Reflections on Republocrat: Oppression and the Left

Image of Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative
by Carl R. Trueman
P & R Publishing 2010
Paperback 128

These reflections concern Carl Trueman’s Republocrat, Chapter 1. (For notes on the foreword and introduction, see A Serialized Review). Two questions were on my mind as I approached Chapter 1: (a) Is Trueman really a political liberal? (b) Does he accurately understand the conservatism he left behind?

Two themes comprise Chapter 1. Theme 1 is expressed in the chapter title, “Left Behind”: how those of “Old Left” (Trueman’s term) political views are now homeless because liberalism has been “hijacked by special interest groups” (p. 14). Theme 2 makes the first interesting: how Left thought about oppression developed from the 19th century to the present.

The chapter is divided into eight sections.

  • (Introductory paragraphs, p.1-2)
  • A Brief History of the Old Left (p. 2-5)
  • The Strange Love Affair of the Intelligentsia with Marxism (p. 5-6)
  • Success and Failure: the Road to Redefinition (p. 6-8)
  • Mr. Marx Meets Dr. Freud: the Changing Face of Oppression (p. 9-11)
  • How Authenticity Made the Left Inauthentic (p. 11-15)
  • Evangelicals and the New Left (p. 15-17)
  • Conclusion (p. 17-19)

The “New Left” train wreck

The final four sections of the chapter most closely match my own views. Trueman aptly skewers present-day political liberalism (his “New Left”). His central complaint is that the present-day Left is at the mercy of the weather of public sentiment and pressure groups because it has no proper conception of oppression.

“Mr. Marx Meets Dr. Freud” traces the Left’s shift in thinking regarding oppression. In Trueman’s analysis, the Frankfurt School eventually underwent a fusion of Marxist and Freudian ideas (ick squared, I say!).

Simply put, oppression ceases to be something that can be assessed empirically in terms of external economic conditions and relations, and becomes something rather more difficult to see, i.e., a matter of the psychology of social relations. (p. 9)

“How Authenticity Made the Left Inauthentic” argues that the idea of oppression drifted further in the decades after Marx-Freud due to an emphasis on “authenticity.” He observes, “Cynically, one might say that oppression becomes whatever the Left intellectuals say it is or whatever the lobby groups decide to campaign against” (p. 12).

The result of this shift was that the Left ended up embracing causes “that once would have been antithetical to its philosophy” (p. 9), such as the gay rights agenda which “working-class” people have most vigorously opposed historically. Similarly, Trueman complains that “while the Left in origin was supposed to provide a voice to the voiceless,” its current love affair with “women’s rights” has silenced the most voiceless of all—our unborn—on a massive scale.

He characterizes these changes as “a betrayal of the Old Left” (p. 13).

A statement regarding Rick Warren’s opposition to gay marriage is too well put to omit.

[S]o a man who has helped to feed the hungry and clothe the naked is still regarded as a callous, right-wing head case by a grooup of middle-class commentators and activitsts, simply because he is opposed to allowing middle-class homosexuals and lesbians to achieve middle-class respectability. It is a strange world where well-fed television hosts, dressed in Armani suits, Vera Wang dresses, and Jimmy Choo shoes, trash a man with an exemplary record on poverty, simply because he cannot support a middle-class lobby group. (p. 14-15)

In the section on “Evangelicals and the New Left,” Trueman exposes the “Aren’t I naughty?” smugness of many evangelicals who are ostentatiously supportive of Democrats. But most of his ire is aimed at the “Aren’t I morally superior?” breed of evangelical lefties. His comments on the evangelical left’s outcry over Wheaton College’s hiring of Philip Ryken as president (how dare they hire a whilte male?) reveal his talent for high-potency criticism.

Most of the cries, of course, came as usual from—ahem—middle-class white intellectuals, with quite a few male representatives among them; but not one of those intellectuals was, as far as I know, resigning his own job in order to make way for a minority candidate and to help with the ending of oppression. Thus the self-righteous outrage was as self-contradictory as it was predictable—a typical display of New Left concerns that cost the whiners nothing and were therefore worth nothing. They meweled and they puked, but they did not hold themselves to the same standard to which they wished to hold the Wheaton board and Dr. Ryken. (p.16)

The Old Left view of oppression

As much as Trueman’s late-chapter observations resonate with me, even these reveal the central problem with his analysis—a problem that is more apparent in the first half of the chapter. Though Trueman rightly complains that the Left of today has an incorrect conception of oppression and justice (to the degree has a conception at all), he fails to recognize that the Left was confused about oppression to begin with. The sharp discontinuity he sees between Old Left and New is illusory because today’s Left is really a pretty natural progression from the Old.

The first four sections of the chapter chronicle the rise of the “Old Left” in Brittain during the Industrial Revolution. Laws empowered labor unions and expanded the franchise in an effort to relieve what the Left saw as the oppression of poor workers. These sections summarize the rise of Marxism, the various inffective implementations of it, and the 20th century intellectuals’ fascination with it. In the process, Trueman reveals his own understanding of oppression.

