Dr. David Cowan
A Book for the Weekend: An eclectic blog of book discussion occasionally published on a Friday, so readers may be inspired to peruse the book over the weekend. These are books I have bought, and photographed holding myself, so unpaid and unbiased apart from the personal biases all readers have!
Last night I dreamt I went to Harvard again, and the Faculty gave me my reading list which comprised of David Hume, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Augustine, William F. Buckley, Hayek, Frank H. Knight and, of course, the Bible, amongst others. Just kidding, riffing on the opening of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Besides, I didn’t go to Harvard, I went to Glasgow, Oxford and St. Andrews. Like any undergraduate I had to conform to a very different reading list altogether.
As an undergraduate I recall writing a Politics essay in which I argued Karl Marx was wrong and why he was wrong, making points that today have become mainstream, but in the early 1980s and with the Berlin Wall intact my arguments were heresy in British universities. The essay was marked as failed for its fundamental argument rather than the facts or standard of argument. I did go on to pass the class; having been yellow carded rather than red carded, such was the generosity of the Politics Department I guess.
At the same time I first came across the conservative Salisbury Review and the writings of Roger Scruton. I asked my philosophy tutor about him, and he replied dismissively “Oh, you mean, Professor Screwtop?” and chuckled at his little joke. As is often the case, Professor Scruton was then, and continues to be, a more famous and sought after thinker than my peeved tutor of old.
I had the pleasure of lunching with Professor Scruton in Washington DC, as I discussed in an earlier article on the environment, but I then met him a while after when he was invited as a visiting professor at the University of St Andrews, where I was doing PhD research. He almost hadn’t made it to St Andrews, because he had had the audacity to write a book on homosexuality, suggesting there are moral grounds on which to challenge homosexuality. The “gay” community in the university rallied to have him banned from the post, but the university thankfully rejected the calls.
For many years, Professor Scruton has divided his time between London, Oxford and Virginia, and last year had his book on thinkers of the new left published. In the book he mounts an assault on leftist intellectuals, which means writers given prominence in the academy and largely unheard of outside of it. He makes my opening point, that these thinkers largely have a reputation but no argument to offer in the academy. Students are expected to bow down before them or suffer, as I did, a low mark.
In an interview Professor Scruton explained his conversion to conservatism in the wake of witnessing the fabled 1968 Paris riots: “I was on the other side. What I saw was an unruly mob of self-indulgent middle-class hooligans. When I asked my friends what they wanted, what were they trying to achieve, all I got back was this ludicrous Marxist gobbledegook. I was disgusted by it […] That’s when I became a conservative.”
It is this ‘Marxist gobbledegook’ that Professor Scruton seeks to expose in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands. He also goes a step further than this and explains how these thinkers have reinvented themselves and survived to become part of the new establishment, having been briefly toppled by the fall of the Berlin Wall. The likes of Chomsky are old men feted by a new generation of youth, who are also likely to vote for Bernie Sanders.
The two attributes of the new order these thinkers champion are liberation and ‘social justice.’ These, he notes, correspond to the French Revolutionary cry of liberty and equality, but there is not a lot of fraternity, as these thinkers are above rubbing shoulders with the objectivized agents dreamt of in their philosophy. They deconstruct family, school, law and nation so that we can have freedom from oppressive structure, most fragrantly put by Foucault as ‘structures of domination.’ As one group gets freedom so another must be liberated, as we see in the fight for transgender bathrooms. It results in the excessive individualism I wrote about yesterday.
The control of language and labeling are central strategies of these thinkers, and Professor Scruton dissects these for us, referencing Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’ that has become a chilling reality today. He also highlights what is left out by these thinkers, primarily the various voluntary associations, such as church groups and shared interest groups like philately clubs, since they contradict the leftist view of association.
The result of the output of these thinkers is resentment as an existential posture, set against a society that needs to be controlled. This causes a serious social disorder, a negativity opposed to the way things are arranged and authority. The new left have, Professor Scruton observes, at last found their target and it is capitalism, but theirs is a capitalism defined as if nothing good has come out of capitalism, and thus they march victorious into the void.
