Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Liberal House Divided Against Itself Has Not Stood That Status Quo Can't Continue

In one of her essays Marilynne Robinson notes that there is an important and crucial difference between two meanings of the word "liberal".  She, roughly, distinguishes between a traditional American meaning of the word which she associates with Calvinist teaching on economic justice and a later, 18th-19th liberalism which is not all about equality.  Certainly that original liberalism is among the admirable things which came out of the writings of Calvin and the school of theology he started.  Though, I'll point out, there were others, in American history that Calvinist heritage is important.   Of course, in the popular imagination the word is associated with the doctrine of  sexual repression and no fun.  In the somewhat less popular imagination it is associated with the troublesome doctrine of predestination, election and the damnation of babies.  But, as is so often the case with secular scholarship, the most admirable of its stands is ignored and largely unknown even among such people as think they know all about it.

Robinson notes that that tradition is through Calvin is directly taken from another widely maligned source, the Jewish scriptures, The Law. She quotes passage after passage from the Torah, especially Deuteronomy and that most denigrated book of the five, Leviticus, to prove that a country which implemented its economic and social justice laws would be considered radical to an extent which no secular radical has ever been bold enough to imagine proposing.  If that were done it would produce an equality that even the most egalitarian American politicians of the 19th and 20th centuries couldn't dream of.

The other definition of "liberal" is a product of the so-called enlightenment, in 18th century France and, more so from an American perspective, especially Britain.   The issues in that liberalism were not economic justice or equality, they weren't justice for the orphan, the widow or the resident alien living among you (unless such an alien happened to be rich) they were, either tacitly or explicitly a call to free people from economic restraints that were held to inhibit commerce and trade and, as things developed, the pleasures and fun of those who could enjoy their wealth gained under them.   It should be remembered that such liberalism was not, in any way, inconsistent with inequality and many of its foremost figures not only endorsed early forms of scientific racism, many of them also favored slavery, imperialism and whatever bloodshed was involved in stealing the land and resources of people who couldn't fight back.

I was reminded of this, this morning as I forgot to turn off the radio and was exposed to this exchange on the annoying Marketplace Morning Report about the upcoming British election.   The intro to the short interview begins:

The United Kingdom heads to the polls on June 8 for a “snap” election, where British voters decide which party will control Parliament. The election was first announced by British Prime Minister Theresa May back in April in an attempt to increase the Conservative party’s majority. But with May falling out of favor recently, what was viewed as a safe bet at the time may end up backfiring on the Tories.    

The Labour party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, has narrowed the gap considerably, but neither of the contending candidates fall in line with a pro-market, open-borders internationalism seen in Britain the last few decades, said Zanny Minton Beddoes, editor of The Economist. The magazine has endorsed the Liberal Democrats for its pro-market approach, which Beddoes joined us to discuss. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

You can read the whole interview but what jumped out at me is that Beddoes wanted an American audience to understand that her use of the word "liberals" didn't mean what Americans would probably imagine it to mean.  In American terms, her problem with the Tories is that they deviated from policies in line with the 18th-19th century meaning of "liberal," what in American terms should be thought to be in line with the money-men wing of the Republican Party and "centrist" Democrats. She made that distinction twice in the interview.

The worst of the two quite clearly is Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. He wants to take Britain a hard turn to the left or, you know, back to nationalizing key industries, huge tax increases at the top. He would be appalling. But frankly, the Conservatives under Theresa May have also moved very clearly away from those liberal values, if you will. Liberal in the English context — English sense of the term that we espouse. 

And David Brancaccio got her to say it again at the end of the interview.

Brancaccio: Again, liberals in the British sense not the American sense.

Beddoes: It's very important to say that what I mean when I say "liberal" is liberal in the 19th century British sense. Pro-market, pro-individual, freedom, pro-openness. Not the American sense.

It is an important distinction to make because, as Beddoes association of it with right-wing economics indicates, the two uses of the one word can mean exactly the opposite in reality.  Which is one of the things which American liberals really do have to sort out because, as a traditional liberal of the first kind,  I think an American liberal agenda and its achievement has been hampered by the confusion of the two terms.  As can be seen from the interview, what might be thought of as the European - the 18th-19th century free market liberalism which, in the end, serves the rich and powerful - is often hostile to the traditional, egalitarian liberalism which arguably had a right to the word associated in the older tradition with liberal provision for those without by those with and securing a decent life on an equal basis.

