At the beginning of this post I have to make it clear that I am talking about Liberalism in the sense of the political movement that emerged in the C19 dedicated to ensuring the political and personal freedom of individuals as the basis of its philosophy, not the American usage of anyone who believes in any form of political progressivism.
Liberalism aspires to noble ideals, as the Liberal Party of Australia’s website puts it: ‘[We believe] in the inalienable rights and freedoms of all peoples...’. However I believe that in reality Liberalism is selfishness erected on a philosophical pedestal. In practice Liberalism, like conservatism, simply protects the vested interests of society. The enquiring individual would be right to ask how the Liberal Party of Australia squares its beliefs in ‘the inalienable rights and freedoms of all peoples’, with, for example, the treatment of asylum seekers in (or external to) Australia during the Howard years.
Liberalism emerged in the C19 in Britain and other democracies as an alternative to the mainly conservative politics of earlier ages. In its early days there was plenty for it to do because European societies had not kept pace with the societal change that the beginnings of modernity had caused. And so in Britain for example there were many reforms such as electoral reform (widening the franchise), removing discrimination, (allowing non-Conformists to attend Oxford and Cambridge Universities, allowing Jews and atheists to sit in the House of Commons &c &c), and so forth.
These reforms were all well and good and Liberalism had a grand career in the later C19 in Britain until the years before the First World War, the Liberal administration from 1906 onwards, when with the passage of legislation such as that establishing old age pensions, reforming the House of Lords, increasing Income Tax the government began to tread new ground. It was becoming a social democratic party, using political office to change the power relations in society to benefit wider sections of the population. (And in Britain after the First World War it died away and was replaced by the Labour Party as the opposition to the Conservative Party).
This really is the problem with Liberalism, all its talk of unleashing individual talents is misleading because vey talented people are never held back, not even under the most backward and reactionary regimes. However, to unleashed the potential of rest of the people structural changes in society are required (to undo institutions which are holding people back, to set up alternative institutions, to redistribute income more equitably &c &c). Once this happens this is social democracy, not liberalism, and if liberalism does not cross this line, then it is simply a disguised version of conservatism. It is said that when founding the Liberal Party of Australia in 1944 Robert Menzies deliberately chose the word ‘Liberal’ to avoid the word ‘conservative’ which might have alienated some voters at the time; I don’t think many voters these days are in any doubt as the nature of the party.
(People in Britain at present will be reminded of the eventual fate of the remnants of C19 Liberalism, the Liberal Democrats, who after 70 years out of power of pretending to be a progressive party, recently threw in its lot with the very illiberal Conservative Party).
In the later C20 the crisis of liberalism grew more sharply defined because of the emergence of ‘market liberalism’, the belief, despite all evidence, that markets can more efficiency and rationally guide society than any of the other mechanisms hitherto tried. This was simply throwing in the towel and blindly following what western political thought and institutions had been trying to regulate for 150 years, and it led to the aimless and destructive boom and bust crisis-ecology of free-market capitalism, whose greatest triumphs were the Crash of 87 and the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 onwards (to say nothing of the ongoing war on the environment).
This, incidentally, is the problem in Australian politics at present. The current Labor government is supposed to be a social democratic party, but it is so tainted with market liberalism that its efforts on a number of fronts are seen by its supporters as feeble and sometimes misguided, for example its response to global warming which seems to consist largely in compensating the large polluters so they can carry on polluting.
However, this market liberalism is still not enough the conservative press and establishment who don’t see why they need a Labor government, even if it does do more or less what they want. They, after all, have the real thing in the form of the Liberal Party as the government in waiting.
At this time I am reminded of Yeats’ lines: ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.’
Liberalism was born of a time of plenty and cannot deal with scarcity. At least conservatism has some kind of idea somewhere in its psyche of limits and sacrifices that have to be made (usually by the poor to benefit the rich), but liberalism celebrates the endless liberation that personal freedom delivers, regardless of whether the environment to support this individual freedom and the high consumption it entails is actually available.
So, the last point I want to make is that Liberalism is merely another version of conservatism. True conservatism desires nothing should change, ever, Liberalism believes that once we have climbed on the railway carriage of ‘progress’, we should never get off. In fact, as I noted last week the first position is foolish, because things are always changing and cannot be stopped from doing so. The second position is also foolish because it’s been clear that since the mid C20 ‘progress’ is causing increasing ecological impoverishment and devastation, and now, global warming. Getting off the train will be hard, but not getting off will be, to complete the metaphor, a train wreck.
Next Week: Growth