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LibDems find conscience in Westminster

A few times over the past couple of weeks I have mentioned the Westminster Declaration of Christian Conscience. Based on a similar manifesto first created in the United States (the Manhattan Declaration), the declaration seeks to offer an ecumenical statement of orthodox Christian belief, re-affirming particularly those issues that often bring orthodox Christians (and Muslims, and Jews, and Hindus, and Sikhs, and many of no faith at all) into conflict with the metro-liberalism of the contemporary political and cultural ‘progressives’.

Of course, it would be facile to argue that anyone who refused to sign the pledge must therefore be a non-Christian, and there is always something a little crude in that which seeks to distil faith in the Redeemer into the affirmation of a few moral laws that happen to be under attack in contemporary society. Even so, the document is interesting enough, particularly in its robust and unflinching assessment of certain contemporary flashpoints. To offer a few examples (with my emphasis added in bold),

As UK citizens we affirm our Christian commitment both to exercise social responsibility in working for the common good and also to be subject to all governing authorities and obey them except when they require us to act unjustly.

Well, that’s quite some statement, not least because it suggests that there can be divergence between the law and that which is morally just – a direct challenge not only to the legitimacy of the law, but also to the authority of those who create and implement it.

We pledge to support marriage – the lifelong covenantal union of one man and one woman as husband and wife. We believe it is divinely ordained, the only context for sexual intercourse, and the most important unit for sustaining the health, education, and welfare of all. We call on government to honour, promote and protect marriage and we refuse to submit to any edict forcing us to equate any other form of sexual partnership with marriage.

An obvious conflict then with the Education Bill that Ed Balls tried to get through the House, a Bill which David Cameron supports, as he has affimed numerous times, and an inititiatve which the LibDems are enthusiastic about.

We will not be intimidated by any cultural or political power into silence or acquiescence and we will reject measures that seek to over-rule our Christian consciences or to restrict our freedoms to express Christian beliefs, or to worship and obey God.

Well, that’s a call to a ruckus if ever there was one.

Even so, where’s the problem, one might ask, if a bunch of loons get together and assert some stone-age morality amongst one another? It’s not as if they’ll ever make a difference after all, as they won’t get anywhere near power, and they’re an extreme and reactionary minority anyway (this statement, along with liberal and carefree use of the word ‘bigot’, is a favourite defensive thrust of the social liberal).

Well, that’s where it gets intriguing. Because the most interesting part of this website is the extent to which it has become politically engaged, providing information as to which candidates do or do not support the Declaration, and giving contact details of said candidates with the encouragement (and a draft letter) that people contact their local MP and ask them to support the Declaration. One can then search the database, and see where one’s local MP (or constituency PPCs) stand in relation to the Declaration. And it’s on having a quick head count of those who had come out and actually signed the Declaration that some interesting numbers emerge. As a quick tally, I had the numbers as;

Conservative – 58

Liberal Democrats – 62

Labour – 17

Others (inc. UKIP, SNP etc.) – 60

And it’s that LibDem tally I found most surprising – that the party which preens itself as the apotheosis of secular humanism, of metropolitan ‘progressivism’, the party of Doctor Death and Nick ‘I’m an atheist’ Clegg; that such a party should have so many PPCs willing to pop their head above the parapet and sign a Declaration that, it would seem, is not only at odds with the direction and orthodoxies of their party, but which commits them to disobey certain of its key policies – well, it’s hardly what one might expect. Of course, the political landscape being largely homogenous in its social liberalism, this apparent commitment to defy the party line is essentially true of all those who choose to sign the Declaration – even so, one might be forgiven for having expected that the LibDem total would be closer the Labour tally than outstripping the Conservative one.

Obviously this is not in any sense rigorous scientific analysis, and the numbers are fairly small beer really, and besides the candidates could all be no hopers for all I know, saying whatever they think expedient. Even so, it’s an interesting find; it gives the smallest hint that perhaps Cameron isn’t the only one whose slavish devotion to the diktats of the ‘progressive’ liberati is at odds with a fairly significant chunk of the rank-and-file of his own party.