Of the Old Left era (1800s-1960s) as a whole, he writes:

The analysis of the situation varied, as did the proposed solutions, but they all had one basic thing in common: they saw oppression as primarily an economic issue, something empirically observable. Some people possessed more than others, and some did not enjoy either the material goods or the working conditions to alow them to live with any quality of life. This was the problem the various movements on the Left wished to address. (p.5)

For Marx, oppression is inherent in unequal levels of prosperity and especially in unequal control of wealth and the means of production. Trueman accepts that analysis.

I noted above how the Left, for all its diversity on economic issues, originally exhibited a consensus on what constituted the primary form of oppression: it was economic, and involved some people possessing control over things important to quality of life that others lacked. For example, John Doe had fresh running water but fenced off his spring so that Fred Bloggs and his family could not get access to it; Pete Smith insisted on selling his apples at a price that most poor people could not afford. (p.8)

(Here I have to resist the urge to explain why John, Fred, and Pete almost never behave this way in a secure, good-faith, free market. But I think subsequent chapters in the book will provide more opportunities.)

Trueman’s mistake

The paragraphs quoted above illustrate the flaw in Trueman’s analysis. He overlooks the fact that the view of oppression that characterized what he calls the Old Left arose out of ideas about equality birthed by an older left that was itself new and radical in the 18th century. (To me, the leftism articulated by 18th century thinkers like Rousseau, Godwin and Condorcet is the New Left, and “Old Left” might describe, say, Montesquieu or Hobbes.)

But nomenclature aside, it’s clear that the revolutionary thinkers of the 18th century defined oppression and justice in terms of equality of outcomes—equality of control (a.k.a. power) and property. Trueman’s “Old Left” leaders began with this view and advanced it. The post-1960 “New Left” leaders mostly took it further on the same trajectory. There is no logical place for the pursuit of equality-for-it’s-own-sake to end. Though the unequal-outcomes seen as “oppression” shifted from the material to the psychological and then to the pretty much arbitrary, the Left has been equal-outcome-focused from day one.

And that’s the mistake. In Scripture (and I’m pretty sure in Western thought generally prior to the 18th century), oppression is not a set of conditions but something people do to other people. It’s cheating in the marketplace, robbing, beating, enslaving. Scripture recognizes that poverty (unequal wealth at the low end) can be the result of natural disaster, disease, dislocation and personal laziness. Scripture never identifies the phenomenon of inequality itself (whether of wealth or of power) as unjust.

In any case, this chapter doesn’t explain why inequality of wealth and control should be seen as inherently oppressive or unjust. Perhaps Trueman will make a case for this later in the book. Until then, this view of oppression is likely to serve as an assumed premise in arguments against conservatism (as he understands it) in future chapters.

So then, (a) is Trueman really a political liberal? (b) Does he accurately understand the conservatism he supposedly left behind? On the second question, the jury’s still out. On the first, this much is clear: he does accept the Left’s basic approach to defining oppression and justice.

[node:bio/aaron-blumer body]

1894 reads

There are 6 Comments

JobK's picture

The problem is that democracy presupposes a great degree of egalitarianism. If there is a large amount of chronic poverty - or even a huge gap between the rich and poor that persists from generation to generation - in a society, there is no real benefit to being in a democracy or in a capitalist economy. The notion that being a citizen in a democracy has its own benefits is one that only an educated, well-off person is in a position to appreciate. But if you are poor and struggling to survive and that is your lot in life as it was for your ancestors and will be for your descendants because of a rigid economic and social order, it doesn't matter what system you are living under. If anything, being a member of the proletariat in a feudal system may be preferable to being impoverished in a capitalist-democratic system, because at least in a feudal system the aristocrats are supposed to look after their serfs (noblesse oblige) where in a capitalist democracy, and particularly in a capitalist democracy built on secularism, it is every man for himself (Ayn Rand et al).

Incidentally, if you look at our original Constitution and political/economic ordering of society, this was not denied, but embraced. In many respects, the privileges of democracy was reserved for landowning males. If you weren't a landowning male (or a member of his immediate family) then for all intents and purposes it didn't much matter whether you lived in "the land of the free" or in Britain, Russia or somewhere. (Please note: the waves of immigrants that came to our shores in the 19th and early 20th century were seeking better economic conditions, not political freedoms.) The progressive movement expanded political democracy from a few to pretty much everybody because of the (very legitimate) argument that reserving such things as voting rights and the ability to serve on juries to a few was a contradiction of enlightenment ideals. After that, it was a pretty small leap to come to the conclusion that political empowerment of the masses without economic empowerment was a similar contradiction.

