Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: liberalism

Liberalism

 

https://ceylontoday.lk/print-more/35234

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on July 12 2019.

Putin

Vladimir Putin has caused a stir, which no doubt he intended, by saying, in an interview with the Financial Times, “The liberal idea has become obsolete.” He has often expressed the view that Western-style liberalism has failed, leaving the kind of authoritarianism he practises as the sole viable option. “The liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done. The migrants can kill, plunder, and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants must be protected”.

“Deep inside, there must be some fundamental human rules and moral values. In this sense, traditional values are more stable and more important for millions of people than this liberal idea, which, in my opinion, is really ceasing to exist.” Those who express such views are, of course, more than willing to decide what the fundamentals are and to do the authoritarian dirty work for us weak-willed lesser mortals

Definitions

According to Raymond Williams in Keywords: “Liberal has, at first sight, so clear a political meaning that some of its further associations are puzzling. Yet the political meaning is comparatively modern, and much of the interesting history of the word is earlier”. Williams was writing in 1976 and the situation has become more confused since.

One standard dictionary definition is “generous, noble-minded” which is clearly not apt for any context involving politicians. “Liberal democracy” is defined as “a state or system which combines the right to individual freedom with the right to representative government”. Surely, not even the Tea Partiers and Christian fundamentalists could object to that!

According to Professor Will Kimlicka in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy: “A liberal state does not seek to resolve these conflicts (different beliefs about the meaning of life), but rather provides a ‘neutral’ framework within which citizens can pursue their diverse conceptions of the good life. Liberalism, on this view, is the only human response to the inevitable pluralism and diversity of modern societies”.

Who could possibly object to this benign philosophy?

Trump

The president of the US, not for the first time, completely missed the point when asked about Putin’s interview. He thought his buddy was talking about the decadence of California and blamed the Democrats for that. Trump is consistently inconsistent but has consistently praised dictators. He has mocked Kim Jong-un but envies his power within North Korea. He envies Putin because his Russian buddy does not have to worry about political opposition. Jonathan Chait writes: “His contempt for democratic norms is sub-ideological, a pure product of his narcissistic fear of disobedience and innate belief in natural hierarchy. He hates democracy deep in his soul, but does not understand why.”

Orbán

Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán has said that his aim is to build an “illiberal state” on “national foundations,” citing as models China, Russia and Turkey. He denied that these plans conflicted with Hungary’s EU membership. If Hungary gets away with using sovereignty as a justification for passing laws that directly contradict important democratic and human rights principles, this could undermine the whole ethos of the EU. As the EU expands to include a more diverse array of countries and cultures with different versions of democracy, it needs to examine its economic, social, and political values.

Liberalism Attacked from the Right

Putin was not talking about the decadence of California but the longer historical tradition of liberalism that emerged from the laissez faire theories of John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and other philosophers whose writings laid the foundation for democratic government.

When we discuss ‘liberalism’ we are again in Humpty Dumpty territory. I mentioned in a previous column that distinguished linguistic philosopher Humpty Dumpty who  told Alice:  “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

To right-wingers in the USA, it seems, liberal means radical, immoderate. What the American right wing, as typified by such great intellects as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, mean by “liberal”, does not have to mean anyone as dangerous as a real communist or socialist of any kind. More extreme elements of the right wing see liberals as bloodthirsty revolutionaries determined to overthrow the state and destroy the family as an institution. The word “liberal” has become a code word in certain circles in the USA for all the kind of things that right-wing conservatives detest. The right hated John Kerry because he spoke French, liked fine wines and had an extremely rich wife. He represented the hated élite, unlike GW Bush, who was also rich and privileged but affected folksy ways and was of limited accomplishment or intellect. Right-wing Americans see ‘liberalism” as an obscenity and basically alien to the American Way. Ruder conservatives use terms like “libtard” which conflates their contempt for human rights and their lack of respect for people with mental health problems.

Liberalism Attacked from the Left

Liberals get attacked from the left as well. Liberalism is anathema to strict socialists because it is the highest form of thought within bourgeois society and is the philosophy of capitalism. Liberalism is based on individualist theories of man and society so it must be in fundamental conflict with strictly social theories and command economies.

