Last hope for the left

The liberal, secular world view may hold sway over western elites, but it is struggling to answer the conservative challenge
March 19, 2012
Elite colleges produce WEIRD people: Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic

The Righteous Mindby Jonathan Haidt (Allen Lane, £20)

Togetherby Richard Sennett (Allen Lane, £25)

A few years ago I was at a 60th birthday party for a well-known Labour MP. Many of the leading thinkers of the British centre-left were there and at one point the conversation turned to the infamous Gordon Brown slogan “British jobs for British workers,” from a speech he had given a few days before at the Labour conference.

The people around me entered a bidding war to express their outrage at Brown’s slogan which was finally triumphantly closed by one who declared, to general approval, that it was “racism, pure and simple.”

I remember thinking afterwards how odd the conversation would have sounded to most other people in this country. Gordon Brown’s phrase may have been clumsy and cynical but he didn’t actually say British jobs for white British workers.

In most other places in the world today, and indeed probably in Britain itself until about 25 years ago, such a statement about a job preference for national citizens would have seemed so banal as to be hardly worth uttering. Now the language of liberal universalism has ruled it beyond the pale.

My fellow partygoers were all too representative of a part of liberal, educated Britain. Shami Chakrabarti, of the human rights group Liberty, has argued: “In the modern world of transnational and multinational power we must decide if we are all ‘people’ or all ‘foreigners’ now.”

Oliver Kamm, the centrist commentator, said to me recently that it was morally wrong to discriminate on grounds of nationality, ruling out the “fellow citizen favouritism” that most people think that the modern nation state is based on.

And according to George Monbiot, a leading figure of the liberal left, “Internationalism… tells us that someone living in Kinshasa is of no less worth than someone living in Kensington… Patriotism, if it means anything, tells us we should favour the interests of British people [before the Congolese]. How do you reconcile this choice with liberalism? How… do you distinguish it from racism?”

It is not only people on the left who think like this. On a recent BBC Radio 4 Moral Maze programme about development aid, the former Tory cabinet minister and born-again liberal Michael Portillo had this to say: “It is quite old fashioned to think about national borders, and rather nationalistic to say we must help people who are only moderately poor because they happen to be in the UK rather than helping people who are desperately poor because they happen to be a long way away.”

All of the above are, in the formulation of a group of North American cultural psychologists, WEIRD—they are from a sub-culture that is Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. They are, as we have seen, universalists, suspicious of strong national loyalties. They also tend to be individualists committed to autonomy and self-realisation. Balancing that they are usually deeply concerned with social justice and unfairness and also suspicious of appeals to religion or to human nature to justify any departure from equal treatment—differences between men and women, for example, are regarded as cultural not biological.

This is what one might call the secular liberal baby boomer worldview and it is in many ways an attractive and coherent one. It is also for historical reasons, to do with empire, unusually ingrained in the British cultural and political elite, the default position in much of the education system (especially higher education) and the public services more generally, plus significant parts of the media.

The Daily Mail is dedicated to a Kulturkampf against it precisely because it is so powerful. In the neat slogan about British politics since about 1975, “the right won the economic argument, the left won the cultural argument.” But is the left now losing the cultural argument too? Or, to put it another way, is the WEIRD elite coming up against some of the boundaries of everyday morality?

Most traditional societies are “sociocentric,” meaning they place the needs of groups and institutions first. Today most rich societies are “individualistic,” making society a servant of the individual. Yet even in these countries significant traces of our more sociocentric and “groupist” past are to be found in peoples’ instincts and moral intuitions. This has been the message of countless works of popular science since the renewed interest in Darwin (including from the late conservative social scientist James Q Wilson). Humans are not “blank slates” and only partially respond to a WEIRD worldview, we are still also group-based primates and our moral psychology has been shaped by deep evolutionary forces.

And the problem for liberals is that conservatives understand this better than they do. As one conservative friend put it, “it has taken modern science to remind liberals what our grandparents knew.” Ed Miliband’s difficulty is not so much that he is weird but that he is WEIRD. Yet help is at hand in the shape of a truly seminal book—out of that remarkable Amerian popular-science-meets-political-speculation stable—called The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.

Like Steven Pinker, Haidt is a liberal who wants his political tribe to understand humans better. His main insight is simple but powerful: liberals understand only two main moral dimensions, whereas conservatives understand all five. (Over the course of the book he decides to add a sixth, liberty/oppression, but for simplicity’s sake I am sticking to his original five.)

Liberals care about harm and suffering (appealing to our capacities for sympathy and nurturing) and fairness and injustice. All human cultures care about these two things but they also care about three other things: loyalty to the in-group, authority and the sacred.

As Haidt puts it: “It’s as though conservatives can hear five octaves of music, but liberals respond to just two, within which they have become particularly discerning.” This does not mean that liberals are necessarily wrong but it does mean that they have more trouble understanding conservatives than vice versa.

The sacred is especially difficult for liberals to understand. This isn’t necessarily about religion but about the idea that humans have a nobler, more spiritual side and that life has a higher purpose than pleasure or profit. If your only moral concepts are suffering and injustice then it is hard to understand reservations about everything from swearing in public to gay marriage—after all, who is harmed?

