October 4, 2006


The right dialectic: Despite the appearance of consensus between the two main parties, the contest between equality and liberty has not disappeared. Instead, it has become a dispute about who owns the ground of "fraternity" and whether the state (Gordon Brown) or the individual (David Cameron) will lift its banner there (Danny Kruger, September 2006, Prospect)

In British politics, imagine this division as a single axis, running between two points. On the left stands equality, and on the right stands liberty. These two principles are the signatories to the social contract that has underpinned our democracy since 1688. They are simple principles to grasp, for each is the function of a single, identifiable agent: equality is the function of the state (the representative of all), and liberty is the function of the individual (one). As Locke explained, the state exists to guarantee and enlarge the space in which we each may be free, by implementing the law impartially and equally.

Over the last century or so, the state has acquired further responsibilities beyond its role as guarantor of the rule of law, from the provision of public services to the more or less direct management of the economy. These new responsibilities have pitted equality against liberty in a battle that echoed through the 20th century, and still resounds today.

But equality and liberty are not the only principles at work in our politics, or even the most important ones. There is another principle, the third slogan in the triad of the French revolution: fraternity. 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 of another agent: not of the state or of the individual, but of society itself, the messy and plural mixture of our personal associations. Fraternity does not concern the freedom of the individual (the abstract one) or the equality of the people (the abstract all) but the quality of relationships among the communities we inhabit: the real some.

Fraternity is the sphere of belonging, of membership, the sphere of identity and particularity. It exists in civil society, in the arena of commercial and social enterprise, of family and nation. It concerns neighbourhood, voluntary association, faith, and all the other elements of identity that relate us to some and distinguish us from others. It concerns culture.

Fraternity has always been the submerged object of politics, while the battle between equality and liberty raged overhead. Every time that politicians invoke "community," every time they celebrate "tradition" or "solidarity," they are talking about fraternity. And yet there has been a general failure to admit or understand the place of fraternity in our politics. Equality and liberty are abstract terms, easily conceptualised. They can, in principle (and they work better in principle than in practice), be translated directly into law. Fraternity, however, representing the diffuse business, the multiple relationships of society itself, is harder to comprehend.

And so we make the mistake of imagining that the main topic of politics is equality versus liberty. This binary scheme is often encouraged by the parties themselves. The left frequently makes the category error of confusing the state with society, equality with fraternity. "Fraternity," said Allan Cameron, in the introduction to his translation of Norberto Bobbio's Left and Right, on which Anthony Giddens drew in The Third Way, "was perhaps just… a more emotive way of saying equality. Brothers are equal."

The right disagrees. What matters to brothers is not their notional equality but their relationship, their shared memories and common home—their fraternity. This is not the same as equality. Society and state are distinct. But for this reason, the right is reluctant for politics to get involved with society. It argues that fraternity is self-creating; that it consists of the voluntary association of free individuals.

And so, for all its talk of community, the left imagines that fraternity is just another word for equality, and the right imagines that fraternity will be taken care of by liberty. Yet these days fraternity is moving above ground. [...]

The language of fraternity—of community, solidarity, civic obligation—is not exclusive to the right. New Labour has said similar things. But the widespread sense that both parties now inhabit a soggy centre ground derives from the poverty of our political language, and our persistence in seeing things only in terms of equality and liberty, of statist left and individualist right, so that any move by Labour or Conservative away from their core principle must be a move towards the other and a betrayal of their philosophy.

In fact, the leaderships of both parties are being true to their party's principles. They are approaching the subject of fraternity from opposite directions, and the point of departure determines their approach to the subject.

The problem for the increasingly secular Left is that the only certain source of fraternity is religion. Thus, even when they have leaders who grasp the need to embrace the third leg of the triad--as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair did--they find themselves at odds with the rank-and-file of their own party. On the other hand, Judeo-Christianity being endemic to the base on the Right, it is easy for conservative leaders to follow the Third Way. Only the far Right intellectuals -- extremists in the realm of freedom and/or race -- end up estranged.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 4, 2006 9:49 AM

Fraternity is just Leftist cant for whatever they are trying to replace traditional culture with.

Only the Left talks about brotherhood. The Right talks about Church, the family, tradition etc.

I'm surprised you can even say the word, OJ.

Posted by: Pepys at October 4, 2006 11:21 AM

What Christian and fraternity member doesn't believe in the power of brotherhood?

Posted by: oj at October 4, 2006 11:55 AM

I thought Frat guys believed in beer and loose sorority girls?

That part of Christianity is in conflict with the Right.

Posted by: Pepys at October 4, 2006 12:53 PM

Beer is a sacrament, drink enough of it and you've no time for loose women.

Posted by: oj at October 4, 2006 12:59 PM

"No time"? Nice euphemism.

Posted by: Pepys at October 4, 2006 1:09 PM

I thought Frat guys believed in beer and loose sorority girls?

IN the modern Democratic Party, that philosophy is called "Clintonism."

Posted by: Mike Morley at October 4, 2006 1:18 PM