A Profound Contradiction at the Heart of the New Left

Super helpful, from Alan Jacobs, reviewing a book by Roger Scruton:

Scruton gives two reasons for bringing [the subjects of his book on leftism] together here. The first is that they have all identified themselves as leftists…. The second is 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.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

1 thought on “A Profound Contradiction at the Heart of the New Left”

  1. David Koyzis sees a similar contradiction in the liberal tradition (a tradition that encompasses the right and the left in America) more generally:

    “There is a paradoxical quality to freedom, given a society of fallen human beings. All people are in theory equally in possession of freedom, yet by virtue of this very freedom people make themselves unequal, as we have noted. Freedom further makes it possible for some to take freedom away from others and to accumulate for themselves the capacities that accompany it. All this can occur quite legally and without violating the received mores of the community. . . . when liberals bump up against reality-they are often driven to pursue policies quite at variance with classical liberalism’s initial antistatist orientation. Thus late liberals came to embrace the welfare state, a series of government programs which at a minimum would provide a social “safety net” to assist those experiencing the negative effects of the market or, at the maximum would attempt to level the playing field and effect greater economic equality in the society as a whole. It is perhaps one of history’s ironies that liberals came to be identified with such programs so thoroughly that in North America the “liberal” label is almost always used to describe someone favoring an expansion of the welfare state to ensure greater economic equality. . . . However, in its fifth stage liberal neutrality has come to be extended beyond mere political disagreement and into a much wider range of contingencies. Whether two people decide to marry, to live together in an unofficial and impermanent sexual relationship, or to move promiscuously from one brief sexual encounter to another, the law plays no favorites and refrains from dictating how consenting partners should behave toward each other in the privacy of their own quarters. Similarly, whereas a previous generation expected as a matter of course that legal divorce would be difficult, if not impossible, to attain; that abortion would be restricted if not entirely prohibited; and that reproductive sex would be officially preferred to nonreproductive sex; contemporary liberals look on such policies as unfair and discriminatory insofar as they infringe on freedom of choice. . . . When these undesirable consequences do occur, rather than acknowledge that the quest to validate all lifestyle choices equally is a utopian one doomed to failure, fifth-stage liberals increasingly call on government to ameliorate, if not altogether eliminate, such consequences so they can continue to engage in this fruitless quest. This inevitably leads to an expansion in the scope of government that is difficult to contain within any boundaries whatever.”
    Political Visions and Illusions, kindle loc 709-91

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