Herewith my effort to get a conversation going. As you will see, instead of plunging into hot button issues, I have tried to say something about the history of our modern ideological positions, and also about their underlying presuppositions.; What I say here won't look much like contemporary arguments about progressive or liberal or radical stances versus conservative or reactionary ones, but I am hopeful that by starting this way, I can encourage you to look more deeply at the underlying assumptions of your own convictions. I hope as well to be able to accomplish that for myself. At this point, I welcome both short comments and extended comments, which, if it seems appropriate, can be presented as guest posts. Let's see what develops.
Although the ideological positions with which we are all familiar have filiations with philosophical, political, and religious doctrines going back several millennia, in their contemporary forms, they all arose as reactions to the explosive development of capitalism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. No matter how detailed our scholarly knowledge of that period may be, it remains difficult for us today to recapture the feeling so common in the first part of the nineteenth century of a world that was, as the French say, bouleversé. Marx was quite right in describing capitalism as the most revolutionary force ever set loose in the world. Settled expectations, understandings, and practices were discarded and replaced with a brutality and rapidity that was unnerving. Nothing, not even the dramatic events of the French Revolution, altered the social landscape so thoroughly as did the expansion of capitalist modes of production and distribution. This is not at all to suggest that the previous centuries had been placid or static. Quite to the contrary. But capitalism reached into the market, the home, the church, altering collective understandings so rapidly that the expectations laid down in a person's childhood were drastically altered by the time that person reached adulthood.
Everyone -- economists, poets, novelists, politicians, workers, farmers -- was keenly aware of the changes taking place, and anyone who had any pretensions as a commentator on the passing scene had an attitude toward what was happening. Speaking broadly, there were four different responses to the upheavals, out of which emerged our modern ideological strains of thought.
The first response was to welcome the changes as a new world, in which old religious and aristocratic superstitions and irrationalities were being swept away by the clean, fresh air of reason, calculation, and individual liberty. The market was seen by these folks as a sphere of rational self-interest free of hereditary or customary constraints, all of which were viewed as forms of irrationality. The new capitalist order was thus the fulfillment of the promise of the Enlightenment, with its rejection of all traditions as forms of superstition. The Liberals, as the proponents of this reaction to capitalism came to be called, were well aware of the evils attendant upon the expansion of capitalism -- the urban slums, the social disruptions, the periodic crises of over-production and under-consumption -- but these were considered temporary by-products of a trend that was unstoppably positive. They were lingering irrationalities that would either be eliminated by the workings of market forces or could succumb to rational planning and adjustment.
Regardless of the personal attachment of this or that Liberal theorist to religious belief, the Liberal orientation itself to the world was clearly understood to be thoroughgoingly secular. Reason and self interest, not mystery and tradition and revelation, were the appropriate guides for individuals and for states. The Liberal response to capitalism found expression both in the theories of economists -- Smith, Ricardo, Mill, Jevons, Menger, Walras, and the rest -- and in the writings of philosophers and social commentators -- the Mills, father and son, and others. Although the term "liberal," like virtually every other term in this discourse, has been fatally confused and compromised, I propose at least in this initial setting of the scene to use it in this, its original acceptation.
There are several foundational assumptions that underlie the Liberal orientation or ideology and provide it with the premises of its arguments. First is the assumption that the natural state or condition of human beings is rational self-interest. Men and women are assumed to be capable of identifying their desires, their interests, and their purposes, and of making rational calculations of the ways in which best to satisfy those desires or interests, to pursue those purposes. Unless our minds are clouded by superstition, which is to say religion, or constrained by irrational traditions, or enfeebled by ignorance, we can be relied upon to choose wisely in deploying our resources to satisfy our desires and pursue our purposes.
The second underlying assumption is that laisser-faire capitalism is the rational way to organize an economy and society. Previous forms of economic organization -- feudalism, slavery, guild production -- are simply failures to achieve rationality. Hence, the end of historical development [although they did not put it this way] was assumed to be the complete displacement of all other forms of socio-economic organization by capitalism. A social problem could only be understood by the Liberal mentality as a consequence of incomplete or inadequate instantiation of laisser-faire capitalism, and the solution to any problem was therefore the further extension of capitalism into spheres of activity not yet rationalized.
Not everyone was as optimistic about the new socio-economic order coming into being. Many serious commentators took a look at the wreckage of traditional society and saw only disaster. The long-established hierarchies of society were under attack. "New men" were becoming rich and powerful in a generation, without any of the traditional respect for those of good birth and proper upbringing. The transformation of the urban landscape was merely the physical reflection of a much deeper assault on the authority of the landed gentry. In France, a violent revolution had destroyed the most glorious monarchy in all Europe. In England, the transformations were less terminal, but no less irrevocable for all that. The Liberals might survey the social scene and see the bustle and ordered disarray of a construction site. But others saw only the chaos of an earthquake.
