May 17, 2007
Norman Geras highlights Professor Zygmunt Bauman’s definition of the basis of a leftist worldview:
“The first assumption is that it is the duty of the community to insure its individual members against individual misfortune. And the second is that, just as the carrying capacity of a bridge is measured by the strength of its weakest support, so the quality of a society should be measured by the quality of life of its weakest members. These two constant and non-negotiable assumptions set the left on a perpetual collision course with the realities of the human condition under the rule of capitalism; they necessarily lead to charges against the capitalist order, with its twin sins of wastefulness and immorality, manifested in social injustice.”
However “constant and non-negotiable” Bauman’s assumptions are, they remain wide open to question, not least because his comparison of society with a bridge is so obviously flawed. The components of a bridge do not, I’m assured, have volition. Bricks, cables and metal beams do not make choices that determine their strength. Human beings do make choices that in large part determine their quality of life, however one chooses to measure it.
I doubt anyone here disapproves of social safety nets of some kind, or resents help being offered to people in distress and positions of severe misfortune. The question is how much help is to be offered and on what basis. But given the role of individual judgment in how a person’s life plays out, questions necessarily follow. Lots of questions. Why is a society to be measured by how the least able fare, irrespective of why that inability, or dysfunction, arises and persists? How, one wonders, does a community “insure” its individual members against all manner of “misfortune”? How are people to be insulated from, and compensated for, what are often consequences of their own choices and priorities? How much control is to be exerted and how many freedoms curtailed - including the freedoms of those suffering misfortune? What, exactly, are the intimate practicalities of this vision?
On what basis and to what extent does Professor Bauman imagine he has a right to ensure that society’s members optimise the quality of their lives, insofar as they’re able? How, exactly, will this feat be achieved? If some individuals fail to make the approved decisions in the approved sequence and with sufficient foresight, will those choices be made by others, and if necessary enforced? Will individuals be compensated for all of their own shortcomings, dispositions and misjudgements, or just some of them? Isn’t that what Bauman’s utopian “insurance” would ultimately entail? Who is Bauman to determine what constitutes an acceptable qualitative outcome? How, exactly, will this be measured? And how far would he go to ensure those outcomes are arrived at, regardless of the cost to others who may not share his view?
Bauman argues these assumptions are relevant because “it is unlikely that a society will ever be achieved in which some groups or categories of people do not fall behind the rest, or below the average standards.” Yet beyond a distaste for capitalism and for what he deems “an agenda scripted by the right”, Professor Bauman doesn’t seem overly concerned with why this differentiation tends to happen, always and everywhere. And it’s slightly bizarre to hear Bauman insist that “the left cannot be anything other than democratic,” while advancing principles that have decidedly illiberal and coercive implications. But such is the pinhead dance of the devout Socialist.
Bauman may well imagine that the left, so defined, is “on a perpetual collision course with the realities of the human condition under the rule of capitalism.” But one might just as easily argue that such loaded assumptions put the left on a collision course not with capitalism as most of us understand it, but with the human condition itself - and with the realities of… well, reality. And one might very easily charge Socialism with the sins of “wastefulness”, “immorality” and “social injustice” precisely because it so often degrades or denies the role of individual judgment and responsibility.