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TDCotE (xii): Idealists Should Grow Up

The Dull Compulsion of the Economic (xii)

A series of blog postings by D&S collective member Larry Peterson

Idealists Should Grow Up

I’ve long harbored a notion that the more modern societies tend to emphasize moral discourse, the less scope actually exists in the same societies to act according to moral precepts in any meaningful or consistent sense; and that all the talk tends more to express–or repress–a sense of helplessness in the face of shrinking agency than any desire to actually encounter the changing world.

Hence, I read Onara O’Neil’s review of Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown Up Idealists in FT Weekend (there’s no link to it yet that I can see on the FT website) with a sense of weariness and disgust. It’s depressing enough to watch the rest of the society get off with on this kind of intellectual and spiritual self-abuse; but when someone gets away with saying that progressives–and, by extension, I suppose, hard leftists–“have nothing to say about…dignity and nobility”, as O’Neil claims, I just want to scream. And when she goes on, in the same sentence, to denounce progressives because they “have no heroes”, I can no longer just sit back and take it. What ever happened to the left that prided itself on witticisms like (I think this is Brecht) “When they start talking about heroes, it’s time to emigrate”? Have we all gone completely soft?

It’s not that materialists have nothing to say about human dignity and nobility. It’s just that, rather than referencing hopelessly vague, and almost-always seriously compromised normative notions, the most admirable leftists have chosen, first and foremost, to let the facts speak for themselves. It is the inevitable contradictions that follow from capitalist social relations that lead, amongst other things, to the decreasing scope of agency that makes personal morality less and less relevant in society. That being the case, it’s easy to look round and see how both the economic system, as well as the filthy, sodden superstructural plaster used partially to staunch–and partly to hide–the wounds opened up by the former, fall absurdly short of the promises they deliver. This doesn’t mean leftists and progressives don’t employ moral standards any less than anyone else; it’s just that they realize that an undue reliance on them is unnecessary at best, and hypocritical–hence potentially an obstruction to the sustenance or creation of bonds of true and effective solidarity–at worst.

Unfortunately, the fostering of this sort of sense of morality as critique is being increasingly relinquished by progressives. That’s why it’s all the more important to object whenever people like O’Neill start singing their obfuscatory siren-songs.

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