What has happened to the left’s moral values? | @oldandrewuk

photo (10)Andrew is a teacher and editor of Labour Teachers (and writing in a personal capacity).

I recently read this post on the Conservative Teachers website. The writer of the post, Anthony Radice, describes a political left that has abandoned morality in favour of relativism. Where once the left was fired up by the difference between justice and injustice, now the central notion is tolerance, and, in the name of tolerance, nothing is objectively wrong. In practice this does not lead to greater tolerance, it simply obstructs debate about what is right and wrong:

 “Political correctness has arisen precisely because of the philosophical vacuum created by the intellectual dominance of relativism. In the absence of objective truth, conformism becomes essential. We must all agree to think alike, because without this groupthink we will be forced to confront the essential nihilism to which Western culture has been reduced. In other words, relativism presents us with a choice between conformity and chaos.”

I do think much of the left has lost its moral vocabulary and that this has led to a diminished capacity for genuine debate. For much of the left it is impossible to argue that a war for is unjust, unjustified or mistaken. It has to be illegal. For much of the left it is now impossible to argue that behaviour is objectively racist or sexist, only that it caused offence. For much of the left it is now impossible to argue that a given distribution of wealth is unfair, only that it results from neo-liberalism.

All these slogans simply obstruct actual debate. They serve to allow condemnation without coherent argument. It is impossible to prove that a military action that has resulted in no prosecutions is not illegal. It is impossible to prove that one’s behaviour would offend nobody, even somebody who was being completely unreasonable. It is impossible to prove that one’s policies are not neo-liberal, when there is no coherent definition for the term provided by those who use it most. And while much of the left have only been too delighted to seize upon the opportunity to express disapproval without actually having to show that it is deserved, it means that there is no longer a shared language on the left for talking about injustice.

And this process of slogans replacing debate is not stopping. Any economic policy (other than one of bankrupting the country) can be condemned as austerity. Any defence policy (other than one of surrender to any and all enemies) can be condemned as imperialism or colonialism. Recently, we’ve started to see how free speech can be condemned as micro-aggression or equality of opportunity can be condemned as privilege. And literally anything, and I do mean anything, that any left-winger objects to, can be condemned for showing one to be a Tory, or being indistinguishable from Tories.

And this is not even the worst of it yet. In the absence of any coherent arguments about what it is right or wrong to do, we end up relegating morality to the realm of feelings. One doesn’t do good by making the world a better place, but by feeling most strongly about the world. Whether it’s fake compassion or fake outrage, much of the left feels very strongly about everything but does nothing other than share their feelings. Why talk about the details of policy any more? The right policy is simply one that allows one to be most upset about anyone who advocates an alternative.

But I don’t think this is the end of the story. This is because outrage in the absence of coherent arguments eventually burns itself out, usually when it becomes the object of ridicule. Slogans quickly become  clichés and clichés become embarrassing. And it is not actually the political right that get most bemused by the lack of debate, it is the greater mass of people who are on the left of politics who eventually get round to asking: “But what can we actually do to change things?”. Adolescent politics is simply not sustainable in the long term, and eventually the left will grow out of it. And when it does, the first priority will be a discussion of values.

11 thoughts on “What has happened to the left’s moral values? | @oldandrewuk

  1. Radice’s article starts out with a false dichotomy and proceeds by a number of empty rhetorical devices ending in a sort of schoolboy appeal to British greatness. Sometimes you have to just shake your head at this vacuity dressed up as intellectual critique. To see it reproduced in Old’s post is rather amusing.
    It is precisely the Bliarites failure to DO ANYTHING about poverty, inequality, racism and war that gives Corbyn his popularity. It was lack of actually opposing the Tories that saw that the other candidates do so badly in the leadership election. It is by objective measurable criteria that the Labour right has failed. Handwringing and appeals to ‘it’s all PC gone mad’ rhetoric is fooling no one.

    1. I love the way you talk of “objective measurable criteria” in a comment that just repeats the same empty slogans I blogged about.

