What's left

by Rob Horning

14 May 2007


Zygmunt Bauman offers two defining principles of Leftism, something that seemed pertinent after the detour into Hegemony and Socialist Strategy over the weekend.

The first assumption is that it is the duty of the community to insure its individual members against individual misfortune. And the second is that, just as the carrying capacity of a bridge is measured by the strength of its weakest support, so the quality of a society should be measured by the quality of life of its weakest members. These two constant and non-negotiable assumptions set the left on a perpetual collision course with the realities of the human condition under the rule of capitalism; they necessarily lead to charges against the capitalist order, with its twin sins of wastefulness and immorality, manifested in social injustice.

In other words, leftist politics are a matter of supplying a social safety net and inverting the assumption that socioeconomic benefits trickle down from the top, after the wealthiest of society are given the leeway to pursue their greed to the utmost. Wealth provides a wider latitude of opportunity, and those on the Right tend to argue that inhibiting those opportunities compromises possibilities for everyone on down the totem pole. But if Bauman’s principles are respected, we must consider the person in society with the least social and financial and human capital as the focus of our concerns. Capitalist society’s failure to enhance these people’s capital is what makes it guilty of “wastefulness and immorality”—strange charges when you consider capitalism’s heedless drive for efficiency is generally its operating principle. Capitalism tends to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few, who then use their enlarged opportunities to continue to consolidate their advantages. Political disagreements often revolve around whether this process generates opportunities for everyone else, has no particular net effect on opportunity, or positively harms those left behind. That in turn hinges on how one views the problems of relative wealth, egalitarianism, environmental risk, community solidarity, ambition’s place in meritocracy, the danger of moral hazard in social protections, and so on. To my mind, the most compelling argument regarding the dangers of economic inequality is that it yields political inequality; the wealthy are able to seize control of government and use it to protect their interests at the expense of opportunity for others—social mobility is inhibited and democratic processes devolve into sham practices, with consumer choice masquerading as political choice, and prosperity of the “look how many flat-screen TVs Americans bought” sort supplanting freedom. So in a statement like this”

Unless closely watched and checked, markets tend to produce a lot of waste and lead to the deepening polarisation of human conditions and life prospects. They also generate insecurity, promoting and reinforcing feelings of abandonment, alienation and loneliness.

I would want the remark about waste clarified, given some kind of measure. It may be that capitalism’s hostility to waste, its tendency to label nonproductive behavior as inefficient and wasteful, that yields the polarization, the alienation, the loneliness. Capitalism’s view of waste needs to be set against a leftist version that’s persuasive, a definition of waste that hinges on a sense of a wasted life, of insecurity as wasted, counterproductive and socially corrosive mental energy.

Bauman translates his two defining principles into this definition:

The left is best described as a stance of permanent criticism of the realities of social life, which always fall short of the values a society professes and promises to serve. The left is not committed to any specific model of human togetherness: the sole model it refuses to tolerate is a regime that deems itself perfect - or at least the best of all possible worlds - and therefore immune to questioning.

This definition shows Bauman has assimilated of Laclau and Mouffe’s point of there being no given, natural inevitable constituency for socialism, and it hearkens to the notion of permanent revolution. He seems to elevate critical thinking to the level of an end in itself, not necessarily because critical thinking is a practice commensurate with the dignity of humankind (which is why I’d advocate it for its own sake) but because of a realist assessment of what’s possible. This is akin to Zizek’s prescription for “pessimistic leftism”, touched on in this brief interview.

But ultimately he conceives of Leftism’s mission to promulgate the “social state”—something like Sweden. Which means the left must come up with an answer to the ammunition provided by stories like this one, which suggests the incentives in the Swedish system are creating freeloaders rather than the fully dignified humans we leftists would like to see.

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