When I was 17 I was practically a fanatic about the power of human reason, progress and liberty. Then I grew up and saw the world. If wisdom is recognizing how little you know (Socrates), and if a key to the good life is recognizing your own limitations (the stoics), Liberalism is quite a juvenile ethos.
I do not use ‘Liberalism’ in the shallow, narrow american sense, contrasted with conservatism and synonymous with ‘progressive.’ Rather, by liberal I mean the broader republican or parliamentarian movement that overthrew the ancien régime in primarily the Dutch, Glorious, American and French revolutions. It is originally the movement of nouveaux riches whose wealth came from overseas colonialism and slavery and who wanted to pursue capital accumulation and dispose of their property, particularly human chattel, without the intervention of a monarch. While using the language of universalism, Classical liberals in practice promoted liberty, equality and democracy only for their small exclusive, generally racist class of propertied men. These liberals commanded a slave economy, instigated New World genocide and effected Dickensian conditions in Europe.
Only maybe in very exceptional examples are politics driven by principles. As a rule, it is driven by powerful groups ruthlessly pursuing their interests. While there was a moral flavour to the abolition of slavery, industrialization necessitated the reserve army of labour created by the wage system, which keeps wages and production costs down. Abolition didn’t solve rights issues. Shortly after the industrial North defeated the South in the American civil war, Jim Crow came to pass, and Chinese and Indian coolies were imported to perform labour, particularly railway building, in conditions hardly better than plantation slavery. Colonial and neo-colonial exploitation continued, benefiting metropolitan elites who continued to wax lyrical about their liberal ideals.
Marx agreed that politics is driven by vested interest not morals or principles. Proudhon argued in The Philosophy of Poverty that a better society should be built by appealing to peoples’ morality. Marx viciously tore this work apart in The Poverty of Philosophy. He argued that the proletariat would be driven to liberate itself from exploitation simply out of rational self-interest. Proudhon’s Utopian Socialism assumes people should be moral, share and help one another. Marxist Socialism does not. Rather, its flaws are inherited directly from Liberalism- faith in human reason as driving behaviour, the nobility of revolution and the belief in inevitable progress. Almost all of Marx’s work was descriptive, describing how capitalism works. A bit was predictive, flawed in the ways just mentioned, and a few sentences were prescriptive, amounting to ‘the bourgeois should probably be crushed with terror and their order replaced with something democratic resembling the Paris Commune.’ Take it or leave it. There are in fact thousands of small local examples of fully functional socialism around the world in the form of cooperatives, the best example being the federated Mondragon Corporation, which was successful both under Franco and the following regime.
But I digress. Liberalism has always used the language of universalism while in practice defending the interests of the privileged. The labour/feminist movement has been the only driver of progress through broad organization and being willing to fight and sacrifice. Although confused between the humane democratic socialism of George Orwell or Rosa Luxemburg and the harsh rule of Marxism-Leninism, in the west, all compromises with power over expanding democracy, civil rights and social welfare were won through the fear of violent leftist overthrow on the Russian model. Ironically, without the spectre of Bolshevik terror, there is no universal suffrage or social welfare. The USSR crushed and co-opted most of the global labour movement, marginalizing real democratic socialists and used its global network of red patsies to further its geopolitical interests. Therefore, when the USSR collapsed, the confused and immasculated labour movement was easily crushed and swept away. Its ability to defend democracy, civil liberties and social welfare through organized struggle was gone, and the balance of power that created that which is disingenuously presented as the ideal-driven, shared-principle community of ‘progressive liberalism’ was gone. Sure, there are still good intentioned people out there, sometimes in important positions. But in the greater balance, the ruthless pursuit of vested interest by those with the most power and resources will prove definitive in shaping the world.
