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Looking for the Good Life

Looking for the Good Life
Bob Brecher
It is almost impossible these days to stumble across anything
like a vision of the good society lurking even in the
background of a left position. From the intellectual void
that is the Labour Party, to the labyrinthine morass of
postmodern and postfeminist postponements that constitutes
the post-positions of the ragged remnants of the Left, the
individual is sovereign. Some might think, of course, that
this hardly matters, since there are rather more urgent things
to worry about than the present intellectual shortcomings of
what passes for socialism – its very survival, for instance, in
however attenuated a form. But that would be to
underestimate the damage done by the fashionable, but
barely considered, obeisance to the foundational conceptions
of the Right. For if liberalism’s notions of the individual
and of society are allowed to direct our opposition, it is
hardly surprising that the Left has no coherent position to
put, whether theoretically or in everyday practice. If choice,
flexibility and the freedom to pursue our individual wants
are paramount – if, in short, the atomic individual of
classical liberalism determines our thinking and our policy
– then it is hardly surprising that Thatcher’s claim that there
is no such thing as society should be followed by Skillen’ s
objections to the welfare state; or that Hare’s myopic
preference-utilitarianism, so often rightly derided in this
journal in its early days, should spawn a knowing dismissal
of anything so politically incorrect as attempting to articulate
differences between right and wrong, or even right and left.

Any and all other differences, by all means: but not these.

The immediate roots of all this go back to the 1960s,
when, in its determination to reject the post-war consensus
on the one hand, and Stalin and his legacies on the other, the
New Left inadvertently prepared the ground for the New
Right. A few examples will do. What was ‘flower power’

but a romantic reassertion of the individual of Mill’s On
Liberty (without, however, even benefit of education)?

What was the Left’s espousal of Hart’s private-public
distinction – as against Dev lin ‘s clear understanding that
‘private’ action almost always has public effects – but a
precursor of the current corruption of the profoundly
important claim that the personal is political into the
narcissistic insistence that the personal is political? What
was the adoption of a Wittgenstein-inspired (if perhaps not
intended) relativism – hailed as the escape-route from


authoritarianism – if not the precursor of the depredations
wrought by the New Right’s newest ally, the inevitably selfserving anti-foundationalism of an often self-satisfied
pragmatism? So empty of ideas and ideals is today’s Left,
so vapid its vision, that it is in full retreat before this latest
apology for liberalism.

From the Spanner case to sex-selection; from surrogacy
to therapy; from ex-socialists’ references to students as
‘clients’ to ‘a woman’s right to choose’: the socialist case
either goes altogether unheard or – even worse, because so
much more destructive – it is advanced in liberal guise.

What do we want? … When do we want it? … But never:

What is right? .. And why? .. And yet socialism cannot simply
be founded on what people want, as even a moment’s
thought makes obvious: the conditions which give shape to
the wants we have are precicely those that require
transformation. Nor are these observations true only of
socialism: coincidentally for some, necessarily for others,
they hold also for morality itself. If morality is to function
as a means of resolving the problems created by conflicting
wants, it cannot be based in them. As the Right has long
understood, moral education, in whatever form, is a means
of getting people to want the right thing – a lesson the
contemporary Left seems to have overlooked.

In short, as the New Right knows full well, the liberal
commitment to eschewing any substantial concept of the
Good is self-contradictory. It is the intellectual vehicle
whereby liberalism can so easily be drawn to the right; and
the reason the conception of individuals and their purported
autonomy in which it is based must always be at the very
least problematic for socialists. So much the better, then, if
socialists manage to saddle themselves with this
contradiction – a process which the contemporary vogue
of aversion to intellectual authority so greatly eases, on a
Left increasingly influenced by postmodern currents. In
confusing the particular content of a vision with its form, in
confusing the propriety of particular conceptions of the
good life with the propriety of having any such view at all,
the Left all too often – in effect if not by intention concedes at the outset. Rather than counterposing a left
vision of the good society to that of the Right, we are
inveigled into arguing that no such vision is possible, let
alone respectable.

Radical Philosophy 65, Autumn 1993

The Right and Choice
Let me offer a case by means of an initial example, one
which I hope might give pause in its deliberate provocation:

the slogan ‘a woman’s right to choose’ – which,
understandably if unfortunately, has become a shibboleth
on the Left. Now, to voice doubts about ‘a woman’s right
to choose’ may seem heretical: indeed, it may in fact be
heretical. But before dismissing this as merely some
politically incorrect aberration, just consider its implications
if we take it literaley: the possibility of arguing for any
collective responsibility is lost at the outset of any debate.

First, where does such a right (or any other) come from?

And second, are any conceivable objects of choice included?

