Monday, February 28, 2005

Conservatives and socialists

... the liberalism that haunts the imagination of fevered conservatives is nothing other than the liberalism of Hollywood and the culture industry, where glamorous fun-loving youth perpetually defy authority figures with moral scruples.


Were not the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s bent on the destruction of malevolent traditions and inspired by the prospect of new systems of meaning? One reason for the success of backlash conservatism is that it has managed to portray the advance of gay and women’s rights as the unleashing of hedonism rather than the construction of a new moral and cultural universe. And, to be honest, the Left has often allowed itself to be painted into this corner, evoking the language of rights as if what was at stake was merely self-expression or the opening up of a new market niche.

From 'It’s not the culture, stupid: Interpreting the US election' , by Ken Hirschkopp in Radical Philosophy, 129.

Hirschkopp is onto something, here, it seems to me. The Conservative Right in the US (and indeed, elsewhere) is motivated by many concerns which aren't, in the end, totally alien to the Left. Indeed, there's a good deal of common ground. The Conservative (particularly, the religious) Right are often concerned above all else about the breakup of 'moral standards', the disintegration of community and the rise of narcissistic, individualist selfishness. As Hirschkopp suggests, when conservatives think about the 'liberal elite', they picture irresponsible 'hedonists' grinding away at communal moral values and seeking to plunge society into somekind of nihilistic anarchy, in which the only good is that of self-gratification. They associate the rise of Gay Rights and so on, with the destruction of social solidarity, rather than with the attempt to create new, more inclusive and more just, social values.

The fears of rank and file conservatives seem, in many ways, to echo (in some very distorted sense) socialist criticism of the alienation and individualisation generated by capitalist social relations. Conservatives and socialists identify the same problem - the breakdown of social solidarity and communal values and so on - but locate the source/cause of this breakdown in different places. The conservative blames 'permissive' culture and 'hedonists' who undermine institutions of social and moral authority. The socialist, however, understands that individualism, selfishness and individualism are generated by capitalism's particular exchange relationships.

Hirschkopp implies that there is, perhaps, something in the viewpoint of many who regard themselves as conservatives which could be tapped into by the Left. Is it possible for socialists to show working class conservatives that they, too, oppose individualism, selfishness and irresponsible hedonism? Could they turn conservatives' anger away from the minority groups the Right tends to scapegoat and towards the real source of these problems? In order to do so they must demonstrate they seek to construct a new and better society grounded very firmly in a set of univeralist values - a socialist morality.

Of course, the Religious Right is not wholly incorrect in associating movements of the Left with nihilistic hedonism. Hilary Wainwright (I wish I could remember where - perhaps it's in Recaim the State) argues that the ideas of the 'New Social Movements' for liberation in the 1960s and 1970s slid, far too easily, into individualism. These groups often emphasised personal freedom to the exclusion of almost everything else. Campaigns against authoritarian, patriarchal and deferential social relations though immensely liberating at first, were not based on a clear, worked-out sense of social (socialist) solidarity.

In fact, because emphasis tended to be centred on the self and the individual's 'right' to be free from social bonds, the politics of 60s and 70s 'counter-culture' was often deeply ambivalent. Wainwright argues that as socialist communal values were not consciously placed at the centre of these campaigns, the ideas of the various movements were easily incorporated into the ideology of free market neo-liberals. Reagan and Thatcher adopted the NSM's demands for freedom and 'personal autonomy' and articulated these concerns in right-wing anti-collectivist terms - privatisation, cutting welfare, competition and so on. These policies, of course, did much more to undermine social values than the NSMs ever did, but the point is that that NSMs effectively (though unwittingly) helped to clear the way for this destruction.

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