Leftist Sensibility

As I already mentioned, this one is harder for me because it is my own sensibility.  Thus, I am biased.  The right wing sensibility, in my view, is always going to end up pathologized.  While the left-wing sensibility description will veer toward the panegyric and the self-congratulatory.  That warning stated, let’s plunge ahead.

I have always been attracted by Richard Rorty’s claim that liberalism, when it comes down to it, is simply “bleeding-heart liberalism.”  The core of the leftist sensibility is compassion.  I want to approach this historically.  “Sympathy” was the core of morality for Adam Smith and David Hume.  It was the basis from which they could explain why any human would care about the plight of any other human.  They, of course, thought sympathy was “natural”—and thus the place to begin when trying to construct a morality.

Cruelty (in all its forms from jeering and insulting to torture) tells us sympathy has its limits.  A delight in the suffering of others seems just as natural to humans.  There is something to be said, I think, for the Steven Pinker (stated positively) and Hannah Arendt’s (stated negatively) arguments that “compassion” is actually a fairly new phenomenon—dating from the Enlightenment century, the 18th.  For Arendt, the entrance of compassion ruins politics.  It leads to the collapse of politics into economics, into placing politics at the service of alleviating poverty.  (The argument is central to her book On Revolution, with its comparison of the American and French revolutions.)

It does seems to me that Arendt is on to something (even as her contempt for compassion is the hardest thing in her whole corpus to swallow).  Were their wars (or violence) prior to the American and French revolutions fought for the ideal of equality?  Maybe the Dutch war for independence from Spain?  And there were peasant revolts.  But mostly there were wars of conquest, not wars for the freedom to forge one’s own life.  The “left” after all comes into existence as a political category with the French Revolution.  And so does the modern right—which must find new ways (not based on the claim that God just made it that way) to justify inequalities of wealth, political participation/power, and status.  This battle between left and right is often fought on the grounds of “rights”—to whom should various rights be extended, and what things should be covered by rights.  (Is there a “right” to health care, a “right” to a job, a “right” to old age pensions?)

It seems weird, of course, in light of Christianity and Buddhism to say compassion is an 18th century novelty.  But I think we need to see the novelty as compassion plus rationalism/secularism.  Prior to the Enlightenment, poverty was the result of “fortune.”  It was not something that resulted from human actions or arrangements—and thus not something that could be alleviated by human action or that was a moral outrage (when and if humans refused to do anything to try to alleviate it.) Charity to the poor was encouraged, but that didn’t come with the idea that poverty could be eliminated and that the failure to try to eliminate was a moral failure.

The leftist sensibility, then, is a mixture of compassion with the belief that different social arrangements than the status quo (effected by either reform or revolution) would be preferable and are feasible.  As Steven Lukes has put it, the left is committed to a project of “remediation.”  It points to unjustified poverty and unjustified inequalities, claiming that these sufferings are not necessary (they could be otherwise), and that there are reasonable plans for remediation.

The left’s notion of justice, therefore, is built upon the notion of equality—of the idea that everyone is entitled to an equal chance for a flourishing, satisfying life.  No person should have a life that only serves to provide others (and not him- or herself) with the means for flourishing.  In short, Kant’s kingdom of ends where no person is ever only a “means.”

I think that this commitment to equality and to the understanding of justice that follows from it entails universalism to the extent that all humans must be accorded the same right to the necessities for a good life.  From that conviction comes the idea of “effective freedom” (i.e. that freedom is only “real” when a person has the means to act on freely chosen alternatives).  It seems to me that contemporary critiques of universalism are always complaints that the various versions of universalism on offer are not universal enough.  And I think that Sen and Nussbaum’s “capabilities approach” offers a good way to reconcile respect for and attention to differences while holding on to the broad commitment to a universalism that can be all-inclusive.  But I am not going to get into the weeds of that argument here today.