On the basis of this analysis, Professor Scruton works his way through the pantheon of these modern academic gods, and unpicks the philosophical threads underpinning the modern culture wars, with all its clichés and sloganizing. Throughout his examination, Professor Scruton exposes what he sees as the nonsense, often a toxic nonsense, of these leftist and postmodern thinkers. He highlights how Foucault, Derrida and Rorty are “vehement adherents to a code of political correctness that condemns deviation in absolute and intransigent terms.”
I once had a run-in with Derrida in Oxford, I had been asked by a newspaper to interview him, but he had never responded to me. I attended his lecture and spoke to him as he was leaving, with his entourage, but he said he had never received my request and declined this last request for an interview, saying rather grandly he didn’t do interviews, because of the writing and rewriting that happens to change meaning. This is more mundanely what many reporters hear as “I didn’t say that!” when the interviewee did say it but to his or her later regret. Thus Professor Derrida essentially told a lie, since I had already been informed he had my request, which was ironic given his lecture in Oxford was on lying. You can read my account in The Philosophers’ Magazine (3rd Quarter, 2003), in the article The history of a lie, which was playfully introduced by the editor and philosopher Julian Baggini as “David Cowan doesn’t talk to Jacques Derrida.”
Derrida in dealing with me had engaged in the typical language games of these leftist thinkers. Professor Scruton urges that the task of the right is to rescue the language of politics. It is, he explains, only by recapturing our language we can properly “answer the great accusations that are constantly thrown at our world from the left,” then we move on from the dichotomy of left/right and us/them to have proper dialogue, which is much needed today.
Two accusations in particular the new left makes are that ‘capitalist’ society is founded on power and domination, and that ‘capitalism’ means ‘commodification,’ meaning people are reduced to things and the fetishizing of things as agents. As discussed by the left ‘capitalism’ is, Professor Scruton explains, Newspeak which suggests a comprehensive theory to explain our society and the need to replace it. As I’ve argued myself on many occasions, before the fall of the Berlin Wall intellectuals could attack ‘capitalism’ as if there were an alternative, but as Professor Scruton notes the only alternative is slavery.
The charge of consumerism is the modern battle cry of the left, urging us to distinguish two ways of living. Professor Scruton notes ends/means, subject/object, virtue/vice, value/price, are all “ways of working around a single distinction, between free beings and the temptations that threaten them…Markets exist precisely for that reason, namely, that the objects of appetite are exchangeable.”
Temptation he explains is a spiritual task, not a political or economic one, and the solution to the problems is to change our lives, and to do this requires recognizing spiritual authority and making sacrifices. There is indeed much wrong in our culture and the markets reflect this, but Professor Scruton is hopeful that we can answer this threefold by regarding our ideas of society as bigger than ‘the state,’ institutional life as built by people outside the control of the state, and, individual personality as privileging accountability and responsibility.
In concluding, Professor Scruton argues the new left thinkers promote an understanding of agency that takes us to the gulags, to a crass conformity. Theirs is a world of a priori correctness, where the simple answer to inequality is equality, it’s obvious so we don’t need to define the question. As in the current controversies on campuses, what is the question being asked exactly?
Critics have accused Professor Scruton of being paranoid about the influence of the left, a charge they note he makes against a number of thinkers featured. They also accuse him of being out of date. As with any review of a large number of thinkers any critic can find examples to support their argument, rather like proof-texting the Bible. What critics of this book have missed are the themes and answers Scruton explores, they see the trees but not the forest, nor their own bias in attacking the bias of Professor Scruton. As the book argues, dialogue has been replaced with sloganizing and we see this in the dismissive tone of his critics.
It is hard to read so much literature of an opposite view to our own, and those on the right can be thankful Professor Scruton has done this. While he may dismiss some writers as boring and nonsensical, their ideas have taken hold in culture and have currency, so we need to understand them. Likewise there are many interesting discussions, which the right needs to answer, and these are highlighted here as Profesor Scruton acknowledges the interesting parts of these various curate’s eggs.
In ending, Professor Scruton, citing Plato, has sought to transfer the burden back onto those who have created the burden in our academies and intellectual life. Sadly, I doubt they will realize the burden they carry, but Professor Scruton has provided a book that those on the right will do well to read and to answer his call for the right to return language to its rightful place by challenging the language of the left and defining the questions being asked of our society.
Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left