These days we have ‘neo-liberalism’ which is blamed for all the ills the planet is heir to, and quite rightly so. The term was invented at a meeting in Paris in 1938. Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek were delegates. They saw the social democracy of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the evolution of Britain’s welfare state, as dangerous collectivism that occupied philosophical territory akin to Nazism and Communism. In neoliberalism, laissez faire means huge tax cuts for the rich, neutering of trade unions, deregulation of financial institutions, privatisation of everything including impractical things such as probation services, outsourcing and competition in public services, even where it means fatalities among patients because of private firms providing catering and cleaning for profit.

Neoliberal doctrines according to George Monbiot, “played a major role in a remarkable variety of crises: the financial meltdown of 2007‑8, the offshoring of wealth and power, of which the Panama Papers offer us merely a glimpse, the slow collapse of public health and education, resurgent child poverty, the epidemic of loneliness, the collapse of ecosystems, the rise of Donald Trump”.

Let Professor Kimlicka have the last word:

“Dire warnings about liberalism’s inability to contain the centrifugal tendencies of individual freedom can be found in every generation for the last three centuries, yet it appears that liberal societies have managed to endure while various forms of monarchy, theocracy, authoritarianism, and communism have come and gone… the basic language of liberalism – individual rights, liberty, equality of opportunity – has become the dominant language of public discourse in most modern democracies.”

Liberalism – Lexical Ambiguity

This article appeared in Lakbima News on December 4 2011.

Liberalism has got itself a bad name in many and different quarters. Suren Raghavan, writing in the Colombo Telegraph, was one of the many criticising NORAD’s analysis of Norway’s contribution to Sri Lanka’s “peace process”. “The Peace Process was hegemonised by a naive liberal peace discourse. It gravitated around the liberalism II model of minority rights, right to self-determination and ethnic federalism etc. By which it pre-constructed solutions at the cost of analysing the depth of the actual problem.”

So then, it was “liberalism” as much as the LTTE terror or Sinhalese or Norwegian politicians to blame?

Recently Rajpal Abeynayake had a look at liberal democracy as it is preached by  the West and practised by the West – not always the same thing. : “Look at how the man who was touted as one of the most liberal and left wing members of the US senate turned out to be! Once he became president, he turned out to be a fine old Republican, in an articulate liberal’s clothing. Liberal democratic values never had so much premium however, because they are supposed to be what the Arab Spring and all that is all about. But then they go and kill Gaddafi, and people are wondering what the hell that was all about — that baying democratic pack of people ushering this new brand of tolerance?”

So here, liberal and left-wing are conflated.

In North Carolina, a rich man called Art Hope, CEO and owner of Variety Wholesalers, a discount store conglomerate – that means he makes his fortune by selling to the very poor in North Carolina, products made by the very poor in China and elsewhere – has worked very hard to make sure the governance of the state suits his own extreme right-wing agenda. John Snow, (not the Channel 4 chappie with the silly socks, or the cricketer, or the man who discovered how cholera spread) a retired judge who had represented the Democrats in the state senate for three terms, found himself under vicious attack from the right. Snow’s deep-seated conservatism suited his constituents. He often voted with the Republicans – hardly a dangerous radical. ”My opponents used fear tactics. I’m a moderate, but they tried to make me look liberal”.

In the USA, it seems, liberal means radical, immoderate.

According to the right-wing think tank Freedom Center: “Liberalism just isn’t very popular in America”. The semi-annual Gallup political identification poll found a declining percentage of Americans, just 21%, adopting the ‘liberal’ label in 2020. By way of comparison, 42% of respondents called themselves ‘conservative’. Gallup noted in June that if the trend continued for the remainder of 2010, conservatives would boast their largest annual share of the American public since the survey started in 1992.

The word “liberal” has become a code word in certain circles in the USA for all the kind of things that right-wing conservatives detest. Right-wing Americans see ‘liberalism” as an obscenity and basically alien to the American Way. Left-wing Americans are afraid of “the L-Word”.

