It really is half-comical to see the liberal-left jolted from its cosy slumber as it slowly realises that its supremacy is finally having to face a serious and sustained challenge. Albeit cautiously, and without any unified direction, commentators are starting to ask awkward questions of the social liberal hegemony. The piercing ad hominem attacks that once silenced potential resistance have become blunt in recent times, as more and more accept what many outside the chattering and political classes have always thought obvious: that social liberalism is on the wrong side of good-sense on so many issues.
The absurdity of the whole project is breaking like a slow dawn, whilst the spittle-flecked fury of its fanatics descends into farce, relentlessly attacking those truths that many have always thought self-evident – that marriage is a good thing, or that single-parenthood is not an ideal to which mothers or fathers should aspire, or that criminals are possessed of free-will, or that drug-addicts should stop taking drugs.
In short, social liberalism is slowly being rejected even by the minority that were the only ones to ever really accept it, its destructive and illogical premises deemed as socially pernicious, despite its utopian promise.
Some will debate this, of course, and maintain that social liberalism is the default mindset of the country at large, that we live in a new world, that the forces of social conservatism are mere evil and have been rightfully despatched to the wilderness of a less-civilised past. To which I could only reply with the question; if this were so, then why is the strong arm of the state needed to legislate the prejudices of social liberalism into existence? If it had general appeal then society would organically embrace it, outwith the necessity for constant legislation. Of course, the opposite is ordinarily the case, and so social liberalism must appeal to the state – in so doing, the liberal-left* is confirmed in its misanthropic suspicions, of its own enlightened superiority and the baseness of those they govern.
All of which suggests that social liberalism requires a strong state in order to legislate into existence its own priorities over and against ‘the crowd’. This is the flip-side to a blog I wrote a while back, suggesting that the contemporary left loves big-business because it mirrors in the economic realm that state authoritarianism it already depends upon in the political realm – both big-business and big-state offer the most effective delivery of the social agenda. Thus, just as it is no surprise that the contemporary left have snuggled up to neo-liberal economics, neither is it a surprise that they have heartily embraced statism as the ultimate dispenser of ‘freedom’.
Now a certain Red Tory depicts this relationship broadly thus; the radical individualism at the heart of liberal dogma requires an authoritarian state to police its now atomistic social realm.
Which I think is true. But I would add further nuance to this, perhaps best summed up in the question, ‘Why does social liberalism, ordinarily so sensitive to the ‘freedom’ of the individual, turn a blind eye to an authoritarian state?’ After all, if freedom were the only issue, then the quid pro quo exchange would be worthless, merely exchanging one form of ‘oppression’ for another. The social liberals on the left would need, instead, to be libertarians, which they rarely are.
And therein lies the rub. Truth is, it all turns on the account of freedom itself; in short, social liberalism tends to construct freedom along radically individualistic lines, whilst neglecting those corporate accounts of freedom that traditionally defined the status of an individual within that body of relationships known as the civic realm. Freedom is a private issue, such that identity and liberty are no longer placed within the overarching framework of society, of ‘the common good’. Or to express it a little differently, freedom is all about individual practice, rigorously policed by an overbearing state, because talk of ‘society’ and corporate identities are instinctively rejected as already bordering on subjugation.
Thus, the left-liberal wing can get incredibly vexed on issues regarding personal liberty and life choices, and yet get noticeably less agitated about the creeping statism that has come to blight all our everyday interactions. Libertarians, always social liberals too, do indeed offer some resistance; but social liberals on the left are often less vocal, primarily because of their ingrained dependence on the state to guarantee their ‘freedom’ so defined.
And so, in the end, it all revolves around what you think constitutes ‘freedom’. Is it solely a matter of individual agency, which often breaks down into the unfettered indulgence of the now commodified body, or does this narrow definition lead to a form of political and civic subjugation, evolving out of both neglect and necessity?
I think Edmund Burke has something to say on this, in writing,
‘so heavy is the Aristocratick Yoke, that the Nobles have been obliged to enervate the Spirit of their Subjects by every Sort of Debauchery; they have denied them the Liberty of Reason, and they have made them amends, by what a base Soul will think a more valuable Liberty, by not only allowing, but encouraging them to corrupt themselves in the most scandalous Manner. They consider their Subjects, as the Farmer does the Hog he keeps to feast upon. He holds him fast in his Stye, but allows him to wallow as much as he pleases in his beloved Filth and Gluttony.’**
Now of course, the crude moralistic tone here grates, and the suggestion that the governing elites encourage the identification of freedom with ‘fleshly desires’ as a conscious means of securing power is too conspiratorial to be of much real value.
But then, at the same time, it is not wholly useless to point out the correlation between social liberalism and state authoritarianism – a situation that, to my mind, is no mere accident of history.
*I realise that I have jumped here from speaking of social liberalism to talking of the contemporary left. I do this only because, by and large, the left has embraced social liberalism more heartily than anyone else, and in many cases the two often become synonymous. I think the connection is causal rather than necessary, however – the social and political dogmas of the contemporary left would be, to my mind, foreign to the social and moral beliefs of its forebears.
**A Vindication of Natural Society. If you have the Liberty Fund edition, it’s p.52.