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James Heartfield examines why conservative intellectuals are coming out against individual rights

Taking liberties

  • 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
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.

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 Justice, 1982).

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 identification.' (p505)

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 citizenship', p87)

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 of individualism.

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 behaviour.

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.
  • Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America, Robert Hughes, Oxford University Press, £12.95 hbk
'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?

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 other Americans.

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 discussion.

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?' (p139)

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.

Kevin Young
  • Preparing for the Twenty-First Century, Paul Kennedy, Harper Collins, £20 hbk
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.

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 times.

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.

Frank Füredi
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 58, August 1993

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