Friday, 7 November 2008

The myth of the 'authoritarian' left

. One of the, if not the most, pernicious myths that the left has to face is that it is authoritarian; that it is opposed to liberty and democracy. We often talk about what the left needs to do, where it needs to go etc,etc and if there was one place I would say it should go it is back to it's roots; in supporting the struggles of oppressed people and it's quest to emancipate people and give them control over their own lives.

Myths commonly have a grounding in reality and are based on truth's. Obviously this is the case with the left whose history is littered with authoritarian tin-pot dictators who have stood opposed to that tradition as much as any fervent right-winger. This story is perhaps for another time and place but suffice it to say that socialism lost it's way when it followed communism and chose to rely on the state to 'level' the capitalist playing field. Although the paths taken were different; both ended-up at the same destination. People want to be free and it is not enough to tell them that because of the way capitalism works freedom is 'illusory' or the product of a 'false consciousness'; people feel the difference between liberal democracy and authoritarian dictatorship and they chose the former over the latter in droves.

People want support, they want a safety net to be there and it needs to be but they also want to be in control of their own lives too and the right strikes a cord when it lashes out at bureaucratism of centrally provided services. This is the thing that most undermines the notion of the welfare state and is the rights most dangerous weapon which undermines it; similarly when the right attacks the left it is the above myth that does the most damage. So, accepting that none of us have the power to rewrite history we are left in a position where all we can do is seek to reconnect with that past and advance our politics and policies based on that reconnection.

Rather than tackle everything at once I will start with the core of all this which is essentially the argument that it is impossible not to be authoritarian while supporting redistribution in even mild forms. When the state takes money through taxation it is true that there is an element of coercion involved but then again since none of us live in a bubble there will always be limits on just how free people can be; even uncontroversial laws (say against murder, for example) are coercive in the sense that they restrict an individuals ability to do exactly as they please. Coercion and limitations on freedom are made acceptable by the fact that unlike utopian dreamers; most of us recognise that the individual actually lives and breaths in the wider world and wider social environment. In fact, no individual could survive without this because they wouldn't be able to breath oxygen which would be a minor technical difficulty something that is not as irrelevant to this discussion as it may seem.

If we start from the premise above; that the state has to intervene because the capitalist playing field is 'uneven' and doesn't distribute resources fairly and equitably nor provide for those disadvantaged by it then we begin to get the germ of an answer. We have the why and the wherefore so we can move tentatively on to the therefore; I have raised the concept of the state as enabler in my blogs and this is as good as way as any to conceptually capture which direction we need to head. This would see the state providing support to people and projects which provided services it does (note here; people and projects that they run, not run by private companies) while in the meantime gradually taking measures which empower people within the structures it still provides.

Hands-up who is reading this and thinking what he means is really 'privatisation by stealth'?? This is not what I mean but the rather monochromatic left would tend to assume it is; despite my scorn for people who want to 'shrink' the state to the point where people are left to rot they are aided and abetted by people who view this debate is being about 'state v private' provision. Practically speaking this is what from a Liberal Democrat view hampers our ability to seriously challenge Labour which, as we know, is going to become a rather crucial question. We need to convince people that we are in favour of social justice, that our way is a better way of achieving and that it will make a difference to peoples lives.

Does this makes us thieves?? I don't think it does; it makes us people who are socially aware and conscious of the world that we live in and want to improve it.


Anonymous said...

The word you're searching for is balance and the question your seeking to ask is where the balancing line should be drawn.

Darrell G said...

Well true to a degree....

Anonymous said...

Your question:

"Does this makes us thieves??"

is closely related to your other statement:

"If we start from the premise above; that the state has to intervene because the capitalist playing field is 'uneven' and doesn't distribute resources fairly and equitably nor provide for those disadvantaged by it then we begin to get the germ of an answer"

Whether or not you're to be judged a thief really comes down to two different factors: 1) just what the person judging you believes is 'fair' or 'equitable' and 2) that persons sense of pragmatism with respect to just how 'fair' and 'equitable' the world can be made through the application of government force.

To address the first issue, if 'fair' means that everyone has the same amount of whatever resource is being discussed, then you are certainly not a thief when you propose to appropriate goods from those who have 'too much' of whatever it is someone else doesn't have 'enough' of. If, however, 'fair' means that all people are equally free to keep whatever they can acquire for themselves - by struggle or by fortune - then advocacy of the redistribution of another persons resources by the government cannot be easily differentiated from theft excepting that the government is able to steal legally whereas a thief cannot.

One thing is certain, if you have a 'fair' right to be given the same amount of a resource as everyone else, then you cannot have the right to 'fairly' acquire more of that resource for yourself by any method because, if you do, it will be 'fairly' taken away from you to be 'fairly' given to someone else. You can't have both types of 'fairness' at the same time. You can have the right to keep the fruit of your own labors and fortune, or you can have the right to have an equal share of whatever society produces - you cannot have both.

As for the second issue, even if you believe that 'fair' means an equal distribution of resources - and not simply an equal legal right to own resources - it still doesn't necessarily follow that one would believe that the government is capable of effecting such a redistribution "fairly". I doubt there are any on the political left (or even many on the political right) who wouldn't admit to the powerful (even oppressive) influence that large corporations can have on society. A large corporation wields immense power and, thus, is able to use that power on, and even against, the much less powerful individuals in society in ways that are beneficial to its interests with little regard for the interests of others. It is easy to see the danger that large, powerful organizations represent to individual rights and freedoms when the organization in question is a corporation. Some people will extend this wariness of large, powerful organizations toward the institutions of government as well. Other people, those in the statist camp especially, develop a blind spot in their ability to see the problems that large, powerful organizations can have with respect toward abusing their power when the organization in question is a government - especially a government that shares their political leanings and sympathies.

For those who have faith that government is somehow different than any and all other large, powerful organizations it is easy to imagine that the government can swoop in and proceed to 'fairly' and 'impartially' adjudicate a redistribution of resources to achieve 'social justice'. For those who don't share the statists faith in government having a character inherently different from - and better than - other large, powerful organizations, the thought of giving government the power to control and dispense all of societies resources as it sees fit is nothing but a recipe for corruption, abuse and tyranny. People skeptical of any sort of 'perfect' (or nearly so) government that can somehow wield such vast power whilst remaining immune to corruption and demonstrating saint like behavior would, irrespective of what type of 'fairness' they believe in (as discussed previously), be quite unlikely to support any program needed to make government powerful enough and large enough to effect the kind of redistributions you're discussing.

So, in closing, whether or not you're to be judged a thief depends on the core beliefs of the person making the judgment call. Those who believe that 'fair' means everyone gets the same amount of amount of everything, and who further believe that government can and should be trusted with the power needed to see that this happens, will support you and will not call you a thief. Everyone else will likely oppose you and will certainly judge you to be at least a thief - and quite possibly even something much worse.