Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Pluralism and Narratives, Left and Right

with 2 comments

Matt Bruenig has an interesting post addressing the problem of pluralism in the left project.

The left is a massively pluralistic segment of the political spectrum. There is no single or even dominant moral and political framework that leftists utilize. On the economic side of things alone, there are people who are primarily interested in decommodification and people who are primarily interested in distrbutive justice, among others. These are very different frameworks. The things you would say to create a decommodification narrative are very different from the things you would say to create a distributive justice narrative. So which ones do you use? Do you talk about the horror of having human interactions funneled through market mechanisms or do you talk about the horrors of inequality and want?

These two narratives are generally compatible (though not always), but the problem is that they are not unified. And that’s just two of them: there are dozens more. Conservatives have basically been saying the same unified thing for decades. It’s silly and jokish, but there is message discipline. While a pluralistic left is not that problematic in theory, when it comes to spinning a political and moral narrative in order to win, it presents a serious obstacle.

To start, I agree that it’s a serious obstacle. But I’m not sure about the diagnosis. Let’s start with conservatism.  I think this view of a unified conservatism is fairly common.  But it ignores how conservatives got so unified.  There was a time, in the post-World War II era, when conservatives weren’t united.  There was–and still is–plenty of pluralism within conservatism.  There are social conservatives, those who believe that free markets produce freedom, those who believe markets are efficient, neoconservatives, etc. Some focus on taxes, others on foreign threats, others on dissenters, or feminists, or gays.  Philosophically, it’s not clear that these things have anything in common. This is true whether we are talking about politicians or intellectuals.  It’s true that most conservatives are uncomfortable with the idea of pluralism, but conservative ideas are fairly pluralistic.  Essentially, they’ve found a way to unite despite their pluralism, not because of a lack of it. (Talking about that process, if I’m going to brave it, will have to wait for another post).

I also think the problem on the left is different.  Things like decommodification or distributive justice aren’t, to my mind, moral or political frameworks. Rather they are frameworks designed to implement these sorts of frameworks.  If we were all truly committed to these ideas in and of themselves, it might be an unresolvable conflict. But my sense is that these approaches are concerned with implementing more abstract notions like freedom and equality (or versions of these – absent more, these notions are fairly hallow. They have an obvious core but contested, ambiguous radiations). We can judge them by how well they connect to these larger notions, and also by examining their implications.  If we truly want to build stronger and more convincing moral and political frameworks, I think we need more attention to ends and their justifications. We also, as Elizabeth Anderson argues in her excellent essay “What is the Point of Equality?” (pdf), need to pay attention to how well different approaches make sense of actually existing movements for change and the claims made by people.

So yes, a challenge remains, but I think it’s a slightly different one than what Matt suggested.  I wish I had something profound to say about how to solve it, but I don’t.  Argument seems to be the only way to find common ground, but that argument has to be productive.  And that’s easier to identify in specific instances than to articulate in principle. For what it’s worth, Anderson’s piece seems to me just such an example.

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Written by David Kaib

January 24, 2013 at 12:39 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] Kaib has a friendly response to a post I wrote a few days ago on problems with crafting a successful left moral and political […]

  2. […] Kaib has a friendly response to a post I wrote a few days ago on problems with crafting a successful left moral and political […]


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