More important even than these questions: what about
everyone else involved? If such questions are approached
within a framework based on the liberal individual, the
consumer in the supermarket of wants, preferences and
values, then what happens is that the consumer who can call
the shots wins what cannot be an argument and has to be a
battle. For the first question is unanswerable other than by
recourse to some manifestly inadequate myth of ‘natural
rights’. (Whence? By whose grace?) The second is not
even askable unless interpreted as a rhetorical device
designed to elicit the answer, ‘Of course, so long as they
don’t interfere (unduly?) with others’ choices’ (a response
which is merely a banal restatement of the problem). And
the third question either falls to the dictates of the ‘freely
chosen’ market of a Rawlsian equality, or even worse, to the
jungle of the actual ‘free’ market.

What is needed is to start from what the Left might surely
be expected to know already – namely, that the ghost of the
atomic individual of the liberal tradition was laid to rest by
Marx (among others). Unfazed by this febrile ghost,
socialists might argue a case via an articulation (however
provisional) of the good (or at least better) society. On the
liberal model of the sovereign individual, however – or in
its latest version, the sovereign customer – no rational
movement beyond the exigencies of the currently perceived,
manufactured, encouraged and manipulated wants and
preferences of individuals can ever occur. But it is just such
a transformation of the individual which is integral to any
properly un-Stalinist socialism. To remain within liberalindividualist confines is just what the Right would have us
do: for not only do we thereby engage in a very practical
self-contradiction, but we become decreasingly able to
notice what the Right is up to – materially refashioning
individuals to fit its conception of ‘the individual’.

Unsurprisingly, I suppose, many of those the Left needs
to attract know this perfectly well. Unhappily, however,
while the demand that socialists have an entirely clear
blueprint has increasingly – and rightly – been resisted
(some eco-socialists apart) over the last twenty years, it
appears to have been replaced by a rejection of the very idea
of even the most rudimentary survey map. In view of the
deserved fate of such blueprints as have existed in eastern
and central Europe and elsewhere, the effect is to impress
those unpersuaded of socialism less with the Left’s open-

Radical Philosophy 65, Autumn 1993

mindedness than with its vacuity or disingenuousness.

Would that it were at least the latter! If the answer to the
question, ‘Well, what would you do?’ is based either on
what the ‘socialist’ in question happens to want, or on what
‘the public’ is thought to want – rather than consisting in at
least some sort of articulation of how the world ought to be
– then it is hardly surprising that sceptics continue to prefer
their own preferences, or even the dubious certainties of
those currently in power. Nor is this just a tactical or
rhetorical – or even moral- point: rather, it concerns what
may be known of and in the world. If the individual is the
ultimate authority, epistemologically as well as morally,
then one individual’s view – whatever their socialist
pedigree – cannot be more rational, more accurate, more
properly persuasive, than another’s. And since, if
disinterested rational criteria are unavailable for the
resolution of disputes, then all that remains is the exercise
of power of some sort or another, so that might is right, it is
not at all irrational to stick with such power.

Consider abortion. (And let me say at theĀ·outset, lest I
be all too easily misunderstood, that my own position is
fully to support the free availability of abortion to any
woman who wishes it, and for whatever reason. My quarrel
is not with its provision, but with the sorts of grounds so
often adduced in its favour, grounds which, I think, all too
easily undermine just such provision. A position is one
thing, its grounds quite another.) Where does a woman’s
right to abortion come from? Well, it actually comes from
other people’s willingness to accord her that right. And that
is why the debate about the circumstances of abortion, its
use as a form of birth control, etc., is a real one, and why the
questions raised by infanticide, for example, cannot be
ignored if a woman’s right to have an abortion is to become
recognised as such: that is to say, if it is to be accorded by
society to its members. These considerations immediately
imply recognition of the pertinacity of my third question
above. If women do have a right to abortion, then who, if
anyone, has the concomitant obligations to realise such a
right in practice? Should willingness to assist in abortions
be part of the job specification of all nurses and doctors?

What about their right to choose? On what grounds should
medical staff with deep convictions about the wrongness of
abortion be required nevertheless to perform abortions? (If
they ought not so to be required, then the problem
immediately arises – and the notorious situation in
Birmingham comes readily to mind – of the actual provision

of abortion.) If a right not to assist with abortions is rejected
– on professional grounds, for example – then what about
the appropriate pay for such ajob? What about the obligations
we all have to vote for and pay the taxes necessary if the
exercise of such a right is to be open to all women, regardless
of economic position? What about private arrangements?