Some of the most disastrous things which have weakened American liberalism have been a result of the confusion of the two meanings of the terms.  The group of people defined as "liberals" in the United States are often at cross purposes and I've found, especially in communicating with large numbers of liberals, online, that even liberals, individually, often hold positions that are at cross purposes with each other.   I

In the first case, there is the division between the two.  There are those who are focused on the traditional meaning of the word derived from the moral absolute that people are created equal and that among the rights and obligations we are endowed with by God is the provision of a decent life to all - the kind of egalitarian governance under which enormous scales of inequality between the top and the bottom are actively prevented from coming into being.  That is the kind of life which can only happen by intentional human acts which create those conditions, I would hold that they can only happen when an effective majority of people believe that the moral obligation to do that overrides any personal ability to rig things to enrich ourselves over the common good.  And, in reality, that any legitimate government will include an expression of that moral obligation as civil law.

The other type of liberalism, the British style, as Beddoes would have it, is clearly in line with right-wing laissez-faire, policies that remove any kind of obligation on the rich, allowing inequality as a driving engine of wealth creation (really, it's wealth concentration) and letting the devil take the hindmost.   In some of such liberals, there is an assertion that this is the way of nature, in the Darwinian economists I've been criticizing, it is asserted to have something to do with natural selection as a law of nature, a law of science.  Anyone who wants to take the traditional and contra-factual dodge to exempt Charles Darwin from that never read what he had to say about economics. He'd have fit right in with the Heritage Foundation crowd, perhaps the Cato Institute crowd.  Though I have a feeling that Thomas Huxley would find the latter one more his style than the prissy Darwin.

There is a distinct set of differences in the foundations and results of the two different streams of liberalism, that which results from a devotion to equality and justice and that which pretends to be an expression of the laws of nature.   One obvious one is in the issue of the rights of women as it runs into the results of "liberal" court rulings freeing the pornography market which is, in every way, a promotion of inequality and the use of the stronger against the weaker.  The very, very few examples that could be cited denying that character of pornography is swamped by the effective totality of it which encourages sexual imagination in terms of dominance, use, cruelty, degradation and, in not an insignificant part of it, torture and murder.

I have repeatedly pointed out that the character of pornography, freed by extensions of such 18-19th century liberalism is a Sadeian school of self hatred and inequality among gay men entirely at cross purposes with any claims to our equality, our dignity, our rights and the moral obligation to permit us our equality.  It internalizes exactly the same forms of hatred and abuse that were the purpose of our oppressors, encouraged by the same themes of inequality by which men subjugate women in straight porn.  Even as the claims of marriage equality have been made, effectively, it is argued by the fans of such porn that gay marriage should take the form of the worst of straight marriages, in which infidelity is not only to be expected, but to be encouraged.  And if you want to see how that works out, look at those straight marriages that follow that and how mutually supportive they are in most cases in real life.

And that's only one of the obvious dynamics of cross purposes caused by the confusion of the two denotations of the one word.  I don't think that liberalism, certainly not egalitarian liberalism and the racial, sexual, ethnic, class equality which is the very blood and bone and muscle and sinew of democracy can survive the failure to make a distinction and asserting that difference as definitive and crucial.   The claims of the other liberalism of inequality and privilege, that it is some expression of nature and science, may be true but only to the extent that people are naturally selfish and indifferent to the lives of other people.  That is why such liberals as can claim that natural selection should rule our economic policy or any other aspect of our lives find it easy to hoodwink others, they sell themselves through the easy route of self-interest, of self-benefit.  The costs in even terrible inequality and misery and outbreaks of violence and, even, the total war of the rich and powerful against those they can plunder is OK with them as long as it's not they who are targeted.

Maybe liberals should remember something from scripture which Lincoln endorsed in his arguments for equality and against the slavery that, among others, the British textile interests* so much wanted to see continue, that a house divided against itself cannot stand.  That has certainly been the case of mid-20th century American liberalism.

Apart from the constant attacks made against traditional American liberals and liberalism by the press freed by Brit style liberalism, that confusion, the muddling of goals and intentions are what have accounted for this half-century in the political wilderness.   As I've mentioned before, those "enlightenment" liberals have led us around out there longer than Moses did the Children of Israel.  And we haven't shown signs of wising up to them yet.

*  Keeping the British government from coming into the American Civil War on the side of the slave holders of the Confederacy was Lincoln's most pressing problem in foreign policy.  Lots of British writers and intellectuals favored the Confederacy and the benefits the British wealthy got from slave labor here.

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