Haidt and his colleagues have not just plucked these moral senses from the air. He explains the evolutionary roots of the different senses from a close reading of the literature but has also then tested them in internet surveys and face to face interviews in many different places around the world.

Morality “binds and blinds,” which is why it has made it possible for human beings, alone in the animal kingdom, to produce large co-operative groups, tribes and nations beyond the glue of kinship. Haidt’s central metaphor is that we are 90 per cent chimp and 10 per cent bee—we are driven by the “selfish gene” but, under special circumstances, we also have the ability to become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group. These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives.

One of my most politically liberal friends read this book and declared his world view to be transformed. Not that he was no longer a liberal but now “he couldn’t be so rude about the other side, because I understand where they’re coming from.” This will be music to Haidt’s ears as the book was written partly as an antidote to the more polarised American politics of the past 20 years, marked by the arrival of Bill Clinton and the liberal baby boomers onto the political stage.

The American culture wars began earlier, back in the 1960s, with young liberals angry at the suffering in Vietnam and the injustice still experienced by African-Americans. But when some of them adopted a style that was anti-American, anti-authority and anti-puritanical, conservatives saw their most sacred values desecrated and they counter-attacked.

Some conflicts are unavoidable and Haidt is not suggesting that liberals should stop being liberal—rather, that they will be more successful if instead of telling conservatives that their moral intuitions are wrong, they seek to shift them in a liberal direction by accommodating, as far as possible, their anxieties.

For example, if you want to improve integration and racial justice in a mixed area, you do not just preach the importance of tolerance but you promote a common in-group identity. As Haidt puts it: “You can make people care less about race by drowning race differences in a sea of similarities, shared goals and mutual interdependencies.”

If America’s culture wars are past their bloodiest, Europe’s may be just beginning as left versus right continues to lose its old salience (even in the face of a crisis of capitalism). Consider the switch in attitudes in once-liberal Holland, the fall-off in support for welfare in Britain (see the March issue of Prospect) and the continuing blue collar drift away from most of Europe’s WEIRD-led centre-left parties.

The thinking behind The Righteous Mind may be the last hope for European liberalism. Indeed this book should be the scientific manual for the movement that I have called post-liberalism (see Prospect October 2011)—those from centre-left and centre-right, including Blue Labour and Red Toryism, who argue that both economic and cultural liberalisms have “overshot” in the past generation to the particular detriment of the bottom half of society.

Post-liberalism, like the promised land of a post-racial politics, does not seek to refight old battles but to move on from victories won. Its concern is not to repeal equality laws, or reject the market economy, but rather to consider where the social glue comes from in a fragmented society. To that end, it acknowledges authority and the sacred as well as suffering and injustice. It recognises the virtues of particular loyalties—including nations—rather than viewing them as prejudices. And it seeks to apply these ideas to the economic as well as the social sphere.

Much of this goes against the grain of an increasingly WEIRD and legalistic politics in Britain. The problem for the left has not so much been “rights without responsibilities” as rights without the relationships that help sustain them. If we are to be entangled in one another’s lives, for example as funders or recipients of social security, it helps to identify ourselves as part of a group. Meanwhile the right remains attached to its own form of abstract universalism, more concerned with the procedures of the market than what kind of society they have helped create. Some of the notions of loyalty, civility and respect that conservatives are so comfortable with in politics need to be reintroduced into the economic sphere.

Richard Sennett would agree with that. He is another liberal American thinker with a big book out on human co-operation. But he writes in the English manner: essayistic and oblique and vastly more elegant than Haidt’s sometimes repetitive lecture-room style. Yet after Haidt’s thrilling adventure in ideas, Sennett seems to have little new to say.

He circles the subject tentatively—there is a nice subplot on the joys of diffidence—approaching it through music, science, history and so on. But to say that co-operation is a skill and that we should try to become good listeners does not get us very far, indeed it hardly begins to fulfil the dust-jacket claim that he will teach us how to live together in morally diverse societies.

What does Sennett have to say to the elderly white residents of the Pollards Hill Estate in Merton in southwest London, where I visited the other day, many of whom feel discomforted by the big inflow of west Africans who now make up more than a third of the estate? Recommending that they listen more skilfully might get a dusty response.

Sennett is one of the great essayists of the social sciences and this book enjoyably rehearses many of his favourite themes, but coming after his work on craftsmanship and before a book on cities, it feels like the least grounded book in his trilogy on work. He is, by his own description, an old-fashioned man of the left but through his work on class and the world of work someone who is also, perhaps, a link to a Blue Labour/Red Tory concern with the losers in the meritocratic race.

So, is the future post-liberal? The WEIRD liberalism of the baby boomer generation was perhaps condemned to a dogmatic universalism as a result of emerging in the shadow of two world wars, the Holocaust and the anti-colonial and civil rights struggles. There was a lot to react against and it is perhaps understandable that in eagerly embracing the moral equality of all humans, some boomers slipped into a carelessness towards national borders and identities and a rigidity towards many forms of equality. The next generation of politics need not make the same mistake.

Response: What Haidt gets wrong, by Alex Worsnip