Same difference

It is becoming increasingly clear that, in an era when all three parties claim to offer change from the old politics, all three of them want to do little more than continue with the very orthodoxies that have brought the political system to its present wretchedness. Economically, there is little evidence that any party intends to genuinely challenge the dogmatic idolisation of the markets and their distortion by money and power. Socially, there is little evidence that any party is willing to challenge the stale dogmas of the (always middle-class) social liberals, and their distortion of society toward the benefit of money and power. Social conservatism is a dirty phrase – economic equality dirtier still. The liberals of both sides are drunk on power, and they won’t raise a finger against the ideology that delivered it.

For those traditionally on the left, this has lead to a genuine political homelessness. For in contemporary times, any critique of metropolitan liberalism has one dismissed as an extreme right-winger, usually by a cabal on the left who, with perfectly straight faces, embrace individualism far more fanatically than any traditional Conservative movement has ever done. Thus, the social conservatism that once stood at the heart of the Labour movement (and often still does) is blotted out of history, whilst the radical right-wing individualism of liberal thought is offered as the default stance of authentic left-wing thinking. Which is bonkers, really. Indeed, if one were to accept the account of a certain Red Tory, one might even call it a little perverse: if left-wing politics was traditionally concerned with the liberty of the dispossessed, then liberalism frustrates precisely that empowerment, and indeed militates against it. Or expressed differently, liberalism is an authentic enemy of the left, not an enlightened expression of it.

Of course, there are plenty on the left, those guilty of this conflation of liberalism and Labour, who will reject this suggestion in the most strident of terms, mostly because their Fabian mates tell them to and they must be right because they’re, like, so modern and caring and everything. They will think social conservatism an authentic enemy of left-wing thought, betraying either a ignorance of or an arrogant indifference to the very roots of the political tradition they claim as their own. Middle-class people sitting in think-tanks in London, despising the social conservatism of the poor as an aberration in a modern world (you’ll always find the most vicious class prejudices expressed in the Guardian), when really it is quite often the only thing that offers them a level of protection from the dangers of this world the liberals have created, chiefly for themselves.

It would be wrong to think this is confined to Labour mind, and if there is one amusing theatrical performance to be viewed in London town at this moment in time, it is the attempt of the modern Tories to magically transform themselves into a more economically and socially ‘progressive’ party. Fortunately for them, they’ve been given much of the vocabulary ready to hand, and talk of such things as ‘moralised markets’ and ‘the mutualised state’ has offered them the opportunity to counter the dogmatic devotion to Thatcherite economics, whilst simultaneously enabling them to develop  their own version of the small state economy, expressed through the somewhat cumbersome title of the ‘the Big Society’.

The irony is that the chap who, arguably, helped bring around this change in consciousness, is both socially conservative and economically left-of-centre, and this is because his critique is of liberalism per se, not just one particular strain of it. For example, cherry-picking the critique of neo-liberal economics and leaving aside the critique of the social liberalism is to kind of miss the point, which will in the end lead to a certain incoherence. For example, according to Blond ‘society’ is fundamentally rejected by social liberalism, meaning that any attempted resuscitation of the civic space that did not deal with this underlying ideology will, in the end, have to be generated not by society itself, but by the state. Apposite, then, that David Cameron’s recent vision of the Big Society includes an Alinksy-esque ‘army’ of state-trained and state-maintained community organisers.

That said, all is not at a loss. It’s a common refrain that before a thing dies it must issue its last breath, and I do happen to think that this is what we’re witnessing with liberalism. The creeping consensus of the political class will be the end of them; the more they have tried frantically to distinguish themselves on the superficialities, the more the electorate have called them out for being essentially the same, and they are entirely right to do so. Yet political disenfranchisement can’t go on forever, not whilst the state has so much power to influence the minutiae of people’s lives, and I have the sneaking suspicion that one day soon there will be a provocation too far, and there will come a robust response. The ‘long march’ of the social conservatives is on its way.