What we have here is a good example of “Humpty-Dumptyism”.”When I use a word, it means just what I want it to mean- neither more nor less”, said Humpty Dumpty. The posh term for this ploy is “stipulative definition”. Some philosophers call it lexical ambiguity.

Some definitions would be helpful.

According to Raymond Williams in Keywords: “Liberal has, at first sight, so clear a political meaning that some of its further associations are puzzling. Yet the political meaning is comparatively modern, and much of the interesting history of the word is earlier”. Williams was writing in 1976 and the situation has become more confused since.

One standard dictionary definition is “generous, noble-minded” which is clearly not apt for any context involving politicians. “Liberal democracy” is defined as “a state or system which combines the right to individual freedom with the right to representative government”. Surely, not even the Tea Partiers and Christian fundamentalists could object to that!

According to Professor Will Kimlicka in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy: “A liberal state does not seek to resolve these conflicts (different beliefs about the meaning of life), but rather provides a ‘neutral’ framework within which citizens can pursue their diverse conceptions of the good life. Liberalism, on this view, is the only human response to the inevitable pluralism and diversity of modern societies”.

Who could possibly object to this benign philosophy?

Raymond Williams notes that there is a long history of ‘liberal’ being used as a pejorative from all sides. Marxists in particular have used liberal as a bad word with connotations of weakness and sentimentality and lack of intellectual rigour. Because liberalism is based on individualist theories of man and society, it is in fundamental conflict with strictly social theories. Liberalism is anathema to strict socialists because it is the highest form of thought within bourgeois society and is the philosophy of capitalism.

Yes, that’s right capitalism.

Douglas Massey argues in Return of the “L” Word that sometime in the 1970s, liberals in the United States lost their way. After successes like the New Deal, they became arrogant. Faced with the difficult politics of race and class, liberals used the heavy hand of government to impose policies on a resentful public. Conservatives capitalized on this with a staunch ideology of free markets, limited government, and conservative social values.

In an interview with Mother Jones magazine, Massey argued that markets are essentially human constructions, and liberals should not seek to oppose markets with big government, but rather, ensure that these markets are working in the public interest. “The time has come,” he writes, “for liberals to tell the public that markets are not ‘free,’ but human-created institutions that citizens have a right to supervise and manage for their own benefit. Liberals need to abandon their lingering hostility toward market mechanisms, embrace them, and substitute a new rhetoric of ‘democratic markets’ for the false metaphor of the ‘free market’.”

Hang on! Didn’t ”liberal” used to mean laissez faire? Today, the dominant religion is liberal economics, which the Financial Times defines as “Another term for the classical theories of economics emphasising the concept of the free market and laissez-faire policies, with the government’s role limited to providing support services.” Neoliberalism, John Williamson’s Washington Consensus, which seeks to transfer control of the economy from public to the private sector and deregulate markets, has been the dominant religion of globalisation.

What Massey seems to be talking about is Keynesianism rather than liberalism as it is generally understood. Keynesianism is defined by the FT as: “optimum economic performance could be achieved by influencing aggregate demand through government fiscal (public spending and taxation) policy, not through the free market philosophy characterised by the classical and neo-classical schools.” FDR’s New Deal was Keynesianism in practice.

What the American right wing, as typified by such great intellects as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, mean by “liberal”, does not have to mean anyone as dangerous as a real communist or socialist of any kind. Let the unfortunate John Kerry stand as an emblem of liberalism. The right hated him because he spoke French, liked fine wines and had an extremely rich wife. He represented the hated élite, unlike GW Bush, who was also rich and privileged but affected folksy ways and was of limited accomplishment or intellect. Perhaps more important for these rightniks is cultural issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

Conclusion

Let Professor Kimlicka have the last word:

“Dire warnings about liberalism’s inability to contain the centrifugal tendencies of individual freedom can be found in every generation for the last three centuries, yet it appears that liberal societies have managed to endure while various forms of monarchy, theocracy, authoritarianism, and communism have come and gone… the basic language of liberalism – individual rights, liberty, equality of opportunity – has become the dominant language of public discourse in most modern democracies.”

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