Is a woman’s right to choose an abortion in circumstances
where NHS facilities are inadequate a right which overrides
others’ rights to choose to oppose its exercise – especially,
as is all too commonly the case, where one outcome of such
an exercise, however unintended, is the further erosion of
public health provision? One of the features that surely
distinguishes socialism from liberalism – if not, crucially,
from illiberal conservatism – is that none of these are
questions for particular individuals. They are all, however,
questions about individualism. To disagree with the
conservatives’ answer does not at all imply that their
question is mistaken; to be taken in either by their present
use of liberal ideology or by that ideology itself seems
scarcely excusable. (Similar arguments arise, of course, in
connection with such issues as child-minding facilities;
sex-selection of children; traditions and practices of female
genital mutilation; the consumption of pornography and use
of prostitutes; and marriage, whether straight or gay.)
My point here is not to try to propose any solutions, but
rather to suggest that no solutions which are based simply
on what an individual or set of individuals want can be
anything other than a further entrenchment of the Right and
its power. For if a woman’s wanting an abortion is the
beginning and end of any argument about whether or not it
is right that she should have one, and thus whether or not
other people have obligations in relation to her having an
abortion, then her ‘right to choose’ an abortion – actually
no more than her desire to have one – cannot be weighed
against others’ desires. And this in principle as well as in
practice: a doctor’s ‘right to choose’ the embryo’s
continuation; a husband’s ‘right to choose’ to become a
father; an anti-abortionist’s ‘right to choose’ to picket or
bomb a clinic; an MP’s ‘right to choose’ to uphold the
Roman Catholic church’s. teachings – all of these are
equally valid in the market -place of preferences and visions.

For what counts is the want – the sheer phenomenon of
desire – and not the nature of what is wanted, its object. And
that means, as the Right knows very well, that might is right,
however much liberal-minded apologists try to avoid this
implication. But if right and wrong are not a matter of the
nature of the action or practice concerned, but rather of the
identity of the individual agent, then the Left might as well
give up straight away – if for no other reason, then simply
because the identities which actually do count in this society
are not ours.

A Revolution of the Spirits
Doubtless this is why we are faced with the spectacle of so
many who were once on the Left enjoying the rewards of
management on the back of a spurious postmodern
rationalisation. Take what is currently happening to

education, a fine example of the New Right’s pursuit of its
vision, however repellent, on the broken back of the Left’s
own ideology and language. Having in some cases started
out under the misguided and misguiding spell of Mao’s
Cultural Revolution – a variety of revolution now actually
being achieved by the Right with valuable support from all
too many erstwhile adepts of the Chairman – many
(ex)socialists, and particularly in the new ‘new universities’ ,
are busily helping to establish redoubts of the Right’s vision
of education. ‘Modularisation’, for instance: the calculated
betrayal of sustained thought and intellectual development,
pioneered by eager leftishIiberals unable to look beyond the
trough to the American factory-production model on which
it is based, or to understand the real reasons for the
Government’s commitment to the spurious’ choice’ which
itis said to afford students (sorry,customers). This ‘choice’,
of course, is itself another modish nonsense: and yet it is
simply assumed to be A Good Thing, rather like Sunday
morning shopping at Asda. So too with ‘flexibility’, that
ingenious ideological device for the efficient cutting and
casualisation of jobs which helps ensure that education is
properly circumscribed so as to permit only what it is safe
to allow those who now have ‘access’ to what we are still
pleased to describe as higher education. Most importantly
of all, I suspect, the Left’s sudden discovery of such
‘access’, itself now hopelessly hijacked, has come thirty
years after the insistence of so many in the early sixties on
defending, in terms borrowed from the Right, the ivory
towers of higher education. Although clearly not in each
individual instance, it was in effect – however unwittingly
– in order to retain the (class) purity of academe that the
Labour Government’s creation of clearly second-class,
purportedly ‘vocational’ polytechnics was supported on the
Left. Finally, in education as elsewhere, the Left’s
squeamishness about such’ authoritarian’ and’ elitist’ basics
as literacy, numeracy and analytic thought has come to
haunt us. J anet and John don’t like learning: but who are we
to impose on them those tools which have enabled us to get
where we are, to have such little power as we actually

Socialists, of all people, should surely know that if
socialism is to make any sense, let alone have any appeal,
then it will do so in virtue of its vision of life. Therewith in form if not, of course, in substance – its position resembles
that of the New Right, which possesses just such a vision.

But this should not mislead the Left into ajejune reluctance
to conjure up anything of the sort. On the contrary, we need
to learn from the Right in order both to expose its
appropriation of the liberal ‘individual’ and to avoid
succumbing to the liberal-postmodern trap it has carefully
helped to lay, and into which we seem so easily and often to
fall. The more intelligent elements of the New Right use
such a conception simply as a smokescreen – however
much its more crudely Thatcheresque acolytes actually
cleave to it, and whatever some of its strategic rhetoric. For
the Left to be suborned into reliance on the liberal’ individual’

would be merely bathetic, were it not for the fact that it is
also tragic.

Radical Philosophy 65, Autumn 1993

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