Last week I talked about different political positions in modernity simply being a reflection of positions along the spectrum from dull and unthinking to active and thinking, so we have:
dull and unthinking modernistic thinking
slightly less dull and unthinking modernistic thinking
active and thinking modernistic thinking
[If you were to ask me where my own thinking was I would say that I am trying to think praeter-modernistically, and that few people think this way at present. However, if more people did then a new ideology would begin to form and people would all be clumped at the conservative end, holding tight to the new tenets of belief the system seemed to offer. Only with time would people begin to expand theorising and think more flexibly about the new system. And so, if anyone should ever read this in the future, in the world of praeter-modernity, this is how I excuse my dull and clunky thought in the new mode].
As can be seen from the table above Liberalism is, as it were, squeezed between conservatism and social democracy and so really, to my way of thinking, hardly exists any more. It heyday was in the C19 when politicians and thinkers descended from the C18 Radicals formed a movement that united the middle-classes and the more prosperous workers against the vested interests of the land-owing aristocracy (this is in Britain and Europe in various different versions, in the US politics has always been less about actual political interests and more about demagogy and populism).
Liberals believed in Free Trade, in freeing people from restrictions and allowing people to fulfil their potential unhindered by regulation or out-moded social forms. A representative figure was William Gladstone (1809–1898), four times Prime Minister of Britain, who fought vigorously for various causes that we can still sympathise with: trying to sort out the legacy of Britain’s unconscionable rule in Ireland, expanding the franchise, introducing the secret ballot, lessening discrimination against people who were not Anglicans, an ethical foreign policy, and opposition to the unprincipled populist imperialism practised by the Conservative Party of the day.
But in the C20 the Liberal Party in Britain was squeezed between the Conservative Party and the new Labour Party, which was more active in seeking to improve the conditions of workers. The Liberal Party declined into a third party and what will probably be the death of this once noble entity was foreshadowed in 2010, when the Liberals entered into a coalition with their former enemies the Conservatives.
The reason for this decline is that once Gladstonian type reforms are achieved, then nothing really distinguishes liberals and conservatives; conservatives want nothing to change, and Liberals, despite a theoretical commitment to equality, are reluctant to make big sweeping changes to social institutions in order to try to bring about a real ‘level playing field’, which is the expressed wish of social democrats. Really Gladstonian Liberalism had its moment in history as European societies were moving out of an era of domination by aristocratic and land-owning wealth, but could later achieve nothing in the face of their new masters: industrial and banking interests.
As these blogs have pointed out before ‘social mobility’ is an illusion consisting of two separate processes:
- really talented people rising from the working classes to a higher social status as they always have (most people stay where they were born in the social hierarchy);
- economic growth making everyone better off.
Once Liberalism had achieved its goal of deregulation in order to promote point 2, then no Liberal was going to countenance the radical policies that would result in ‘social flattening’ (which is what we need, rather social mobility). But then, to be fair in practice most social democrats wouldn’t countenance these policies either.
There has been one final, ignoble, incarnation of Liberalism, namely ‘Neo-Liberalism’, the unwholesome fetishisation of free-markets and deregulation, often in alliance with conservatism, or as practised by nominally conservative parties (a good ideological example of this would be the Thatcher Conservative government in Britain 1979-1991 (and later under another PM)). The problem with this is that markets are only efficient in their own terms, obviously they not truly efficient, because the end result of shipping garlic from Mexico to Australia and other enormities is a world moving even faster into the ecological end-game. Lord Stern, in his report to the UK Parliament on anthropogenic global warming described AGW as the ‘greatest market-failure in history’. Actually he was wrong, the greatest market failure is human depredations on the environment around and above the sustainability limit, of which AGW is merely a part.
In Australia the full drama of Liberalism was never played out because other issues (Federation, Protectionism/Free-Trade, Empire loyalty &c) obscured it and because the Labor Party emerged to divide the political landscape with various conservative elements. The fact that the official conservative party in Australian politics is called the Liberal Party is in fact simply a relic of the dishonesty of Robert Menzies, who, when he founded the Party in the 1940s, didn’t want to call it ‘nationalist’ or ‘conservative’, but wanted an anodyne name under which to gather votes from non-Labor-inclined voters in towns (in the bush the Country Party was the conservative force). There was in fact very little that that has been liberal about the Liberal Party of Australia in its sad history.
In Australia at present there isn’t really a home for classic liberalism, as arguably both the Liberal Party and the Labor Party are parties consisting of an alliance of conservatives and neo-liberals (the Labor Party may have a few lonely social democrats). This is paralleled in other anglo-saxon countries, for example in Britain the Conservatives and ‘New Labour’, in Canada the Conservatives and the Liberals, and in the US the Republicans and the Democrats are two-party dictatorships of this sort. Indeed it is questionable whether respectable liberalism (the sort of liberalism you could introduce to your mother without frightening her) exists at all now. Liberalism had its moment, it performed certain tasks for capital, and then was discarded.
Next Week: Anatomy of Social Democracy