Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I Told You To Bury It At The Crossroads

So, apparently Blue Labour is not, despite my efforts, dead (pdf). The question is whether that means it's alive. Since its critique of the allegedly left-liberal mainstream in the Labour Party seems to consist of a rather poorly warmed-over version of the communitarianism that had finally collapsed under the problem of not actually having read the people it was trying to criticize some time in the mid-nineties, I think not. They're even invoking Alisdair MacIntyre now, who may be a very good moral philosopher but whose discussion towards the end of After Virtue of how what he says relates to contemporary political theory is rather marred by the fact he is quite obviously uninterested in how any of the actual details of what it says might interfere with his moral grandstanding in favour of whatever it is he thinks he can coherently get out marrying the traditions of Thomist Catholicism with those of Red Clydeside.

Let's just remind ourselves briefly what was wrong with communitarianism the last time round so as to be able to deal with its shambling zombie cousin. Communitarians say that communities, traditions and relationships give our lives purpose and meaning, enable us to act together to achieve common goods and the like. So far, so motherhood and apple pie. The worrying move is when they start describe liberals as unable to understand the unavoidably social nature of our lives because of the way their stance depends on abstract values which cannot but fail to capture the distinctive character of the groups we actually live our lives out in. What's worrying about this is that the abstract values they have in mind are things like whether you are able to leave these groups, whether you have an equal share of power within them, and whether they treat you with basic human dignity.

None of these are abstract values. It's pretty concretely awful when you are trapped within a group which systematically deprives you of a right to a say in what it does and predictably denies you a fair share of what it cooperatively produces. Concretely awful in the way that the lives of people who weren't straight white men were in the period that Maurice Glasman evokes as exemplifying the ideal he wants to return to - along of course with the lives of many straight white men who had limited access to healthcare and education and depended on often dangerous work in order to be able to live. Jon Wilson even goes so far as to slag off Tom Paine's demand for equal rights as demonstrating the pitiful way he'd become alienated from the communities he should have been making his home in. Why not call him a rootless cosmopolitan and be done with it? Glasman after all has already said that EDL supporters are "falsely stereotyped as racist, sexist, nationalist", so slurring other members of your political community as insufficiently enculturated into its exclusive and oppressive norms of conduct is surely only a small step away.

What Blue Labour and other communitarians fail to understand is that what liberals are interested in is ensuring that communities and traditions treat their members decently and that relationships are not abusive or exploitative. This is why we care about rights to exit, for example, since the right to leave means that people do not have to be trapped in relationships they hate. Either Blue Labour don't care about people being trapped in abusive, exploitative and oppressive relationships, communities and traditions, or it is entirely unclear what their complaint about liberalism is, since, other than saying things in favour of class, gender and racial hierarchies, that complaint seems to be more or less entirely constituted by some hand-waving in the general direction of some obscure complaints about abstraction. It is notable, for example, that Jon Wilson's discussion of the value of groups before slagging off Tom Paine says nothing about the importance of rights of exit or other rights to control the terms on which you interact with others.

Given that, more or less everyone I am aware of has been far too conciliatory to an intellectual movement whose sole distinctive contribution seems to be the valorization of various kinds of racism, sexism and ideologies of self-help entirely inadequate for ensuring that people can live their lives out without being at the mercy of others and impersonal forces beyond their control. Rather than trying to carefully explain why we disagree with their oh-so-careful, thoughtful analysis, as Stuart White does here for example, the appropriate stance is, I'd presumably rather predictably argue, one of outright and uncompromising hostility - which is of course only a difference of strategy with Stuart. When they start talking about working class traditions of self-help, our response should be, so you want to abolish the NHS? When they start talking about the importance of community, we should say, communities like the ones where marital rape was legal whereas sex between consenting adults of the same gender wasn't? This is zombie communitarianism, and rather than treating it like a respectable intellectual interlocutor with whom we can have a reasonable conversation, we have to just go straight and hard at the head before it cracks open ours and begins feasting on brains.