Besides a militant labour movement, I’d argue that those societies with the highest standards of living, best functioning institutions and most generous social welfare systems benefit from unprecedented wealth. They are the countries which benefited most from early modern colonial imperialism and exploitation of the New World. No other countries enjoy such a surplus of resources save the Gulf oil states. Western Europe’s complex topography of disjointed peninsulas and islands produced various small separate states in mutual existential competition necessitating innovation in administrative, maritime and military technologies. These allowed them to subdue and exploit most of the rest of the world and accumulate unprecedented wealth. As a rule politics is the balance of powerful groups pursuing their own perceived interests, and wealth is the foundation of power, it funds and predicates ideas, creeds and armies. A small state which commands resources garnered from whole continents finds it much easier for powerful factions to come to a consensus over the distribution of wealth- everyone can be satisfied with their share of the massive pie. This allows institutions to function well without conflict over wealth distribution in the form of corruption or extra-constitutional power plays like coups. In the early twentieth century, organized, militant labour formed one powerful group in the west. It fought and gained its share of the pie, social welfare and civil liberties. Besides, Europe would not have its envied standard of living without the massive post-war influx of New-World wealth that was Marshal Aid, which was accompanied by an american project to remake Europe in its image. Elsewhere in the world, particularly in states lacking resources, those drained of resources by the west, or those that see a need for massive state security expenditures, there is less wealth to distribute, consensus is harder to reach, inter-elite conflict and corruption more common. Institutions such as democratic elections and rule of law are far less likely to function under such conditions. With less funding for nuanced forms of social control, i.e. “bread and circuses,” baser, more indiscreet forms without the luxury of respect for rights and liberties are relied on. It is also a fantasy to believe that the west’s administrative techniques, developed under very specific historical and economic conditions can be exported to states experiencing completely different conditions and expected to function the same, especially without the west’s cushion of extreme wealth. As non-renewable resources are consumed at an ever increasing rate, there is no guarantee that this wealth upon which western social democracy is predicated will last, especially in an economy increasingly reliant on debt and money printing.
Meanwhile, while the liberal oligarchy formally retains the civil liberties that were so prominently heralded in liberal cold war and post-cold war PR- elections, free press, tolerance of diverse identities, etc, new techniques of control and exploitation are constantly perfected. These are primarily exemplified by debt-enslavement and institutionalized financial fraud, hidden behind a curtain of pop-culture escapism, fixation on the formal though anemic liberties above, and obfuscation of simple economics behind needlessly technical language and professional mystification.
As the size of the pie decreases it becomes more vital for anyone who wants their share of it or to have their rights respected to organize, fight and be ready to sacrifice. But the disadvantaged have now no coherent narrative to inspire them to do those things. The best they can do is post on social media, wave a sign or a puppet or occupy a park. Creating a new inspiring narrative is an incredibly difficult task. In my opinion, it would have to tear down some key axioms of liberalism usually unquestioningly inherited by the left, particularly those mentioned above as their shared flaws.
First it must question the myth of progress. Racism and Nationalist ethnic cleansing are both products of the modern liberal order, one arising from the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the other from the French Revolution. Cosmopolitanism is not a recent progressive invention, it was promoted by the ancient Greeks, stoics in particular. Herodotus described a tendency for ancient travelers to call the gods of other cultures by the names of their own. For example, when a Greek saw a statue of Isis he or she assumed it was Aphrodite. Conflict followed contours besides ethnicity. Many ancient and medieval civilizations were chauvinistic, but a ‘barbarian’ could generally acculturate and become just as accepted as Greek, Chinese-Confucian or Muslim as the local elite. Besides, the idea of progress assumes that technology will eventually solve our problems. Why was this not true for Babylon or the Aztecs? Historically and presently technology has been shown to cause as many problems as it solves, whether speaking of the ancient, extensive and ingenious irrigation systems which led to useless, saline farmland or the contemporary acidification and die-off of the worlds’ oceans. The myth of progress also tends to produce the argument that ‘primitive’ societies were barbaric and characterized by violence, rape and a generally social-darwinist lack of law. However, those ‘primitive’ societies which Europeans met on the Northwest coast of North America, for example, were probably better at following natural law and respecting one another than the technologically advanced Europeans were. Decisions were made democratically and redistributing one’s wealth through the potlatch system was considered a mark of honour.
Second, a new narrative must question the idea that humans are driven by reason. It’s a pretty idea that sprung out of the unrestrained exuberance at the early-modern bourgeois-liberal-driven flowering of science. In certain contexts people do follow their perceived rational self-interest. Perceived. But human psychology is murky at best. People often or perhaps usually don’t know what their true, subconscious motivations are. Childhood experiences, neuroses, the caprice of raw human nature all play a part. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs includes love, belonging, esteem and self-actualization. These can produce seemingly irrational behaviour, confounding prescripts of rational self-interest, especially when mixed with eccentricities, disorders and and neuroses. Being rational, having facts on your side (whatever that means, most people confuse lack of cognitive dissonance with their subjective worldview as pure reason) and preaching scientific objectivity while ignoring the vagaries of human nature and eccentricity does little to practically address the problems faced by humanity and the societies they create. In fact it can create absurd, Kafkaesque problems. Human nature is flexible but it has limits which reason can only pretend to overcome. We are both greedy and cooperative, the variation based partly on the economic conditions in which we find ourselves.
