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Saturday, 16 February 2013

No Values Left.

 
 It is often assumed that the conservative Right has the monopoly over social values, culture, tradition and the family. Like the liberal pretension to a monopoly on free-speech, democracy, human rights and civil liberties, it should not go unchallenged. This will come as a shock to Americans, the politics of whom may be described as an oscillation between liberal and conservative positions. On the battlefield of the culture wars it may seem curious to postulate that the Left can challenge the Right on its own turf. For it was none other than Leon Trotsky who put forward the claim that we leftists have always lived in tradition. It's just a difference of which traditions the Left values (such as the right to vote, honouring the struggles of the past) over right-wing fetishes for fox-hunting and the Queen. Broadly, the radical Left aim to challenge the economic forces which dominate and shape life in all sorts of ways. Conservatives aim to preserve tradition and culture in the midst of the very same economic forces, which they themselves defend.
 
 The culture wars are merely the externalisation of the conflict internal to conservatism: social control versus economic freedom. It's worth noting that the socialist movement, itself a tradition, was born out of Christianity as well as a conservative disposition towards the horrifying consequences of industrialisation. The Left was defined early on by its conflict with liberalism, in a way which conservatives have yet to really get over - mainly because it's fundamental to their constitution. Take note of Rousseau's scorn for the market society favoured by such classical liberals as John Locke. The leading fetish of liberals is for the market, whether it is embodied in the arenas of culture, ideas or economics. The nihilist writer Michel Houellebecq writes about the dating scene as a sexual marketplace where all sorts of pleasures and relations are readily available. It then follows that the primary exit from the precarity of the market is monogamy and marriage. Those who scorn marriage as a social construct forget that everyone except for John Zorn buys into social constructs.
 
 The founding fathers of Marxism contributed plentifully to left-wing criticism of the family as a social unit with its own structural tendencies towards oppression. Though it could be said that Karl Marx in his critique of capitalism really left feminism for Engels to engage. In his mammoth magnum opus Marx notes that the family as a social unit has the capacity to hold property in common. Though the wise dialectician notes this in the same breathe that he notes this characteristic can also be found in the primitive epoch of feudalism. It's worth noting that the dialectical current that runs through the Left from Hegel. In this sense socialism should be a more radical advance on the advancements of bourgeois society, its legacy of human rights and civil liberties. Capitalism is an obvious advance on feudalism and slavery, while socialism takes the best of capitalism - its material surplus and social freedom - as its origin. This is worth keeping in mind with the points we'll explore next.
 
 The late Christopher Hitchens articulated his own brand of left-wing humanist arguments for limiting the right to an abortion. It boils down to a pragmatic balance of conflicting values, life and choice. If we first accept that there is such a concept as an 'unborn child' then we can debate at which point a cluster of cells becomes a person. It then follows that that person has rights, specifically to its own bodily integrity. This is the point of the whole debate over how long the window should remain open for an abortion to remain optional. There used to be much more of a division on this question on the Left and among feminists than there is today. It's not so much anti-feminist as non-feminist. The Right definitely has no monopoly over this position, often cultural reactionaries undermine themselves in their opposition to contraception. The left-wing proponents of limited abortion rights are often much more consistent and thorough-going when it comes to women's liberation. By contrast, self-proclaimed 'pro-lifers' are seldom concerned with women's oppression.
 
 As for same-sex marriage it really comes down to the question of equality. If we're talking about an equality of 'sameness' then it follows that the homosexual couple should enjoy all the social possibilities as the heterosexual couple. The best argument against same-sex marriage, and by 'best' I mean non-homophobic, is that the 'difference' of homosexuality is worth preserving. It's a case that Philip Blond has caved out. Furthermore, the 'difference' of homosexuality can be defined insofar that the sexual identity of the individual opens up an array of cultural options for them. The gay community hardly has to worry about the less beautious side of marriage, its deathknell of joy and its fragility. Until recently the average gay man has always been free from divorce, child-rearing, shared bank accounts and alimony payments. There are obvious advantages for those who aren't partial to marriage (which doesn't equate to commitment) and adoption.
 
 It's certainly true that the reform of marriage laws to extend religious ceremonies to gay couples is conservative in that it will preserve the institution of marriage - itself something that the Left has criticised plenty. Notice this isn't an argument against homosexuality in terms of moral conduct and human rights. It doesn't even take a side on the rather absurd claims made against homosexuality on 'moral' and 'natural' grounds. Part of this comes out of the same attitude that can be found in the morose works of conservative John Gray when he writes "[Christian] Morality has hardly made us better people; but it has certainly enriched our vices." In this frame of mind the greatest aphrodisiac is moralism, in any case conservatives are the real perverts. You have only to listen to the rants of Rick Santorum to notice that he has been thinking about homosexual relations just a bit too much. Only a real deviant could see the male anus as a gateway to bestiality.
 
 I may not endorse these positions myself, but it can't be said that the Right has the monopoly over these arguments. It's always worth keeping in mind there are a great many overlaps between the Old Left and the conservative Right when it comes to cultural questions. That was well demonstrated in the debate last year between Terry Eagleton and Roger Scruton.

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