The age of rights

January 3, 1997

JOHN GRAY's less than supportive review of Norberto Bobbio's Left and Right: The significance of a political distinction (THES, November 15) makes errors of omission and emphasis.

Two-thirds of his review illustrate his perspective rather than explaining Bobbio's. Professor Gray omits the applicability of Bobbio's left-right dichotomy. For Bobbio, the 1996 elections marked the end of the anomaly of the persisting multiparty system in Italy's postwar history and "unblocked Italian democracy" (La Stampa, April 23 1996). There is also Bobbio's recent Kantian analysis of cosmopolitical democracy, and its applicability to a world brought closer by modern telecommunications and the increasing demand of human rights. Professor Gray also omits situating Bobbio's left/right discussion sufficiently within the intellectual and cultural tradition that Bobbio inherits, and his contribution to its reshaping.

Professor Gray claims that it is a "simple, lucid, but finally profoundly misleading book" (in part because of Enlightenment thought and that Bobbio's emphasis on equality fails to incorporate market impacts), and is an "at times almost Manichean account", "a backward-looking analysis" because "Enlightenment is in retreat" and "with slight leverage on large areas of the late modern world". Presumably Professor Gray so claims because Bobbio to this day remains wedded to Enlightenment ideas and their relevance to current political, social, cultural and economic contexts. But Bobbio also notes that since 1989 there is not only one path to be traversed, as another has similarly been opened for nationalisms of the right, principles of exclusion, and restrictions on national citizenship.

To capture the "leverage" Professor Gray seeks, he should read Bobbio's The Age of Rights where the empirical evidence refutes Gray's claim that "the Enlightenment is in retreat". His Ideological Profile of Twentieth-Century Italy helps to understand the political, cultural and intellectual antecedents to Bobbio's seemingly paradoxical discussion. From such reading, Professor Gray would be prompted to cut his final paragraph.

From Gray's review a reader is reasonably entitled to expect a comprehensive, well researched and balanced analysis of Bobbio's left and right political distinction.

Readers deserve better. Bobbio's normativism addresses inequalities arising from the market, and the impact of new technologies on the world order. He continues to apply Enlightenment ideas to a post-1989 changing world. For Bobbio, the left has an absorbing challenge ahead in redefining its task as it endeavours to avoid the errors of the past. Above all, as a "mediating intellectual", Bobbio is concerned about social justice, which at times can have different results in practice, and "making the unequal more equal". Is that not, to paraphrase Professor Gray, "engaging in the paradoxical alignments in late modem political programmes?" TERESA CHATAWAY Department of government, University of Queensland, Australia

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