April 12, 2016


Roger Scruton vs. the New Left : a review of Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left by Roger Scruton (ALAN JACOBS • April 7, 2016, American Conservative)

[T]he English philosopher Roger Scruton has devoted much of his career to the articulation of a complex and highly positive account of conservatism: of what resources the conservative disposition brings to the challenge of sustaining the social order--through politics, yes, but especially through the mediating social forces of religion, community, and the arts. But in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, he largely sets aside constructive philosophical work in order to dismantle the dismantlers. This he does with rhetorical vigor and flair, and though he often paints with the broadest of brushes and does not always make the distinctions perfect fairness would call for, his critique is a powerful one indeed.

The major figures Scruton explores span a wide range of disciplines: there are historians (E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm), an economist (John Kenneth Galbraith), a legal theorist (Ronald Dworkin), philosophers of various stripes (Jean-Paul Sartre, Jürgen Habermas), a psychoanalyst (Jacques Lacan), a literary critic (Edward Said), and various unclassifiable figures (Michel Foucault, Slavoj Žižek). Do they all belong in the same book? Are they rightly subject to the same general critique?

Scruton gives two reasons for bringing them together here. The first is that they have all identified themselves as leftists--a claim that I do not believe to be true. 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.

Indeed, it is only the conservative doctrine of republican liberty that can square that circle.  For the same reason that laws that restrict freedoms are legitimate so long as they apply universally, so too are those that ameliorate the effects of inequality.

Posted by at April 12, 2016 4:42 AM