Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Left vs right and the redistribution of power

Danny Kruger, special adviser to David Cameron, has an intelligent yet tellingly flawed piece in Prospect magazine about the difference between right- and left-wing outlooks (Kruger of course champions his side; I’ll champion mine). He builds his argument around the French revolutionary slogan, identifying the left with (material) equality and the right with (legal) liberty, both contesting the ground of fraternity. This is perhaps a little glib, but I’ll respond within his framework as it’s nonetheless illuminating.

“Where equality and liberty are political abstractions, levered into reality by statute, fraternity is real and self-generating; it has no need of the statutory imprimatur. It is the function… not of the state or of the individual, but of society itself, the messy and plural mixture of our personal associations. … Fraternity is the sphere of belonging, of membership, the sphere of identity and particularity. … It concerns culture.”

Despite the radical 1789 overtones, fraternity is a notion that both left and right have sincerely laid claim to – albeit in different ways. Kruger argues: “The left frequently makes the category error of confusing the state with society, equality with fraternity. … The right disagrees. … It argues that fraternity is self-creating; that it consists of the voluntary association of free individuals.” He obliquely hints (but doesn’t say outright) that the right’s view “that fraternity will be taken care of by liberty” might be an equivalent error (which of course it is). He is concerned to demolish what he takes to be the left’s approach, but with the right he is broadly uncritical, bar one or two fleeting, polite coughs.

He writes of a centuries-long political struggle in Britain between liberty and fraternity, “a process that progressively realised them both. The constant renewal of this dialectic is the task of the right, for the task of the left is to disrupt it.” So not only is state action to promote equality irrelevant to the good, fraternal society, but it positively damages it. Kruger thinks the left’s idea of fraternity, exemplified in Gordon Brown’s occasional speeches about Britishness, is “conditioned by egalitarian statism” and is “an artificial one, which must be brought into law by statute and regulation”.

Kruger here has slipped back into fully endorsing the traditional right-wing outlook. And a little later, he abandons any attempt to suggest the right may in the past have been mistaken in approaching fraternity purely via liberty: “Politicians can meddle with fraternity only if they do so on the basis of liberty.” And he concludes by saying that left and right are engaged in “a passionate disagreement about who owns the ground of fraternity, and whether the state or the individual will lift its banner there”. The failure to understand the left’s viewpoint here is as stunning as his blindness to the logical flaws in his own argument.

Kruger initially says that fraternity is “self-generating” – but also insists that individual liberty is a necessary precondition. The contradiction is obvious; perhaps he misses it owing to a deep-seated assumption, despite his official treatment of them as separate qualities, that fraternity really is just an offshoot of liberty. Well, of course liberty is needed for fraternity, and of course an overbearing state can disrupt and degrade fraternity. But what he cannot or will not see is that equality – backed by the state – is also necessary.

(In a brief aside, Kruger makes the throwaway remark that “equality was discredited with the fall of communism”. This right-hand man of David Cameron’s thinks it too obvious to need explanation that egalitarianism of any stripe is polluted with Soviet crimes and failures. This is a more genteel version of what Nick Cohen and Norm Geras recently experienced when two US Republicans insisted that everyone across the left is ideologically complicit in the horrors of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. Such a neo-McCarthyite attitude would explain well why Kruger sees no value in equality.)

The state, when it acts in accordance with the democratically expressed wishes of society, can positively contribute to fraternity in ways that no other agent has the ability or legitimacy to do. The NHS, universal welfare provision and state schooling have operated (and been funded) with the support of people who know that these institutions give them power, flesh on the bones of their legal liberty, to better control their own lives and build their own communities.

Liberty without equality means that the strong dominate the weak, that the rich can act in ways that shrink and distort the social space in which the poor are trying to live. Liberty without equality does not lead to fraternity; it leads to hierarchy. And untrammelled free markets can rip up social fabric as surely as a domineering state. Power abhors a vacuum; the democratic state can be the equalising force that’s needed to guarantee the fair distribution of power (as I said the other day). By ignoring the fact of democracy, the right too often sees the state as alien to society.

It’s been a long time since anyone of significance in the Labour party believed that liberty should be pushed aside and fraternity wholly subjugated to equality – if ever they did. The different views on offer now are: the right, as Kruger puts it, wants “the individual” rather than “the state” to “lift its banner” over “the ground of fraternity” (and never mind how big different people’s banners are, or how strong their arms); whereas the left wants the state to make sure all people have the power to lift their own banners and to sew each other’s together as they see fit.

Moving away from the theory (and from Kruger’s somewhat stilted terms of debate), it’s clear that the Labour leadership shares this latter view. David Miliband has a good handle on the politics of how the state’s role is changing from directly wielding power to redistributing it:

“To persuade people about the efficacy of government we have to make them part of the action… to spread the sense of power and autonomy citizens feel over their lifestyles and values to other parts of their life, notably their interactions with public services, markets, and the community. …
“This is a very clear dividing line with the Conservatives. Their idea is that the state is the problem and the voluntary sector is the answer. Wrong. The state has a role in preventing one member of civil society dominating another; in strengthening the voluntary and community organizations through transferring assets; and in creating policies that build bridges between different communities and third sector organizations rather than deepen divides. …
“Spreading power will not happen without an active state… that seeks not to hoard power, but to disperse power as widely as possible”

And Gordon Brown argued last December:

“Our voluntary organisations should neither be captured by the state nor used as a cut price alternative to necessary public provision…
“Charities can and do achieve great transformative changes, but no matter how benevolent, they cannot, ultimately, guarantee fairness to all. Markets can and do generate great wealth, but no matter how dynamic, they cannot guarantee fairness to all. Individuals can be and are very generous but by its nature personal giving is sporadic and often conditional.
“So fairness can be advanced by but cannot, in the end, be guaranteed by charities, however benevolent, by markets, however dynamic, or by individuals, however well meaning, but guaranteed only by enabling government.”

Cameron’s response came in a speech about tackling poverty: “The difference [between the parties] is highlighted by Gordon Brown’s claim that ‘only the state can guarantee fairness.’ He sees limits on what the voluntary sector, social enterprises and community groups can do. I don’t see limits.”

No limits at all to what these organisations can do? I’ll credit him with enough sanity not to believe that; but if so, then he can only have meant that there’s nothing worth doing in the anti-poverty field that the voluntary sector can’t do. An interesting hint about how small a role he sees for government.

He added: “Fairness… can never be the sole preserve of the state. Any government that sees fairness as a state monopoly lacks the humanity to deliver true social justice.” Which is not what Brown said at all; he said that the state was necessary, not sufficient. Cameron had to misrepresent him, as the redistribution of power is becoming the key political battleground, and it’s ground to which Labour can have a good claim – if the party has wit enough to make its case.

[Update: Chris Dillow has turned his scalpel on Kruger’s “jaw-dropping cretinism”. And David Goodhart thinks Kruger is living "in a Hegelian dream world".]

1 comment:

El Tom said...

Kruger is basically saying what tories have been saying for years, but trying to pinch the values based buzzwords of the traditional left to do it.

Less convincing than New Labour, I say.