The commentators who took a less optimistic view of the radical changes around them sought desperately to conserve as much as they could of the old, familiar way of life. Some, especially in the earliest days, actually thought it was not too late to call the entire business to a halt and return to earlier and better forms of society and economy, but that hope soon faded, and so these proponents of conservation, or Conservatives, were prepared instead to settle for a slowing of the pace and a rejection of the more elaborate schemes for social transformation being put forward by the Liberals.
Along with their horror at the wreckage of society as they knew it, the Conservatives advanced a fundamentally different conception of the role of reason in human action. They had great respect for institutions that had survived over centuries, however little they conformed to a Rationalist's theoretical plan. The British Parliament, the Roman Catholic [or Anglican Catholic] Church, the relations of lord to servant, the traditions of marriage, property, the Army -- these had stood the test of time, and embodied in them was the immemorial wisdom of generations of men and women who, through their enactments and reenactments of familiar patterns of behavior, tested ways of being and doing and arrived at arrangements that worked.
Far and away the best statement I know of this Conservative perspective is to be found in the writings of the British 20th century philosopher Michael Oakeshott. If you have never looked at his collection of essays, Rationalism in Politics, I strongly recommend it to you. Read the title essay and an essay called "Rational Conduct." I do not want to try to summarize Oakeshott's argument here -- it would take me too long. The core of it is this: Oakeshott attacks Liberalism at its foundation. The Liberal's conception of rational action, he says, is not misguided, or politically unworkable, or prone to lead to bad consequences. Its fault is much deeper than that. Liberalism tells us to act in a way that is literally impossible, because it fundamentally misconstrues the nature of reason, of deliberation, of choice, and of action. From the many delicious passages in those two essays, let me quote just one, to convey something of Oakeshott's style:
"The mind of the Rationalist ... impresses us as, at best, a finely-tempered, neutral instrument, as a well-trained rather than as an educated mind. Intellectually, his ambition is not so much to share the experience of the race as to be demonstrably a self-made man. And this gives to his intellectual and practical activities an almost preternatural deliberateness and self-consciousness, depriving them of any element of passivity, removing from them all sense of rhythm and continuity... His mind has no atmosphere, no changes of season and temperature....With an almost poetic fancy, he strives to live each day as if it were his first, and he believes that to form a habit is to fail." [Rationalism in Politics, pp. 2-3, published in 1962.]
A third response to the upheavals and transformations wrought by capitalism was to embrace the assault on superstition and tradition, but to reject the claims of the unfettered free market. A number of French and English critics of early capitalism tried, both in their writings and in experimental small communities, to devise more humane, less destructive, more rational ways of arranging social and economic affairs. Proudhon, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen conjured plans of rational communities in which neither the depredations of industrial labor nor the irrationalities of market failures would inflict unnecessary misery on ordinary working men and women. These thinkers shared with the Liberals a rejection of superstition and a celebration of reason, but they recognized the inadequacies of an uncontrolled laisser-faire capitalism, and sought to replace it with central planning. Marx and Engels called them Utopian Socialists, and ridiculed their schemes as unconnected with a grasp of the real nature of capitalism.
And then there was Marx, whose response to the phenomenon of capitalism was complex and nuanced. Although Marx was, au fond, committed to the rationalist of the human experience, he came to believe that capitalism was deeply mystified, with the result that the surface appearance of rationality in the market concealed very deep irrationalities, both institutional and individual. He argued with great power and insight that capitalism itself is internally irrational, and hence cannot be the economic foundation for a truly human society. Against the superficial individualism of Liberalism, the mysticism of Conservatism, and the feckless unfounded optimism of Utopian Socialism Marx set his call for the supercession of capitalism by a fundamentally different economic and social order, Socialism. But this project, he was convinced, could only be accomplished when capitalism had developed sufficiently to make such a supercession technically possible and when the working class had organized itself sufficiently to seize control of the means of production.
I have written a great deal about what I think was right and wrong in Marx's analysis and prescription. Those who are interested can read two books: UNDERSTANDING MARX and MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, and a paper, "The Future of Socialism," which can be found on line by Googling. I call myself a Marxist because I remain persuaded, despite the inadequacies of some of Marx's arguments and the failure of some of his forecasts, that his understanding of economy and society is deeper than that of anyone else I know, and because I share his commitment to collective action by the disadvantaged classes of society.
Well, that ought to be enough to get something going. If not, I will go back to commenting on the passing scene.