Friday, December 03, 2010

A center-left Clinton/Gore-type New Democrat and “a radical lefty"?

At the Legal Ethics Forum, Bradley Wendel wonders if he is properly identified as a “‘liberal’ legal ethicist,” proceeding to inform us that he’s “more of a center-left Clinton/Gore-type New Democrat, certainly not a radical lefty.” In response, I wrote as follows:

As an aside to your comment, it’s of course quite possible that you could be BOTH “a center-left Clinton/Gore-type New Democrat” and “a radical lefty.”

Let’s say, for example, or in the best of all possible worlds, you’re a Marxist or “radical lefty” of some sort (Social Democrat, democratic socialist, philosophical anarchist, and so on) when it comes to an analysis of capitalism, including belief in the (theoretical and historical—the latter in a non-determinist sense) possibility of non-capitalist alternative socio-economic structures, portents of which were presaged in the works of the utopian socialists castigated by Marx for their political naïveté (among other things) as well as, later, among philosophically inclined anarchists (or ‘anarcho-communists’) like Kropotkin and Gandhi. This orientation need not rule out the possibility that, on election day, you vote as ”a center-left Clinton/Gore/[Obama]-type New Democrat,” especially given the constraints of electoral politics in this country. Furthermore, you may be at the same time a Liberal in the classical sense (from Hobbes, Locke and J.S. Mill through Rawls) when it comes to your understanding of and fondness for the legal system and your appreciation of the myriad virtues of the institutions and processes of democratic representation of Liberal provenance.

The reasons for this are in accord with an observation made by the late Ninian Smart that most of us, “when it comes to the crunch,” don’t have systematic or even robustly consistent ideological worldviews, possessing rather an amalgam of belief and values: religious, moral, political, etc., “which we may publicly characterize in a certain way,” for instance, as Christian, Liberal, Radical, Leftist, and so forth, despite the fact that such rhetorical and political shorthand, in the end, fails to capture the inconsistent if not motley (at least as assessed by some criteria) character of these values and beliefs. As Smart wrote, our values and beliefs are composed “more like a collage than a Canaletto. They do not even have consistency of perspective.” I’m reminded here of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, who spoke of himself as being “half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.”

This selfsame point was more or less made by the New Left veteran (among the founders of the Students for a Democratic Society) and sociologist Richard (Dick) Flacks in his book, Making History: The Radical Tradition in American Life (1988):

“Since there is no national organization around any more that can set doctrinal boundaries for the left, there is today room for expressing and acting upon the full range of issues and perspective that actually constitute the radical, democratic, critical tradition. One can more easily be a Marxist in the morning, a pacifist in the afternoon, an environmentalist at dinner, and a feminist in the evening, while going to church on Sunday and voting Democrat on election day.”


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