      There’s nothing solid in your argument at all, least of all “Corbyn’s popularity”.

  2. You based your article on the blog by Tory Teachers. It is interesting that you missed out the bit where Radice equates the left with the Nazi’s, he is at least is being consistent, Allan Bloom’s book cited approvingly by Radice is a repackaging of the elitist philosophy of Leo Strauss who explicitly made this link, not merely of the left but of liberalism itself. Bloom of course veteran of ‘the culture wars’, however we interpret his intentions, has been used against liberals and the left in education for decades. There are similarities there with the ideas of Ed Hirsch and Michael Gove – that education is a question of reading the right books.
    As to popularity, I think JC got more than 4.5% of the vote. He was certainly more popular than the other candidates. Then of course there is the hundreds of thousands that have joined Labour because of Corbyn. That’s not what you mean however is it? You mean popular as in winning elections. Cue the Oldham bye-election, which the script had as Corbyn’s fault for losing – until Labour won, and then it was nothing to do with him according to the new script!
    As to empty slogans – what did the Blair Government do to stop the cuts to services, to end homelessness and unemployment? Then there is war, leading to instability and terrorism, well we don’t even have to say do we? The whole sorry debacle over WMD, the illegal war and so on and so on.
    JC has started to elaborate a number of policies that if carried to the voter would be popular. The return of our railways and postal service to public ownership, the return of our school system to democratic accountability. More money for schools and hospitals, decent pay for working people. The money is there – how much is being spent on bombing Syria?
    Your alternative? Be like the Tories but take longer to do it. Not really an alternative is it?

    1. You still seem determined to prove my point. Why should anyone care about where any of the things you mention fit in the left’s demonology of ideas? Or any of the slogans? Or your reasons for ignoring the clear message of the opinion polls?

      None of this will persuade anybody who isn’t already a fully signed up member of the middle class left. This is exactly what I described.

  3. It seems likely to me that it is the population of the UK that has lost it’s moral direction and that was for me why Blair was so popular for so long.

    Corbyn takes a moral stand and is punished for it, which is what I would have expected.

    Many labour voters would probably rather vote Tory than take a moral stand when they fail to see the benefit for themselves.

    If Labour find their moral direction again they will be much smaller and unelectable. That’s the price they have to pay for standing up for the poorest in our society these days.

    1. “That’s the price they have to pay for standing up for the poorest in our society these days.”

      Isn’t this exactly the same sort of slogan I was writing about? How is an unelectable party “on the side of the poor”? Surely to do anything about poverty you have to be elected?

      1. Hear, hear.

        If not elected in the first instance you can at least be a credible and effective opposition. (In someways the excesses of New Labour were allowed because of the lack of effective Tory opposition.)

        We are in danger of putting 10,000 on the Labour majority in Sunderland South and losing many good MPs elsewhere in the country as local parties hound them out.

  4. I think you denigrate the virtue of toleration in your opening by equating it with relativism. In a meaningful sense, toleration is about permitting others’ ideas and behaviours despite also holding them to be wrong. A relativist is unable to be tolerant in this sense as they would see others’ different ideas and behaviours as just that, different, and not as available for rational scrutiny from their own viewpoint. Thinking about the place of toleration (properly described) in liberal left thinking is helpful in avoiding straw man dichotomies between empty headed relativist left positions and ‘stupid party’ conservatism.

    1. That was me summarising the argument of the post I was responding to. I’m not sure I would go that far, but there is a problem when opposing views are seen as too “intolerant” to be engaged with.

  5. Since writing that piece, I have been reading about Blue Labour. I think there are many, across the political spectrum, who are sick of the utilitarian approach taken by the major parties, and the absence of coherent ethics. Michael Merrick’s piece in the Blue Labour book is particularly interesting. He points out that the New Left’s attitude towards the family has created a ‘free market’ in personal relations, which has a brutally destructive effect on the most vulnerable.

  6. Anthony, this is the very first time I’ve heard anyone mention the moral issue. This seems to be pathologically ignored by all in power.

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