Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

Talking about our values

Posted by Left Luggage on May 25, 2009

As the MPs expenses scandal rumbles on, it is interesting to note that the harshest criticisms in moralistic terms have come from the Right, especially the press. This is not too surprising as “moral issues” issues are generally seen as the preserve of the Right, with the Left generally preferring structural socio-structural over agent-focussed explanations.

In the US this trend is much more well developed than here in the UK. Republicans use the language of right and wrong consistently, for example in the “culture wars” around Bush’s election. There are totemic issues such as abortion, gay marriage and gun control, but GOP members also used the language of morality in its campaign to abolish inheritance tax in 2001, a change that would have only affected a tiny number of the wealthiest in society. In his book, Death by A Thousand Cuts, Michael Gratz chronicles how the Democrats responded to this proposal with an appeal to self interest – “most of you don’t pay it and, besides, we need the money” – thus making the party seem like the defenders of a corrupt status quo. They didn’t try to argue the moral position of their own: that inheritance is deeply undemocratic and anti-meritocratic.

There is certainly a resistance to talking explicitly about morality from liberals and the Left. Partly this is justified insofar as we have an understandable distaste for the right-wing tendency to reduce everything to individual moral questions, blame social problems on individual failings, and obscure structural injustices. But our reluctance to address issues of morality leaves the field open for the Right (and the Christian Right in the US) to position itself as the defender of moral values against an out-of-touch liberal elite.

A case study in how the Left should not address issues of morality came recently from Jeremy Seabrook in a Guardian article which argued the MPs expenses scandal told us more about ourselves, as a society that has lost its moral compass:

There are, perhaps, no innocent bystanders, yet many are ready to cast the first stone at the crooked and self-serving. Perhaps, after all, our MPs represent us more than we care to admit. This is why the indignation of the unforgiving media and the vengefulness of the public have reached such a paroxysm.

While reintroducing the question of morality, Seabrook shunts out any structural analysis of society in favour of emphasising individual failures and individual solutions. In a sense, it is similar to the phenomenon of environmentalists blaming ecological degradation on our culture of materialism and greed, eliding the role of the capitalist economy and thus placing responsibility on individuals to make better choices.

While we always need to include such social-structural analysis, there are moral positions behind our politics and most people would likely readily identify with our core values. Someone like the US writer and maintainer of the website Znet Michael Albert, while we would not agree with much of his focus regarding the key issues and tasks for the Left, articulates this aspect of radical politics well in his ideas around Parecon, or participatory economics. He attempts to ground this vision for how a post-capitalist society could function in the idea of rewarding effort and sacrifice – a notion that seems like moral common sense.

At present, the Left is generally selective about how we apply these morals. Quite rightly, there have been plenty of calls from the Left for MPs to be jailed and punished for their (in many cases seemingly criminal) expense claims. On moral grounds there seems to be as strong a case for criticising the actions of others who commit crimes that can have devastating effects on working class communities. But when it comes to discussing such things as drugs, knife crime, and anti-social behaviour, there is a strong tendency for the Left to refuse to condemn such actions. In fact, too many take such a liberal stance that the perpetrators of crime are often portrayed as the victims. There is certainly a difficult moral equation here. Working class people who engage in criminal acts can in one very real sense be said to be victims of an unjust, unequal and inhumane economic system. But at the same time, the communities that suffer from crime are also victims in much more immediate sense. There is also the danger of evading entirely the issue of personal responsibility.

We need to rethink the balance we strike on such issues and consider their moral dimension. Certainly it wouldn’t harm the Left to speak more about morality, to demonstrate the immorality of the present order and how Left values are essentially common sense and perhaps even innate (recent research suggests there may be an inherent human “moral grammar” equivalent to the linguistic grammar identified by Noam Chomsky in his work in linguistics).

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2 Responses to “Talking about our values”

  1. Alex Doherty said

    With regard to condemnation of violence and anti-social behaviour I do think the reticence to do so is understandable and perhaps even justified.. it’s certainly true that circumstances cannot justify criminal behaviour but speaking personally for a moment – as a middle class person from a relatively stable background it is impossible for me to know how I might have responded to growing up in much worse circumstances so I’m not sure I see much value or justice in the left joining in the general chorus of dissaproval. However that’s not to say that I don’t agree that issues of violence and so on are serious problems that need concrete solutions from the left. I was reading recently about domestic violence and apparently it is very typical for men to cite their difficult childhoods when talking to domestic violence counsellors – the counsellors are trained to respond by saying something along the lines of: ‘It’s neither right or Ok that you were abused but it is also not right or ok for you to pass your pain onto others’ – I think that’s the right approach – and I think the left should convey both understanding towards the perpetrators of anti-social behaviour with a strong commitment to helping the victims at the same time, – I suspect actions to prevent violence will speak louder than providing an echo for the tabloid press. cheers

    • Thanks for your comment, Alex.

      I agree we should not be aiming merely to “join the chorus” of condemnation, but I feel we do need to speak in the language of right and wrong with regard to crime and anti-social behaviour. We also need to have an analysis of the structural reasons behind crime, while not eliding the issue of personal responsibility.

      The key point, of course, is the need to go beyond rhetorical condemnation and engage in action around these issues. But in providing “help to the victims” as you rightly suggest, we come straight up against the perpetrators of crime and their behaviour and need to find solutions, which are inevitably going to centre around them ceasing their behaviour. So we need more than understanding for the perpetrators and help for the victims in order to square this circle.

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