Wednesday, 30 January 2019

The Liberalism Nobody Knows


Liberal democracy (or liberal-democracy) appears as one of those natural pairings of the English language – a linguistic partnership that enhances, rather than does violence to, its constituents. It has become a modern truism that liberalism and democracy are inseparable bedfellows, soul mates even. Where liberalism is vanquished, democracy, at best, becomes a plebiscitary tool to vindicate the wishes of absolute rulers. Conversely, where liberalism is allowed to flourish, democracy – defined as free elections, an independent media and free speech – inevitably follows.

But this comfortable view, which permits its proponents to always feel they are siding with the angels, is a delusion. As Domenico Losurdo shows in Liberalism: A Counter-History, liberalism had quite separate roots from democracy and was fully prepared to countenance the seemingly illiberal tools of coups and dictatorship if it felt threatened from below. The much vaunted, and supposedly natural, coupling of liberalism and democracy was a slow, painful and fitful process, invariably achieved against the will of liberals and to which they have never been reconciled.

The rarely told history of liberalism

Losurdo traces the history of liberalism back to the Glorious Revolution in Britain in 1688. The subsequent Bill of Rights limited the power of the monarch and allowed a Parliamentary (though emphatically not democratic) system to emerge. From that point, liberalism was defined as opposition to concentration of power, in the form of the monarch and sometimes the Catholic Church. The other side of the coin was the liberty of people to be unrestrained by state power. But this liberty was never meant to be the birthright of everyone. Far from it, only “the community of the free”, in Lusurdo’s phrase, a small minority of male property-owners, were so blessed. The role of everyone else – the vast majority of people – was merely to be their servants.

Thus it was no accident that the liberal era was coeval with the slave trade, “the largest involuntary movement of human in all history”, and the establishment of a brutal system of racial chattel slavery in the United States – a British settler colony that achieved independence. In the metropolitan countries, the vast majority of non-property owners were not slaves but they were enchained as serfs or wage labourers. Freedom, to early liberalism, was the freedom of property owners to enjoy their property as they wished. In England, from 1688 (the Glorious Revolution) to 1820, the number of crimes carrying the death penalty increased from 50 to between 200 and 250 and these were almost always for crimes against property. In England at the start of 19th century you could be hung for taking an unauthorized clipping from an ornamental bush.

The newly independent United States of America was a bastion of liberalism. But as British loyalists pointed out, this love of liberty went hand in hand with the consecration of the ‘worst species of slavery’. The Britain derived from the Glorious Revolution, the rebel colonists shot back, presided over the horror of the slave trade and treated its white servants little better than slaves.

Both accusations were true and both exposed the underbelly of liberalism. The veneration of freedom for some people was dependent on the complete opposite – total subjection and domination – for many others. To work this required an intricate ideology of dehumanisation. The French liberal Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès regarded wage labourers as “bipedal machines”, while the British liberal-conservative Edmund Burke (a man considered to be the father of modern conservatism who incidentally subscribed to the most elaborate Jewish conspiracy theories) looked upon workers as mere instrumentum vocale.

And when these machines began to make demands, the sheen of opposition to ‘despotism’ miraculously fell away. John Locke, the most influential of the early liberals, regarded physical force as entirely justified in the event of a tax not authorised by those affected by it. Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, was intransigently opposed to attempts to legally reduce the 12 hour day, introduce progressive taxation or instigate rent controls and believed “nothing authorizes the state to interfere in industry”. He supported the idea of a temporary dictatorship to modernize France. In Britain, between 1790 and 1820, more than 60 Acts of Parliament were passed aimed at repressing working class activity. Liberals enthusiastically endorsed the discipline of the workhouse.

The story of the vote

This is not to deny the umbilical connection of liberalism to self-government and representative, elected institutions – ‘no taxation without representation’ as the American rebels famously proclaimed – but the section of the population to be represented was necessarily and intentionally tiny. Britain had Parliamentary institutions – powerful bodies that had succeeded in executing a King and, since the Glorious Revolution, formed part of a constitutional monarchy – but prior to the Great Reform Act only 3 per cent of the public were entitled to determine who their members were – about 200,000 out of a population of eight million.

In 1832, the franchise was extended to 13 per cent of adult males, but Chartism, a mass movement calling for universal manhood suffrage and annual elections, was bitterly resisted and above all by avowed liberals. “In England” Karl Polanyi reminds us, “it became the unwritten law of the Constitution that the working class must be denied the vote. The Chartist leaders were jailed; their adherents, numbered in millions, were derided by a legislature representing a bare fraction of the population, and the mere demand for the ballot was often treated as a criminal act by the authorities …. Inside and outside England, from Macaulay to Mises, from Spencer to Sumner, there was not a militant liberal who did not express his conviction that popular democracy was a danger to capitalism.”

Britain did not approach becoming such a democracy until after the First World War. On the eve of that conflagration, only 30 per cent of the adult population (no women and 60 per cent of men) could vote. Britain was thus less democratic than its illiberal adversary, Germany, which had manhood suffrage.

The community of the free in the US was more expansive – voting for all white men was in place by 1856 – but that was because of the existence of millions of black slaves and endless expanses of supposedly “unpossessed” land. Even so, the idea that wage labourers were, in reality, wage slaves – because of their material dependence on employers, their state was comparable to that of chattel slaves – was enormously strong in the 19th century.

