layer of deception to an already confusing
The Culture of Complaint is peppered with adjectives such as 'intelligent',
'reasonable', and 'non-ideological' to describe Hughes' brand of multi-culti;
and the moral authority of moderation and common sense, established in the
early chapters when he distances himself from the paleo-conservatives, constitutes
his main argument.
Right wingers like Allan Bloom, one of the first to raise the problem of
the ethnic cantonisation of the USA in his Closing of the American Mind,
at least had the candour to defend Western values by name, tying them
to the whole tradition of Western civilisation. Hughes never calls the values
he defends Western values; yet he ends up, for example, effectively endorsing
imperial prejudice against the third world in his attempts to distance himself
from the less plausible claims of African civilisation: 'Who would seriously
argue that the Ugandans were worse off, economically or legally, under Lord
Lugard in the 1910's than they are now, after Idi Amin and his successors?'
In fact the reasonable multiculturalism espoused by Hughes gives rise to
the situation we have today which causes him so much consternation. The
emptiness of the promise of multicultural coexistence, of equality through
the recognition and respect of differences, has led many to reduce their
demands for equality and respect of difference to the more abstract levels
of language. What else is PC, except the failure of the Cold War liberals'
'reasonable multiculturalism'? And what is the Reaganite right but a reaction
against that failure?
Hughes saves his greatest, though unintentional, compliment for Marxists.
They, he accuses, are universalists who think 'that mankind is capable of
objectively discerning, judging and controlling everything that exists in
terms of a "rational", "scientific" programme, a single
model propagated by central planning'. Behind the scare quotation marks
lies the possibility of real equality, based on reason, not mere tolerance
of difference, always on the verge of warfare.
Preparing for our declining years would have been a more appropriate title
for this work. Paul Kennedy, who hit the jackpot with his last book The
Rise and Fall of the Great Powers has sought to repeat that performance
with another 'big message' work. This time, however, there is no clear focus
and no indication about how humanity should prepare for the next century.
- Preparing for the Twenty-First Century,
Paul Kennedy, Harper Collins, £20 hbk
This book is very much the product of the late twentieth century. In line
with the contemporary intellectual sensibility it exudes pessimism. Alarmist
in tone, Preparing for the Twenty-First Century never ceases to hint
at dangers to come. Those who are tired of the overdose of Aids catastrophism
will be immune to Kennedy's alarmist vision. But for many Kennedy will simply
confirm the fear that the future is likely to be far worse than our own
The book deals with a wide variety of issues, which he considers are crucial
for influencing the world of the future. He deals with themes such as that
of the robotics 'revolution' and the limited scope for the exercise of national
sovereignty. However, his main preoccupation is with population. Kennedy
believes the present demographic explosion represents a fundamental threat
to the future of the world. He suggests that this growth in population will
necessarily lead to conflict between nations. He identifies 'illegal immigration'
as one of the big problems which the demographic explosion produces.
Kennedy combines a Malthusian vision of the future with the fashionable
green warnings about the inability of the earth's resource base to sustain
industrial life. From this perspective the problems facing humanity are
intrinsically natural rather than social. To put it simplistically, Kennedy
suggests that there are too many people competing for too few resources.
This perspective is of course extremely conservative. If the barriers to
human development are indeed natural ones - then human action and intervention
in society can have little positive effect.
Kennedy does not explicitly draw any conclusions from his analysis. But
he steadfastly rejects the effectiveness of human intervention. This approach
is clearest in the treatment of the nation state. In his discussion of the
subject, Kennedy argues that as a result of the internationalisation process,
the nation state is no longer an effective 'autonomous' actor. Superficially
this seems like an uncontroversial observation of international trends.
But through calling into question the effectiveness of the nation state,
Kennedy in fact rejects the possibility of any agency of change. Indeed
he concludes that there is 'no adequate' institution which has replaced
the nation state and which could cope with global change (p134).
That the problems which face us are social ones susceptible to human solutions
seems anathema to the contemporary bourgeois mind. Instead one panic gives
way to the next - global warming, the AIDS catastrophe and now the menace
of population explosion. How long before Kennedy's hordes of 'illegal immigrants'
destroy Western Civilisation? That seems like an interesting idea for another
original Kennedy-type big book.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 58, August 1993