In Scruton’s assessment, the New Left does one better than yesterday’s attacks on the bourgeoisie: “The liberation advocated by left-wing movements today does not mean simply freedom from political oppression or the right to go about one’s business undisturbed. It means emancipation from the ‘structures’: from the institutions, customs and conventions that shaped the ‘bourgeois’ order, and which established a shared system of norms and values at the heart of Western society.” Which is, of course, profoundly at odds with Scruton’s traditionalist sensibilities. British conservatism, he tells us, “is a politics of custom, compromise and settled indecision”, which, like a friendship “has no overriding purpose, but changes from day to day, in accordance with the foreseeable logic of a conversation.” A sort of principled lack of principle, one might say, which for my money doesn’t make much sense, or at least isn’t so terribly credible: because to defer to tradition is to defer to its principles. And if anything, traditions seem to be brimming with principles, even if they must be teased out.
In fact, this latter point turns out to be central to Scruton’s critique of Dworkin’s radical legal activism. (To be fair, not all on Scruton’s list of enemies hide behind the obfuscation of Newspeak, Dworkin and Rorty being notable exceptions.) Contra Dworkin, law is not so much made as discovered. “…the existence of law is presupposed in the very project of living in society – or at least, in a society of strangers. Law is real, though tacit, long before it is written down, and it is for the judge to discover the law, by examining social conflicts and laying bare the shared assumptions that permit their resolution.” Stopping short of calling them universal, Scruton calls laws thus discovered ‘natural’. But whatever his affinity for the natural law tradition (he spares no kind words for the Scholastic tradition in his discussion of Badiou), that we ought to ferret out the laws implicit in our received modes of living is clearly a principle all its own.
But let us pause and take a closer look at the formidable can of worms that Scruton has only half opened. Clearly, tacit legal precedent cannot be the sole guide for pronouncing law. Any complex society inherits multiple streams of cultural practice that are not easily harmonized. And, besides, there is nothing about precedent that guarantees justice. How many past cultural practices, including laws, were responses to situations and exigencies that no longer hold? But on the other hand, it makes just as little sense to hand the burden of crafting entirely new laws over to the priestly caste of lawyers, or to what amounts to a largely self-selected group of like-minded individuals schooled in roughly the same way, and subject to seduction by popular in-group trends (that go beyond choice of suits and German automobiles). Regarded as such, the lawyer class constitutes nothing more than yet another square on the chessboard of possible Weltanschauungen, and needs to go a lot farther than it currently does in justifying its pronouncements. Because the Jedi mind-tricks we occasionally get from the likes of Justice Kennedy fail to satisfy.
Regardless. Scruton continues: in asserting ‘structures’ to be inherently unjust, the New Left effectually burdens any inherited pattern of life—Scruton lists custom, institution, law, hierarchy, tradition, distinction, rule and piety, and later “Parliament and the common law courts; spiritual callings associated with churches, chapels, synagogues and mosques; schools and professional bodies; private charities, clubs, and societies; Scouts, Guides and village tournaments; football teams, brass bands and orchestras; choirs, theatre-groups and philately groups”—with the onus of justifying its existence. Never mind that the twin goals of liberty and equality can never be reconciled (“how do we stop the ambitious, the energetic, the intelligent, the good-looking and the strong from getting ahead…?”) Paired with the elusive ideal of equality, “‘social justice’ becomes a barely concealed demand for the ‘clean sweep’ of history that revolutionaries have always attempted.”
(But wait, didn’t he just say that emancipation from ‘structures’ is a distinguishing mark of the New, as opposed to the Old, Left? Or is “eradicating structures” somehow different than “making a clean sweep of history”? Either way, the prospects for stamp collectors are looking dim!)
And what’s at the bottom of this radicalist urge? Driving the whole machine, Scruton tells us, both the Old Left and the New, is the “resentment of those who control things”. And this is interesting, because ever since my first serious foray into recent American history (Oxford History of the United States, Book 11: The United States from Watergate to Bush Vs. Gore) I have been in the habit of descrying resentment rather at the heart of the American right: the modern Republican party gets its start with the desertion of disgruntled Dixiecrats, religious conservatives shocked out of quiescence by Roe v. Wade, businessmen frustrated by regulation; and continues with exasperation at such things as the long arm of the PC police, judicial legislation surrounding Obamacare and Obergefell, loose enforcement of immigration laws…and for that matter, at the near total surrender of universities to leftist ideology, which is the entire motive behind Fools Frauds and Firebrands itself.
Resentment, then, is more universal than Scruton lets on. But what happens when we cancel resentment out of both sides of the equation? In the case of the right, as we have seen, Scruton champions the authentic diversity of the “little platoons” that constitute the stuff of actual life and actual people, and the frameworks necessary to mediate their actual goings-on with each other. In the case of the New Left, Scruton seems to identify another factor, aside from resentment, at work: “The generation of the 1960s was not disposed to ask the fundamental question how social justice and liberation could be reconciled. It wished only for the theories, however opaque and unintelligible, that would authorize its opposition to the existing order.” But maybe this is just another expression of a fundamental disdain for authority. Vanity, the pride of life, the first and greatest sin. And if this is really what Scruton sees beneath the “nonsense machine” of the left, then what we have in our hands is in fact another, albeit vastly more erudite, installment of Johnson’s Intellectuals. And for my money that’s something we could use more of.