Another flawed notion that the left inherited from Liberalism was glorification of revolution. The American, French and Russian revolutions all led to war and massacre. One major reason for the American revolution, behind the pretty rhetoric, was the British Empire’s limit on American expansion West at the expense of the Native Americans, whom the British considered helping to establish their own state. Independence cleared the way for Amerindian genocide and avoided the rumoured approach of abolition in the British Empire. The Jacobin and Bolshevik terrors require no description. Revolution produces a power vacuum which, no matter the principles for which the revolution was ostensibly carried out, will almost inevitably be filled by the most ruthless. The question of revolution versus gradual change has been a central conflict within the western left and the this conflict remains unresolved. I argued in an earlier post that monarchy provides certain benefits relating to stability and provides what I see as a practical need for a reliable centre of loyalty. It’s not fair, but what in life is? It’s realistic and stable. A dynasty’s interests are inextricably tied to the interests of the country. There is corruption in any system; allowing an incontestable permanent arbiter of power to live in luxury is better than having a series of Dick Cheneys treat their term in office as a cash & carry opportunity. George Orwell also speculated on whether a democratic socialist society might require the retention of the monarchy. Controlling the sources of wealth- production and finance is more important than controlling political power. It may be wise to focus on the expansion, perfection and defense of the cooperative and credit union systems based on the Mondragon model at the expense of advanced-capitalist oligopolistic corporate structures. How exactly to do this is an open question. The main fear of pre-modern rulers was not the masses of peasantry but the bourgeoisie, the merchant/banker class. In medieval Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Chinese societies usury was usually banned and the bourgeoisie deeply mistrusted and kept on a tight leash. Meanwhile, the land was often conceived of as belonging to god or some equivalent, with the rulers its custodians rather than owners. Even in feudalism there were often democratic structures at the local level, like Russian mir or English peasant courts, as lords rarely wanted to waste time and resources administering the peasants.
Every group has dominant individuals which oversees the design (or adoption) and management of an ethos or ideology with which to bind the group and ensure loyalty. Human nature according to Jung has an inbuilt architecture of mythology or narrative; we require an ethos, an ideological framework through which to make sense of the world and find a sense of identity and belonging. The dynamic is the same whether speaking about religion, nationalism, Confucianism, Marxism-Leninism, Western Liberalism or whatever, all operate practically the same with a varying ratio of implicit and explicit ideological encoding. All are fluid, syncretic, not necessarily mutually exclusive and adapt to best re-enforce power and cohesion according to real world conditions and to the perceived collective psychological imperatives of the masses. An ethos which believes it falls outside this framework and is based rather on scientific fact, as liberalism self-exalts, is speeding headlong toward cognitive dissonance and disintegration. Ethos generally only work on those subjects for whom they are invisible. When cracks appear disintegration accelerates.
In pursuing an alternative inspirational goal, I’d advocate habits and rules found to be reliable and conducive to human nature over the longue durée. Rather than buying into the contemporary myth of progress or idolizing some arbitrary period in human history, I’d look for enduring principles which are proven to be conducive to human nature, justice and stable social organization. Cooperative resource management is a principle older than time itself. As is having a ‘chief’ or monarch in tandem with local democratic structures. As an ethos to tie society together, I’d seek something most conducive to harmony with and respect for nature, both external and human. Rather than some arbitrarily divisive socially constructed notion of identity, I’d look for something that treats humans at their most fundamental, flawed, feeling, thinking beings that fundamentally just want security and love. To this end I’d personally promote the organization of society on ancient stoic principles. It’s a simple and effective ethos that only fell because it was outlawed and oppressed by the incoherent and vindictive imperial Christianity of ‘St.’ Paul. It is also non-exclusive to pre-existing ethos in the myriad forms we find them in today’s world- religion, ethnicity, etc. It is conducive to the classic model of universal empire practiced by Rome, the Mongols, Manchus, Romanovs, Habsburgs and Ottomans, under which subjects are free to identify as they please as long as they remain loyal and pay their taxes.
There is nothing new under the sun. Sustainability and social justice are to be found in a fair examination of human nature- natural law expressed through principles and techniques practiced in ‘primitive,’ ancient and medieval times. Egomanaical self-righteousness over our superior progressivness, powers of reason and technological development will lead to ruin and pathalogical alienation from in-born natural law. We require humble reflection on what makes us human and what has been shown to be effective over millennia of social organization during which human nature has remained constant.