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Sunday, March 27, 2016


It is a slow day, rainy down here in bigotland, so I thought I would try to respond to Chris's question about liberalism.  Let  me begin by reminding everyone that forty-eight years ago I published a little book called The Poverty of Liberalism.  This has been on my mind for a while.

Liberalism as a political doctrine started life as a rationale for capitalism, and it has never wavered in its pursuit of that project.  In the early nineteenth century there were three responses to the dramatic, revolutionary, transformative impact on Europe of the newly burgeoning capitalism.  The Conservatives decried capitalism's ruthless destruction of traditional social, economic, political, and religious arrangements, pining for the good old days, inventing the myth of Merrie Olde England, or simply viewing with despair and alarm the death of all that they considered good in the social world.  The Liberals celebrated the new order, which they considered the apotheosis of rationality and the ultimate demystification of social reality.  They were well aware of the evils attendant upon the development of capitalism -- the slums, the poverty, the frequent economic booms and busts -- but they considered them the growing pains of the new order and were confident that the perfection of free markets would in short order overcome those imperfections.  The socialists, like the liberals, considered capitalism a massive advance over the previous feudal order, but were convinced that its evils were structural, not ephemeral, and could only be overcome by replacing capitalism with a truly rational social order, socialism.

For a while laisser-faire capitalism flourished, but the Great Depression created an intellectual as well as an economic and political crisis, in response to which the ideological justification for capitalism split.  One wing, which arrogated to itself the term "Liberal," embraced Keynesian teachings, and concluded that to keep the engine of exploitation going it would be necessary both to accept some measure of state interference with the actions of the capitalists and to make accommodations with the demands of the workers, in the form of unions, social services, and some amelioration of the condition of the working class.    The other wing, which took over the title of "conservative," resisted the accommodation with the workers and the intrusion of the state into the affairs of corporations.  Meanwhile traditional Conservatism, which was of course hostile to the spirit of capitalism, took up residence in the Catholic Church, which had never got over its disdain for capitalism as a Johnny-come-lately, or else, rather like Saruman and Grima Wormtongue, retreated to the Op Ed pages of the New York TIMES, where it now finds expression in the maunderings of Ross Douthat.  [Ayn Rand, by the way, is to Liberalism roughly what Smerdyakov is to Ivan -- a bastard who takes seriously every nonsensical utterance that her legitimate sibling utters with a certain ironic detachment.]

Since the end of World War Two, which is roughly when I began to notice the larger world, American politics has been a struggle between the two descendants of traditional Liberalism, made a great deal more complex by America's assumption in the late 1940's of the world-historical role of Imperial Hegemon, replacing the British, French, and German empires and competing, ultimately successfully, against the Russian empire.  Every president for the past 80 years [and more, but never mind] has been completely committed to the defense of capitalism in one or another of these fashions.

When I decided, on April 21, 1961, that I was "not a Liberal," I had little or no understanding of what I have here written.  I knew only that Jack Kennedy was a Liberal [he had graduated from Harvard and his wife spoke French, for heaven's sake], and that therefore, whatever he was, I was not.

Bernie Sanders describes himself as a Democratic Socialist, even though the fateful words, "collective ownership of the means of production" never pass his lips.  Sufficient unto the day.  First, it was Occupy Wall Street and "the one percent."  Now it is Democratic Socialism and "the billionaire class."  Major social change is like a landslide, not like brain surgery.  Bernie is a boulder rushing down the correct side of the mountain.  I am content to be a pebble slipping and tumbling in his wake.


s. wallerstein said...

Exactly why is the term "liberal" used in the U.S. to designate someone on the center-left, say, Paul Krugman, when everywhere else in the world it designates someone on the center or the right who favors unregulated markets and unregulated sex lives, say, the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa?

That difference creates a lot of confusion when people outside the U.S. read that Bernie Sanders is the "most liberal" candidate.

D. Ghirlandaio said...

Preface to The Federalist: Republicanism vs Liberalism
--Beginning in the 1950s and blossoming since 1961, a major scholarly controversy has sucked The Federalist into its gravitational field: What was its role in the great shift from republicanism to liberalism in American political thought? These complex bodies of ideas and practices have almost no direct links to today’s Republican party or modern American liberalism; moreover, these terms have become so vague that many historians have abandoned both words as useless.

Desiring to preserve liberty and to achieve the common good, Americans established republican forms of government—in which the people held ultimate political power, entrusting it to representatives responsible to them. Every previous republic, however, had collapsed into anarchy or tyranny. The precondition for a successful republic, therefore, was to maintain the people's virtue —their willingness to sacrifice special interests in the service of the public interest.

By contrast, those who espoused liberalism favored each person's right to pursue his or her talents and abilities to the fullest extent possible. The strongest case for a republic, they argued, was precisely that it would enable each citizen to develop those talents; a republic should take the greatest possible pains not to restrain that process but to
guide it so that individuals‘ pursuit of their own interests would foster the public interest.

Scholars who identify a great transition from republicanism to liberalism marked by the making of the Constitution and those who insist that the Constitution maintained the American commitment to republicanism find ammunition in The Federalist. That they can read it for such clashing purposes. however. undermines this argument's usefulness for understanding The Federalist or the historical context that produced it. Today, historians and legal scholars such as Jack N. Rakove, Bruce Ackerman, William E. Nelson, and the present writer are moving beyond this debate's stale polarities. Instead. they suggest, American constitutionalism embodies an ever-shifting balance between these two bodies of thought; there was thus no dramatic sea-change from one to the other.---

TheDudeDiogenes said...

s.wallertstein: Amerikka is the only country that matters, so the rest of the world should adapt to our usage, duh!

Professor Wolff: This sentence struck me profoundly: "The socialists...were convinced that its evils were structural, not ephemeral, and could only be overcome by replacing capitalism with a truly rational social order, socialism." Do you think that socialism is (should I say "will be"?) a "truly rational social order"? Perhaps I'm too postmodern, but it seems to me wishful thinking to think there even is such a thing as "truly rational" (much less a "truly rational social order"!) Given what we know about humans as evolved organisms, and what we've seen of the unbelievable atrocities humans are capabale of only in recent history, I struggle to believe that a rational human society is a possible outcome. (Nonetheless, I retain a strong emotional attraction to socialism and the ideas of redistribution of wealth and democratic control of the means of production.)

The expat said...

@ S. Wallerstein. Capital letters can help.

I'm an American ex-pat who's been living in Australia for over 20 years.

When I'm in America, I'm a liberal who will never vote Republican. In Australia, I'm a republican who will never vote Liberal.

Only capitals and context keep me consistent.

Anders said...

"Bernie Sanders describes himself as a Democratic Socialist, even though the fateful words, "collective ownership of the means of production" never pass his lips."

Maybe not, but he's not against the concept:

"I think if we have a vision as to what democracy is about, it's got to mean the right of a working person to control his or her job. To have some say about what's being produced. To sit down with the other workers and say: "This is what I think we should do." And that's the way people grow, and they learn, and they don't become atomized. And they don't become alienated dummies who are there solely to make a check at the end of the week."

And from 2007:

"Let us give working people in this country the opportunity to own the places in which they are working."

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