Red Tory: liberalism and liberty

For this blog post I thought I’d give a quick review of the book Red Tory, which has thus far been quite a success, and elicited many reviews either side of the pond. To my mind, the American response has been much more thoughtful than the reception received here in the United Kingdom, where reviews have quite often centred on challenging the bolder claims with a raft of statistical porn, rather than engaging with the real meat of the argument. Of course, there is an irony in this: the socio-cultural elite that Blond claims profits most disproportionately from liberalism seem to have responded by saying that things can’t be all that bad because their life is quite nice actually, thank you very much, before hurrying off to find excel charts to prove it. Which, in its own way, neatly demonstrates the point

Anyway, to get on to what I think is the central issue Red Tory seeks to address (this account will necessarily leave certain things out, for which I apologise)…

For Blond, the contemporary embrace of liberalism has brought with it the slow erosion of authentic liberty, both socially and economically. In the social sphere, Blond maintains that it is the left that have been the most zealous of converts, pursuing a private libertarianism based, perhaps paradoxically, upon a radically right-wing account of the individual. The intellectual grounding for this move comes in the form of Rousseau and the liberal tradition that descended from him: Rousseauian liberalism is charged with cultivating an atomised individualism that mitigates the claims of the social in the name of personal liberty. As such, those external influences that once situated and directed individual behaviour and lifestyle became depicted as unwarrantable limitations on the freedom of the individual, the repudiation of which has lead to the hedonism of centre-left accounts of ‘freedom’.

Thus, Blond contends that the social vision of the left is premised upon little more than the absolute sovereignty of individual agency, in pursuit of which traditional social, cultural and moral constraints have been dissolved, a private libertarianism that requires an authoritarian state to police it. The need for such an overbearing external authority is simple: if there exists no legitimate source of authority beyond the individual will, then the maintenance of order has to come from an authority contracted out specifically for this purpose, an authority that has an absolute monopoly on social control. For Blond, the irony is that this authority, as with the Rousseauian notion of the ‘general will’, does not for the social liberal appear oppressive because in truth it is little more than a macro-level reflection of the social liberal himself: its mandate is simply to uphold the absoluteness of liberal accounts of individual freedom. Thus, in a time of frenzied commitment to personal ‘freedom’, liberalism has delivered an almighty state apparatus that rigidly and robustly upholds the primacy of liberal thought itself, and acts rigorously against those who counsel against it. This is a trade-off that social-liberals think worthwhile: after all it is state authoritarianism that delivers their agenda, and state authoritarianism that scrupulously preserves it.

However, it is not just in the persecution of dissenting voices that the intimate relationship between social liberalism and state authoritarianism has eroded genuine liberty, and here we move on to the second aspect of Blond’s critique of social liberalism. For Blond, the consequences of social liberalism have most dramatically affected the life chances of the poorest, who are least capable of absorbing the pernicious consequences of the widespread familial, marital and social breakdown that the ‘social revolution’ has brought with it. Rather, it is those already in a position of strength who are better able to mitigate the side-effects of their new found ‘freedom’, by calling on reserves of wealth and social position simply unavailable to those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. As such, the social underclasses can no longer compete with their more empowered counterparts, as the complex social fabric that once provided both safety net and ladder has been rent apart by the sterile individualism of social liberal thought. Here, Blond is drawing upon a rich vein of conservative thought, from Burke, to Belloc, to Chesterton, with the latter perhaps putting it most pithily: ‘Modern broad-mindedness benefits the rich; and benefits nobody else. It was meant to benefit the rich; and meant to benefit nobody else.’

The dramatic inability of the poorest to compete on equal terms in contemporary society, and the gradual dissolution of those social and filial ties that cultivated a certain socio-economic resilience in the poorest communities, provides the link to the flip-side of Blond’s critique, that being the economic neo-liberalism that has destroyed genuine economic autonomy. Following in the footsteps of Hilaire Belloc, Blond maintains that the poorest have become fodder to capitalist interests, who in return for locked-in labour agree to provide the welfare support demanded as part of the exchange. Thus, welfare and waged labour are two manifestations of contemporary servitude,  and help cement the power of the capitalist classes over the contracted labouring classes. The intimate relationship that has flourished between statist governance and big business is in reality little more than an expression of this status quo: the latter can deliver the social agenda of the former, whilst the former can in return structure the social to better service the interests of the latter. Here, the market apes the state, and vice-versa.

