sábado, março 20, 2010
If it is to be taken seriously again, the left must find its voice. There is much to be angry about: growing inequalities of wealth and opportunity; injustices of class and caste; economic exploitation at home and abroad; corruption and money and privilege occluding the arteries of democracy. But it will no longer suffice to identify the shortcomings of "the system" and then retreat, Pilate-like, indifferent to consequences. It is incumbent on us to reconceive the role of government. If we do not, others will.
If we had to identify just one general consequence of the intellectual shift that marked the last third of the 20th century, it would surely be the worship of the private sector and, in particular, the cult of privatisation. With the advent of the modern state (notably over the course of the past century), transport, hospitals, schools, postal systems, armies, prisons, police forces and affordable access to culture – essential services not well served by the workings of the profit motive – were taken under public regulation or control. They are now being handed back to private entrepreneurs.
Any society, Edmund Burke wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France, which destroys the fabric of its state must soon be "disconnected into the dust and powder of individuality". By eviscerating public services and reducing them to a network of farmed-out private providers, we have begun to dismantle the fabric of the state. As for the dust and powder of individuality: it resembles nothing so much as Hobbes's war of all against all, in which life for many people has once again become solitary, poor and more than a little nasty.
In post-religious societies such as our own, where most people find meaning and satisfaction in secular objectives, it is only by indulging what Adam Smith called our "benevolent instincts" and reversing our selfish desires that we can "produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole race and propriety". We should be paying greater attention to the things states can do. The success of the mixed economies of the past half century has led a younger generation to take stability for granted and demand the elimination of the "impediment" of the taxing, regulating and generally interfering state. This discounting of the public sector has become the default political language in much of the developed world.
We need to learn to think the state again. How, in the face of a powerful, negative myth, are we to describe its proper role? We should begin by acknowledging, more than the left has been disposed to concede, the real harm that was done and could still be done by over-mighty sovereigns. There are two legitimate concerns.
Coercion is the first.
The second objection to activist states is that they can get things wrong.
George Orwell once noted that the "thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the 'mystique' of Socialism, is the idea of equality." This is still the case. It is the growing inequality in and between societies that generates so many social pathologies. Grotesquely unequal societies are also unstable societies. They generate internal division and, sooner or later, internal strife – usually with undemocratic outcomes. As citizens of a free society, we have a duty to look critically at our world. But that is not enough. If we think we know what is wrong, we must act on that knowledge. Philosophers, it was famously observed, have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.
posted by Luís Miguel Dias sábado, março 20, 2010