Centrists for Enlightenment

Referring to the ‘mixed’ reviews of Steven Pinker’s new book, Chris says:

Rather than simply assert the virtue of Enlightenment values, they [liberal centrists] must instead recognise that the threats to these are a product of capitalist stagnation.

I agree, but would add that not only are Enlightenment values under threat from today’s capitalist stagnation, but that those very values were long ago misstated for the very benefit of capitalism.

Writing in 1920, RH Tawney was clear where it had all gone wrong:

Behind their [the English Utilitarians’]political theory, behind their conduct….. lay the acceptance of absolute rights to properly and to economic freedom as the unquestioned centre of social organization.

This condensing down of ‘Enlightenment Values’ to property rights and the right to exploit labour, were, Tawney suggested, a far cry from the original conception:

The motive and inspiration of the Liberal Movement of the eighteenth century had been the attack on Privilege; and, when its main ideas were being hammered out, that attack was the one supremely necessary thing…… The great individualists of the eighteenth century, Jefferson and Turgot and Condorcet and Adam Smith, shot their arrows against the abuses of their day, not of ours.

When they formulated the new philosophy, the obvious abuse was not the power wielded by the owners of capital over populations unable to work without their permission ; it was the network of customary and legal restrictions by which the land in France, monopolistic corporations and the State both in France and in England, prevented the individual from exercising his powers…... The grand enemy of the age was monopoly ; the battlecry with which enlightenment marched against it was the abolition of privilege…..That school of thought represented all, or nearly all, that was humane and intelligent in the mind of the age. It was individualistic, not because it valued riches as the main end of man, but because it had a high sense of human dignity, and desired that men should be free to become themselves.

The problem for any liberal who is prepared to recognise that capitalist stagnation leads to anti-Enlightenment populism is that s/he then really needs to come up with proposals for what to do about it. That, as Chris says, isn’t going to be easy from a standing start.

The virtue of the second act of recognition — that liberals have been misselling and have had missold to them Enlightenment values* — is that at least some kind of action plan is conceivable. If the Enlightenment was actually more about the universal right to human dignity than a distinctly unKantian right to exploit others for profit, then we can start with measures to improve “human dignity”.

This is what some sensible centrists are turning to. Anthony Painter, for example, has shifted from the austerity-supporting Labour right still seen as viable option in 2011 towards a focus on Universal Basic Income, not on the basis that it solves all social problems — he gets frustrated at that strawman argument — but precisely because it has potential to deliver human dignity (and consequent creativity).**

More broadly, though, I think centrists will only start to re-establish relevance in the political sphere if they focus their thinking and action less on specific top down policy, and more on what it takes to give the universal right to genuine engagement in the public sphere — a right which reflected the Enlightenment at its most mature, and which has been brought forward again as the key goal for “enlightened” politics, initially by Habermas but now by both democratic theorists like Mark E Warren & Nancy Rosenblum, and by more empirically focused political scientists Kay Schlozman.Sidney Verba & Henry Brady.

What this means in practice, as I have suggested elsewhere, may be a commitment to a broad associationalism, to a “politics of production” as a counterbalance to the prevailing consumer politics, and to a ‘meta-right’ to participation (including the right to be alive enough to take part, for example).

Such a new ‘centrist’ take on politics — for these are all things that can help differentiate them from a statist left — does not immediately resolve the crisis of late capitalism, but as Habermas noted when the Berlin Wall fell***:

With the bankruptcy of state socialism, [liberal democracy]is the eye of the needle through which everything must pass. This socialism will disappear only when it no longer has an object of criticism — perhaps at a point when the society in question has changed its identity so much that it allows the significance of everything that cannot be expressed at a price to be perceived and taken seriously.

To bankrupt state socialism, we might now usefully add bankrupt state-back (neoliberal) capitalism, which might be done away with if centrists and leftists can come together around that very Enlightenment project of taking seriously what cannot be immediately priced, just as the original Enlightenment did.

*Suggesting that liberals misconstrue what the Enlightenment was all about is not, of course, new. In John Gray’s excoriating review of Pinker’s book, he makes the point at length. He does so, however, for reasons in line with his own deeply conservative philosophical project which seeks to deny all claims to universality. As a passing amusement, it’s nice to think that in the rather unlikely event of either of them reading this (or the coming book version of my ramblings), I’d piss both Pinker and Gray off.

**Uncoincidentally, Anthony works for the Royal Society of the Arts (RSA), which I think takes its commitment to true Enlightenment values a bit more seriously than the other main organisation with a claim on that heritage.

***Habermas is not, of course, a centrist. He is a democratic socialist in the strict sense of the term, believing that socialism can only be delivered through a robust deliberative democracy, in which equality of voice leads to material equality.

Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.