The formula of compassion plus reason runs into serious trouble when Romanticism comes onto the scene.  The Romantics keep the compassion, but are suspicious of reason.  Nationalism is the Romantic passion par excellence on the political front.  And nationalism limits compassion to one’s compatriots even as it eschews a rationalist approach to social policies.  American health care: the best in the world, says the patriot, wonderfully immune to all the facts that clearly indicate otherwise.  Romanticism, in short, is not necessarily leftist or rightist.  It is wildly overstating the case to say that Romanticism leads directly to Hitler, just as it is a wild exaggeration to say that rationalism leads directly to Stalin.

Still, it does seem we have leftists (like Blake and Shelley) of the romantic stripe and leftists (Bentham and Marx) of the rationalist stripe, and that the romantics are more likely than the rationalists to think art is crucial to the leftist cause.  It is also worth saying that, generally speaking, the rightist sensibility comes across as aggressively masculine while the leftist position (with its compassion and desire to care for the well-being of all) is feminized.  Within that framework, the rationalist leftist position can look like a compensation against the feminization of a leftist sensibility.  Poetry is for sissies–so either men worried about their masculinity must eschew it or write like Ted Hughes as over-compensation.

The leftist sensibility I would recommend features compassion connected (tempered) by rationalism.  It is that mixture that has led contemporary leftists to be extremely wary of violence in all its forms, opting instead for various modes of non-violent action to effect political change.  The argument is, on the compassion side, that violence harms people, and on the rational side, that violence only unleashes more violence and thus cannot effect the kinds of changes that it aims for.  Yet (as I have agonized over on this blog) eschewing violence seems to place leftist reformers in a very weak place in relation to those in power who are determined to hold onto that power and are not shy of using violence to maintain that hold.

Because the left has so often been ineffective (especially over the past forty years—since 1980—of the right’s resurgence), the right accuses it of hypocrisy.  The left parades its bleeding heart in public (especially since the chattering classes are full of leftists) while leading very comfortable lives under current arrangements.  The left never really puts its money where its mouth is. I know of a professor whose grad students called her a Neiman Marxist.

Meanwhile, the left itself splits between the so-called “liberals” who work for reform within the “system” (i.e. accept democratic electoral politics and some version of the market) and the “radicals” who express contempt of the ineffectual liberals at every turn (but remain muddle headed about what means of change they actually endorse—since very few of them openly call for violence.  Terry Eagleton may be the exception in his attitude toward violence, but I can’t tell for sure because his books on tragedy and “radical sacrifice” become obscure—in contrast to his usual bracingly direct style—precisely at the point where the question of political violence arises.)  For the most part, the argument between the “left” and “liberals” seems to be an argument about rhetorical style, with the left scorning liberals for their mamby-pandy refusal to denounce capitalism and Western perfidy, and the liberals scorning the left for their gestural politics of absolute purity that has little relation to facts on the ground or any possible political constituency.

More germane to this ongoing thread in the blog is the connection of the leftist sensibility to an aesthetic sensibility.  Where am I headed with this?

  1. The aesthetic sensibility as currently exhibited seems to me to share Romanticism’s suspicion of reason. (Maybe that’s why North has to fixate on “method” and “rigor.”  He’s trying to get rationalism back into the aesthetic, from which is has mostly been banned.)  So the aesthetic sensibility shares the compassion for the excluded and down-trodden.  But it is less attuned to reformist projects or prospects.  I will want to say more about how the aesthetic expresses its compassion, its solidarity with those unjustly treated.
  2. I don’t think there is any direct path from the aesthetic to the leftist sensibility—or that there is any necessary connection between them. To the extent that those who go in for aesthetics in the current moment also tend to be leftists of some variety, I think that’s because of a political education, not an aesthetic one. In short, it has been hard to get an aesthetic education since 1970 without getting a political one alongside it.  The relation between the two is neither necessary nor direct (as I have said), but their adjacency has been almost universal.  I believe it is sloppy thinking to believe there is a deeper connection between the two.
  3. The million dollar question remains: how do you instill a sensibility? What kind of education does the trick?  If sensibilities really are the fundamental drivers of moral/political commitments and of actions undertaken, then how are they formed?  What are the crucial sites of intervention?  Is there a formula?

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