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Visions of the good society

Stuart White on left-wing political philosophy.

The first part of a fascinating interview with the Oxford political theorist, Next Left blogger and occasional contributor to the NS Stuart White has been posted on the New Left Project site by Edward Lewis.

The conversation between White and Lewis ranges quite widely, but one thing in particular caught my eye: something White says when he's listing what he takes to be the fundamental problems of political philosophy. He identifies these, uncontroversially, as the problems of authority, social justice and the good life. Lewis had asked him what a "leftist political philosophy" would look like.

On the third of these key questions -- the nature of the good life -- White says that there isn't an obviously, unambiguously "leftist answer". Rather, he says, there's a division on the left between those who take the Rawlsian view (that because reasonable people have different visions of what is good, "the point of a good polity is not to promote a particular vision of the good life, it's to ensure that goods are distributed fairly so that we can then go out and pursue our respective visions of the good life on a fair basis") and those who believe, on the contrary, that "politics should answer the question of what the good life is".

I think he's right about this. Indeed, it's a division White has addressed before, in his essay on "The new progressives", written for the NS back in September, when he tried to unpack some of the disagreements between "left republicans" and "left communitarians" over how the left should think about the "common good":

For at least some left republicans, it is important that the common good should be understood fundamentally in terms of specifically civic and secular ideals, such as liberty and equality -- a point of agreement with the centre republicans. Barack Obama's inauguration speech is seen as a model in this respect. Right communitarians tend to see secularism as part of the problem to be overcome. Left communitarians are ambiguous in this area. They sometimes incline to a political language of the "good life", a language that has some illiberal connotations.

Among these "left communitarians", White numbered Jon Cruddas, whose article in last week's NS, "Time for a truly English Labour Party", is, in part, a paean to a "conservative" common culture, and who insists, pace White and Rawls, that a renewed left-of-centre politics should contain an answer to the question of "what it means to be human".