So it is that, for Blond, neo-liberal economics has become little more than the demand of the plutocracy to dissolve those regulatory constraints that seek to protect a plurality of interests. ‘Free-marketeers’ thus campaign vigorously for the freedom of the powerful to distort the markets according to their own whim and fancy, and maintain, having already accepted the economic servitude of the multitude as normative, that this is in the best interests of the many. Accordingly, it is the charge that neo-liberal economic systems have entrenched a monopolist economy that, having purchased its power through its contract with the state, demands that market freedom be oriented to the interests of only itself. The result is not freedom, but continuing disenfranchisement in the name of freedom, as more and more lose their economic autonomy and approach the market as waged consumers rather than as genuine producers.

As I hope that very quick whistle-stop tour demonstrates, what we have on both sides of this critique is nothing more complex than this: liberalism erodes liberty. It destroys it in the social realm, because it embraces state authoritarianism as the upholder of its account of freedom, a freedom which institutes a bourgeois individualism the consequences of which are most harmful for the poorest – leading to a loss of both social and economic liberty. Equally it destroys liberty in the economic realm, because it defines freedom as the unencumbered sovereignty of the powerful to dominate the markets as they see fit. The endless alternation we see today between market and state (or by the false caricatures of right and left) is thus the false illusion of difference: on Blond’s account, both disenfranchise, and both are complimenting sides of the same stifling burden.

At root, then, Blond’s account of liberalism appears to be as much a statement on the unjust appropriation of power as it is about the erosion of liberty, with the suggestion that liberalism orders society toward the benefit of the powerful, dismantling those social safeguards that once constrained power and in so doing leaving the weakest acutely vulnerable. That is, liberalism draws power vertically upwards, and places it in the hands of those at the top of either the state or the market (or, quite frequently, both).  As such, Blond’s dual analysis of both economic and social liberalism implicates the plutocracy as much as the socio-cultural oligarchy, and accuses both of employing emaciated accounts of ‘freedom’ as a means of fashioning a world that more completely reflects and serves their own interests. And they’re both willing to push on to more and more domination of others in order to achieve it.

And I’ll leave it at that for now, though I might well return to it again soon – there’s plenty to explore.

Burke, Chesterton, Belloc, Tacitus and… Hitchens

This from the Rage Against God by Peter Hitchens,

A new elite, wealthy and comfortable beyond the fantasies of any previous generation, abandons penal codes (especially against the possession of narcotics) and abolishes marital fidelity so as to licence its own comfortable indulgence. And so it permits the same freedoms to the poor, who suffer far more from this dangerous liberty than do the rich.

Compare this with Chesterton, writing in Utopia of Usurers,

Modern broad-mindedness benefits the rich; and benefits nobody else. It was meant to benefit the rich; and meant to benefit nobody else.

Also, see Edmund Burke, who in A Vindication of Natural Society wrote,

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.

And then Hilaire Belloc, writing in Europe and the Faith,

For it is always to the advantage of the wealthy to deny general conceptions of right and wrong, to question a popular philosophy and to weaken the drastic and immediate power of the human will, organised throughout the whole community. It is always in the nature of great wealth… to push on to more and more domination over the bodies of men – and they do so best by attacking fixed social constraints’

And lastly Tacitus, writing in the Agricola (Book 1:21)

Inde etiam habitus nostri honor et frequens toga; paulatimque discessum ad delenimenta vitiorum, porticus et balinea et conviviorum elegantiam. Idque apud imperitos humanitas vocabatur, cum pars servitutis esset.  [ Step by step they (the native Britons) were led to things which dispose to vice, the lounge, the bath, the elegant banquet. All this in their ignorance, they called civilization, when it was but a part of their servitude.]

And to think, modern day ‘liberals’ claim it is only they who are the champions of ‘freedom’. If you set much store by any of these words, then you might be inclined to think this a complete inversion of the truth.