Friday, April 8, 2016

Blind faith

Alan Jacobs reviews Roger Scruton's Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, an update of a book originally published in 1985. It discusses a number of individuals who, Scruton argues, have some things in common including that...
.... “they illustrate an enduring outlook on the world, and one that has been a permanent feature of Western civilization at least since the Enlightenment.” That outlook is composed of two major commitments, or proclaimed commitments anyway: to liberation of individuals from oppressive existing structures, especially political, familial, and religious; and to social justice, usually conceived as requiring the elimination of political and economic systems that create inequality.

Scruton rightly notes that much of the internal tension, at times exploding into hatred, among figures of the New Left arises because these two commitments are pretty clearly not compatible: the more fully people are liberated, the more energetically they will create and sustain various forms of inequality, while equality can only be enforced at the cost of placing strict limits on personal freedom. ....

At that time [1985], scarcely anyone imagined that the collapse of the Soviet Union was imminent, and the New Left of that era was often implicitly—less often explicitly—communist in orientation. In the intervening three decades things have changed, and in an important passage I must cite at length, Scruton explains why:
we must recognize that the Marxist spectacles are no longer on the left-wing nose. Why they were removed, and by whom, it is hard to say. But for whatever cause, left-wing politics has discarded the revolutionary paradigm advanced by the New Left, in favour of bureaucratic routines and the institutionalization of the welfare culture. The two goals of liberation and social justice remain in place: but they are promoted by legislation, committees and government commissions empowered to root out the sources of discrimination. Liberation and social justice have been bureaucratized. In looking back at the left intellectuals in the decades before the collapse of the Soviet Union, therefore, I am observing a culture that now survives largely in its academic redoubts, feeding from the jargon-ridden prose that it amassed in university libraries, in the days when universities were part of the anti-capitalist ‘struggle.’
One need to look no further than to the current student protests on American college campuses to see evidence for Scruton’s interpretation. Unlike their radical counterparts from the 1960s, these students have no thought of breaking down and rebuilding the fundamental structures of the university along egalitarian lines; rather, in their dream world, universities are still hierarchical, bureaucratic, and driven by administrative diktat, but the bosses doing the dictating are sympathetic to the students’ politics and willing to persecute the students’ enemies. ....

Late in his book Scruton comments that he has searched these thinkers’ writings “in vain for a description of how the ‘equality of being’ advocated in their fraught manifestoes is to be achieved.” In the end, he says, “We know nothing of the socialist future, save only that is it both necessary and desirable.” But for that reason the socialist faith is a blind faith. .... [more]