Reinvigorating the Left

March 4, 2010

Last night on Newsnight, Dame Shirley Williams made a comment during a section on the death of Michael Foot which bears further scrutiny: “The Left needs to go back to first principles.”

This could be interpreted in a variety of ways, but what’s relevant here is that this comment has been repeated by a variety of figures of the Left since the onset of the financial crisis and the lacklustre response of this wing of politics to an apparent failure of its opponents’ theories. Typically the comment is followed by a statement along the lines of, “Remember poor people, they’re why we’re doing this!” rapidly followed by a diatribe about how awful the Tories are and the simply beastly BNP.

Liking the poor and hating the Tories aren’t principles; rather they’re the values that are derived from principles. For the Left to move forward requires re-evaluating what it actually means to hold a left-wing political position, and to do that we need to look very deeply indeed.

In order to understand someone’s political beliefs, you have to understand how they attribute value – by what criteria they say certain things are good and certain things are bad. To do this you examine their personal theory of value; the study of which is split between the fields of ethics and economics. Ethics concerns what could be called moral goods, such as the virtue of helping the less-well-off, while economics concerns non-moral goods, such as the value assigned to a particular product in the marketplace. In contemporary mainstream political discourse, these two types of good diverge in a very important way: moral goods are taken as having their value intrinsically (i.e. rescuing a drowning child is an inherently good act) while economic goods only have extrinsic value (i.e. a product only has value inasmuch as it is in limited supply and there is a demand for it, features not intrinsic to any particular instance of that product).

Of course, there is a wide diversity of opinion on this issue, which I have greatly over-simplified – moral relativists claim that moral values are themselves extrinsic; a particular act only has moral worth inasmuch as it is attributed to that act by the culture in which it is undertaken. But what’s important here is that all mainstream political discourse involves an understanding of economic goods in which value is not inherent in a product. This is vital to understanding the relative decline of the left over the last twenty years, for reasons which I will discuss below.

Keynes was absolutely right to state that:

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

However, what Keynes perhaps neglected to emphasise is the role of the rest of philosophy in informing economics & political philosophers. One can only derive a theory of value if one has some idea of how humans attribute value at all.

To examine this further, let’s consider the perspectives of two of the greatest philosophers of the last millenium: David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Hume was a projectivist. To avoid misunderstanding, I’m not claiming that the foremost philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment amused himself by playing home movies for his friends, but rather that Hume argued that the values attributed to both objects & acts are values entirely attributed by ourselves; we project our values upon the world. This means that all values, both moral and economic, are necessarily extrinsic.

The impact of this approach on economics is clear; the overwhelming majority of economists hold and have held a similarly projectivist approach to the way in which we attribute value. However, there is a peculiar divergence within this approach, in which for some economists objects which previously were valued purely extrinsically acquire intrinsic value by virtue of a type of process. The classic example of this is the labour theory of value, espoused by Adam Smith & Karl Marx. Put very simply, in this theory a product has value depending on the amount of labour which has gone into it.

This is where the divergence between left and right in terms of attribution of value can be elucidated. To the left, labour itself is a moral good, representing the blood, sweat & tears of the worker, and thus has intrinsic value. To the right, labour has extrinsic value like any other product – inasmuch as there is demand for it and a limited supply. Left-wing attributions of value deny the distinction between moral goods and economic goods; taxation to achieve social goals is acceptable, as money only has intrinsic value inasmuch as it is doing good. For the right, this distinction is clear: money can only possess extrinsic value inasmuch as it is in demand, and since taxation reduces the demand for money (taxation doesn’t reduce the supply of money, rather it reduces the amount that an individual is permitted to receive and therefore artificially lowers demand) it devalues an economic good.

Of course, these two caricatures of political positions are gross simplifications of the enormous spectrum of economic & moral opinion contemporary political discourse involves, but they serve to illustrate my point. The key distinction between left and right lies in this conflation of moral and economic values. Because theories of value which incorporate this conflation (i.e the labour theory of value) have been shown to lead to systems which produce negative moral outcomes (which is a pretty understated way of referring to Soviet Russia), the philosophical grounding of left-wing politics no longer exists. If a theory of value which contains intrinsic moral elements doesn’t lead to a morally good society, it can be said to have failed and thus be an incorrect attribution of value.

This explains the relative decline of the left over the last twenty years, but does not give the full picture. If what I’m claiming is true, left-wing politics should have entirely evaporated by now. Clearly they have not. This is because of the informal theory of value I gave above with respect to money: those on the left still value particular moral goods more highly than economic goods, without having a clear intellectual case to present a comparison between the two. The left has accepted the division of value into the two categories, and has found difficulty in presenting an alternative.

The best counter to this division of value comes from the environmental movement, whose economics dictate that economic goods do have an intrinsic moral value inasmuch as they impact on the environment. This has led to theories of value like that of ‘emergy‘, wherein value is attributed based on the amount of energy or carbon inherent in a product or good. These theories cross the boundaries between moral goods and economic goods – an act becomes moral inasmuch as it doesn’t excessively impact upon the environment. However, this is still ultimately unsatisfactory: the moral goods it covers only constitute a small proportion of what many on the left would consider to be moral goods, and in some cases run counter to them.

To reinvigorate the left, I suggest we return to Kant. Kant was not a projectivist in the same manner as Hume; rather, he argued that value is derived from our rational interpretation of the world and our relationship to it. This led him to formulate his famous maxim of the categorical imperative:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

I won’t go into the arguments surrounding this principle here, as what I’m interested in is how it was derived. It determines moral value on a relationship between the individual’s faculty of reasoning and their knowledge of the world. How could one begin to fashion a theory of value along these lines which applied to economic goods? It would again involve a conflation of the moral and the economic; objects & acts would have value inasmuch as universal rational principles dictated that they did so. Those principles would be neither intrinsic or extrinsic; much like Kant’s categories of time and space, they would be outcomes of the ways in which everyone encounters the world. They would, however, be something which is vitally important to the debate at hand: they would be first principles.

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One Response to “Reinvigorating the Left”

  1. Neil Craig said

    Your definition of left allows no space for “environmentalists”. That may be correct & it may even be what that corrupt lying fascist Williams meant about back to basics (though I suspect she was just trying to sound good). However any serious assessment of the left will have to deal with the eco-fascist presence among them.

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