There really is no basis for saying otherwise. Even if you are going to propose the argument that democracy and capitalism are based on the Bible (a proposition that many people will take issue with) our political and economic systems are, by design, secular. So, our ideas on how these things should work are going to be determined by our own thoughts: what is "fair" (egalitarianism and essentially liberalism) or "what works" (pragmatism and in some sense conservatism). That is using our Biblical beliefs to try to guide and shape a system that was purposefully designed to reject the Bible. Sort of like using your Ph.D. in chemistry to try to determine what sort of gasoline mixture would be best for an electric car that was designed not to be run on gasoline at all. So, as our system was created specifically to exclude and reject Biblical revelation concerning oppression and justice, attempting to make said revelation part of the debate accomplishes little, unless your debate position is that the system should be dismantled and replaced with a system whose design and purpose is to be conformed to the Bible. Otherwise, the task is how to go about living as Godly people in an ungodly system.

Solo Christo, Soli Deo Gloria, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura
http://healtheland.wordpress.com

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

JobK wrote:
The problem is that democracy presupposes a great degree of egalitarianism. If there is a large amount of chronic poverty - or even a huge gap between the rich and poor that persists from generation to generation - in a society, there is no real benefit to being in a democracy or in a capitalist economy.

There are a couple of problems with this view. First, nobody takes the view that there should be no equality. So "a great degree" of it is really not a point in dispute. The question is whether the absence of equality (in any degree) constitutes injustice and oppression. If it's understood to be only one result of oppression (but also a result of other things), then the pursuit of justice shifts back to its proper place: on the ethics of how people treat eachother. Government keeps its focus on, as the NT puts it, rewarding good and punishing evil. 

Second, the purpose of any form of government is the justice, well being, protection from enemies. The representative-democratic-republic model has the same aim. It's unfortunate that much of our political rhetoric has encouraged folks to think that the value of our approach to government lies in eliminating inequalities. That's only the case to the degree that inequalities result from actual injustice.

Quote:
If anything, being a member of the proletariat in a feudal system may be preferable to being impoverished in a capitalist-democratic system, because at least in a feudal system the aristocrats are supposed to look after their serfs (noblesse oblige) where in a capitalist democracy, and particularly in a capitalist democracy built on secularism, it is every man for himself (Ayn Rand et al).

There is no proletariat in feudalism. But being a serf in that system... well, it's easy to say it would be better when you're not there. But it's not all that relevant either way. Even in a feudal system, it is possible to be well governed and for justice to prevail though inequalities abound.

I'm not sure what the relevance of Ayn Rand is. She is not representative of conservatism, which is deeply theistic. Rand did promote free market economics but she bolted this onto a profoundly non-conservative philosophy.

Quote:
Incidentally, if you look at our original Constitution and political/economic ordering of society, this was not denied, but embraced. In many respects, the privileges of democracy was reserved for landowning males.

Yes there was considerable debate as to how far to extend the franchise. Personally, I think extending as far as we have has not served us well as a country. I'm all for women voting, but were it up to me, nobody under 30 would vote and you'd not only need a photo ID but a year of military service, and own property too. (Of course, I wouldn't be qualified to vote on two of those counts, but oh well).  Doesn't matter. The toothpaste is not going back in that tube. Conservatism is built on realism and the reality is that shrinking the franchise is quite impossible and probably not really all that helpful anyway.

Quote:
Even if you are going to propose the argument that democracy and capitalism are based on the Bible ... our political and economic systems are, by design, secular. So, our ideas on how these things should work are going to be determined by our own thoughts: what is "fair" (egalitarianism and essentially liberalism) or "what works" (pragmatism and in some sense conservatism).

It doesn't follow that if the Bible doesn't teach democracy and capitalism therefore we having nothing to evaluate by but arbitrary personal notions of fairness.

Quote:
...to guide and shape a system that was purposefully designed to reject the Bible.
It was not designed to reject the Bible. But I can agree with what seems to be your larger point this far: The founders did not make their case for our form of government using biblical arguments. They argued from natural law, history, etc., though they were definitely influenced by several biblical assumptions. We usually do well to use similar arguments since the system is indeed designed to be religion-independent (religion-independent is not the same as "religion-free," much less aiming to "reject the Bible").

Quote:
... unless your debate position is that the system should be dismantled and replaced with a system whose design and purpose is to be conformed to the Bible.

Certainly not anything I'm interested in doing. There is a King who will take care of that when the kingdoms of this world become His kingdom. Until then, we have this gracious blessing called government which God instituted to pursue justice and oppose oppression. So understanding what government ought to do is intertwined with how we understand justice and oppression.

dmyers's picture

JobK, you're also ignoring the great amount of economic mobility that exists in this country.  I'll let you find the statistics, but a significant percentage of people who are in "poverty" at the time of one census have lifted themselves to a healthier economic status a few years later.

Rob Fall's picture

I believe it is\was the real possibility of real upward mobility that fueled America.

dmyers wrote:

JobK, you're also ignoring the great amount of economic mobility that exists in this country.  I'll let you find the statistics, but a significant percentage of people who are in "poverty" at the time of one census have lifted themselves to a healthier economic status a few years later.

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Want to put in a plug here for a very helpful book for putting the Left vs. Right of today in context.

Image of A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles
by Thomas Sowell
Basic Books 2007
Paperback 352

We’re reading it for a government elective class. My students are not finding it quite as fascinating as I am … but to me it’s a real page turner.

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.