The Grand Hotel Abyss

"The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption." T.W. Adorno - Minima Moralia

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Marxists and Liberals pt 1

I've been re-reading Marx's "Critique of the Gotha Programme" recently and have been struck by the degree of urgency that it should instill amongst those committed to combating pseudo-leftist liberalism.

There is something disquieting in the suggestion, made by many who claim to be "on the left", that it is a necessary condition that we, in the face of Islamic fundamentalism, take as our starting point a basic commitment to rights, enlightenment rationalism and (negative) liberty. More substantive questions of social justice, genuine democratic control and the creation of a meaningful existence for human beings are, apparently, now subsidiary.

Before the usual knee-jerk, mudslinging starts - I happen to agree with many of the accusations directed against some of the more shameful accommodations which sections of the left have made - the Al-Qaradawi fiasco, the animosity directed against Tatchell and the tolerance of anti-Semitism. If being a liberal just means not jumping into bed with bigoted or authoritarian arseholes - then I'm happy to be called a liberal.

However, what strikes me as worrying is the baggage that comes with using liberal vocabulary and the enthusiastic adoption of such terminology by those claiming leftist credentials.

The target of this particular post is the growing adoption of the language of rights on the left. As a qualification, I do think that there is an important thought motivating the notion of rights - that human beings cannot be placed into some grand utilitarian calculation of cost and benefit. It should be a basic commitment of anyone on the left that cruelty, torture or persecution (for example) are wrongs which cannot be evaded in some sort of calculation of the greater good. My contention, instead, would be that we can make this claim, without getting into the whole rights business. Indeed - rights discourse significantly devalues the ethical orientation of the left.

My objections (briefly stated) would be threefold -

1) There is something of a religious zeal with which people appeal to rights.
Take this example from Nozick's opening lines to Anarchy, State and Utopia -"Individuals have rights , and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)." This strikes me as no different in form to an appeal to an omnipotent god. "Rights" seem to figure as some sort of self-evident truth - detached from the actual form of social organisation which constitutes the way in which we conceive of our obligations to one another.
Moreover, pace Macintyre, one cannot refute the belief that rights exist - yet nor can one categorically refute a belief in "witches and unicorns".

2) More fundamentally, the specific form that rights discourse takes abstracts (as self-evidently true) specific features of the capitalist market. This was, surely, Marx's point in the "Critique of the Gotha Programme" - describing rights as "ideological nonsense". A situation is assumed in which individual goods are independent and whereby individuals can only advance themselves at the expense of others. "Rights" set limits to the self-seeking actions of individuals - assuming this state of affairs to be the only possible form of political community. Marx, of course, famously envisages a state in which "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all".

3) The language of rights devalues our experience of the suffering or pain to which we are responding. It formalises or legalises the response to human cruelty and seems to give no value to the ethical significance of the moment of revulsion at experiencing such acts.

As Teddy sez, "One ought not to torture: there ought to be no concentration camps...These sentences are only true as impulses, when it is reported that somewhere torture is taking place. They should not be rationalised. As abstract principles they lapse into the bad infinity of their derivation and validity."


The very fact that we feel the need for such abstract rules of morality is indicative of the debased society within which we live.

Because of this, I can see the mileage in appeals to "human rights" - and, in no way, would I want to discredit the genuine attempts of organisations such as "amnesty" or "human rights watch" in highlighting instances of human degradation. In spite of this, however, I think that rights discourse is severely limiting to anyone on the left in terms of closing off the potential for thinking about a less alienated and more humane means of relating to one another.