And one of the strongest of the liberal “exclusion clauses” related to women. The vote wasn’t granted to women in the US until 1920. In Britain female votes were only achieved following a campaign of militant civil disobedience and hungry strikes and the massive turmoil of World War One. Women gained the vote partially in 1918 and, unconditionally, in 1928.

Far from being synonymous with democracy, liberalism, as Losurdo points out, regarded it with “coldness, hostility and sometimes frank contempt” – an attitude maintained for more than two centuries. Democracy and equal rights didn’t flow naturally from liberalism; they had to be prised from it:
… it must be borne in mind that the exclusion clauses were not overcome painlessly, but through violent upheavals of sometimes quite unprecedented violence. The abolition of slavery in the wake of the Civil War cost the United States more victims than both world wars combined. As for censitary discrimination [restrictions on the electoral franchise], a decisive contribution was made to its abolition by the French revolutionary cycle. Finally, in major countries like Russia, Germany and the United States the accession of women to political rights had behind it the war and revolutionary upheavals of the early twentieth century (Liberalism: A Counter-History, p 341).

The new liberalism

But, it will be objected, all this refers not so much to the history of liberalism, as its pre-history. With the emergence of the ‘new liberalism’ in the late 19th century, the creed of liberalism changed beyond recognition. It became reconciled to – even championed – democracy, economic regulation and racial and gender equality. John Maynard Keynes, for example, an economist synonymous with scepticism towards laissez-faire capitalism, was a lifelong member of the British Liberal party. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, probably the most famous of 20th century American liberals (he never called himself a socialist), placed freedom of speech and freedom of worship on a par with freedom from want for “everyone in the world”.

The face of modern liberalism can be seen in the public letter of 30 writers, historians and Nobel laureates published in January who warn that European “liberal democracy” is confronted with “a threat not seen since the 1930s”. The liberal values espoused here are those of internationalism, anti-populism and toleration. Democracy is ostensibly defended, not derided.

But the older liberalism has not died. It is, in fact, arguably more influential than its modernised twin. Neoliberalism (‘new liberalism’) has been guiding force of the economy since the 1980s. Neoliberalism holds that market forces should determine economic decisions, taxes on wealth and corporations should be as low as possible and government budgets should be balanced (a feat always to be achieved by cutting public spending rather than raising taxes on the wealthy). Neoliberalism harks back very directly to economic liberalism, the doctrine of laissez-faire that asserted that contracts negotiated between ‘free’ individuals should not be interfered with by the state.

Except that economic liberalism is a misnomer. The original 20th century economic liberals, such as Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig Von Mises, did not regard themselves as economic liberals but consistent liberals. To them, the other liberals had abandoned the tenets of liberalism and embraced ‘socialism’. It was always a cause of some regret to Hayek that his ideas were taken up by the British Conservative party – he was a major influence on Margaret Thatcher – rather than the Liberals.

Taking the risk out of democracy

And Hayek and Von Mises retained the older liberalism’s coldness towards democracy. Hayek, for example, was full of praise for Chilean dictator Augustus Pinochet and believed that “liberal dictatorship” was infinitely preferable to “democratic government devoid of liberalism”. Von Mises, a generation older, regarded trade unionism as a form of terrorism and thought the merit of Italian Fascism – won through saving European civilisation from the workers’ movement – would “live on eternally in history” (and this in a book entitled Liberalism).

The temptation is to say that we are dealing with two distinct political currents that, by dint of historical coincidence, go by the same name. But that would be too hasty a judgement. Hayek, for instance, was very sympathetic to the idea of European federalism. To him it offered protection against the virus of democracy. “The absence of tariff walls and the free movements of men and capital between the states of the federation has certain important consequences which are frequently overlooked,” he wrote in a 1939 essay. “They limit to a great extent the scope of the economic policy of the individual states.”

Hayek’s praise for the virtues of “one single market” thus prefigures the creation of the EU’s single market which does indeed limit the economic policy of individual European states and enshrines the free movement of capital and people. And the single market – resolutely supported by Margaret Thatcher it should be recalled – is the core institution of a European Union whose “liberal values”, intellectuals warn, are under attack from nativists and xenophobes.  

But the clearest bridge between the two liberalisms can be seen in the outlook of the corporate elite at the Davos World Economic Forum. Their concern about the threats to what they term the “liberal order” has now risen to a crescendo. This order comprises the free movement of capital and commodities (globalisation) coupled with a cosmopolitan attitude and support for gender and racial diversity.

However their stance towards the arch destroyer of that liberal order – Donald Trump – is revealing. They are repelled by his protectionism, hostility to immigrants, sexism and xenophobia but irresistibly attracted to his indulgence of the immensely wealthy. When, in 2017, Trump massively cut taxes for the rich (reducing the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 per cent and instituting tax breaks for millionaires), Davos went weak at the knees at this long overdue “tax reform”.

Contrast this with the unrelenting hostility directed towards left-wingers such as Jeremy Corbyn, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Bernie Sanders who are in fact resiliently liberal in their opposition to attacks on immigrants, refugees or LGBT people but also in favour raising taxes, moderately, on the wealthy (and, in Corbyn’s case, renationalising public services). Should Corbyn become UK Prime Minister – which now seems likely – expect that hostility to ramp up into brazen attempts to bring down his government, by any means possible. And liberals will be at the forefront of that effort. The tragedy is, they will always return to their roots.

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