Wednesday, July 25, 2018

G.A. Cohen on Community & Equality (Part 1)

I want to share a bit from G.A. (‘Jerry’) Cohen’s (14 April 1941 – 5 August 2009) essay, “Back to Socialist Basics,” reprinted in part from New Left Review, No. 207 (September-October, 1994), as found in a posthumous collection of pieces (one of three such collections): On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice, and Other Essays in Political Philosophy, Michael Otsuka, ed. (Princeton University Press, 2011). The essay was composed in response to a document circulated in advance of a meeting of Left intellectuals in London in 1993 “under the auspices of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)” (Cohen in fact references two IPPR documents, ‘emanated from the Commission on Social Justice,’ and published by the IPPR in 1993).
I won’t go into the specific reasons (including the surrounding circumstances) for why Cohen understandably felt compelled to respond to the document, although some of those should be transparent in what follows; suffice it to say Cohen does a brilliant job of reminding his interlocutors that back in the day when the Left was “ideologically self-confident,” “when its relationship to its values was forthright rather than furtive,” “the Labour Party affirmed a principle of community and a principle of equality.” Indeed, these two values were distinguishing attributes of the Left, “the only values which the Left affirmed as a matter of principle and which the Center and Right reject[ed] as a matter of principle.” While British party politics does not find its precise equivalent or even rough analogue on our side of the pond, Cohen’s intellectual, moral and political points are, I think, no less germane and urgent foe the Left in the U.S.
The values of community and equality, in addition to being “articulated in books and pamphlets,” “were … carried by, and … expressed the sentiments of, a broad movement that no longer exists and that will never be re-created. It will never be created because technological change means that the class base of that movement is gone, forever. Socialist values have lost their mooring in capitalist social structure. Partly because of that, but also partly because of right-wing ideological successes, community and equality have lost the quite extensive ideological hegemony that they once enjoyed. [….]
The struggle for community and equality is perforce more difficult when the calculus of class interests reduces the constituency that would gain from them, in an immediate sense of ‘gain.’ But their remains two reasons for insisting on their authority. The first, which is decisive on its own, is a self-standing moral-cum-intellectual reason. The second, more contingent and debatable, is a reason more related to the identity and survival of the Labour Party, and it is contingent partly because it is not a necessary truth that the Labour Party should continue to exist.
The decisive reason for not abandoning community and equality is that the moral force of those values never depended on the social force supporting that is now disappearing. No one who believed in the values could have said that she believed in them because they expressed the sentiments of a social movement. Anyone who believed in them believed in them because she thought them inherently authoritative, and the withering of the social force that backed them cannot justify ceasing to think them authoritative. And the second reason for not abandoning the values is that, once they are dropped, then there is no reason of principle, as opposed to of history, for Labour not to merge with the Liberal Democrats. [….]
[Cohen proceeds to explain how and why the two IPPR documents ‘bow before the success of pro-market and anti-egalitarian ideology that has helped to precipitate Labour’s present ideological crisis.’] [Furthermore,] failure to secure acceptance of the principles of community and equality is not a reason to modify one’s belief in the principles themselves, even if it is indeed a reason, politics being what it is, not to thrust them forward publicly in unvarnished form. To massage one’s beliefs for the sake of electoral gain can, moreover, be electorally counterproductive. It can be inexpedient to abandon principle for expediency, because it is hard to hide the fact that you are doing so ….” 
[I hope to have Part 2 up in several days.] 


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