Friday, January 29, 2010


Love and Liberty III – Liberal Individualism (#LibDemHeart #LibDemValues 1.3)

Continuing my series on what the Liberal Democrats stand for, today’s instalment might well be my favourite part of Love and Liberty, a 1999 booklet exploring my own Liberalism. What’s the problem with defining people purely by their class or nation? Who’s afraid of the big bad market? What was my favourite speech by Paddy Ashdown (ooh, that’ll get readers flocking)? What’s the contradiction at the heart of Tory philosophy? What did I write about “liberal Conservatives” that looks rather dated these days? And what do I think of the argument that “the end justifies the means”? Go on, guess.

Love: Liberal Individualism

Talking about the human family isn’t just a truism. Liberalism starts with the individual, and that approach has two vital consequences: a politics in which every individual is important; and a politics in which no exclusive, artificial group should be put up above all the others. Not all politics works like that. All parties have philosophies, acknowledged or implicit, but they don’t necessarily all have them about the same things, or see the same issues as matters of principle. Some Liberal Democrats would say We should be practical and pragmatic, basing our decisions on common sense, not ideology’. That puts us in danger of becoming New Labour. You need to let people have an idea of what you stand for, because most of politics is reacting to events, not predicting them in a manifesto, or the different ways in which the same basic policy, adopted for different reasons, can be implemented (a distinction always missed by those who, in the mid-’90s, claimed ‘Labour are now the same as the Lib Dems’).

There’s a useful Yes, Minister-style irregular verb – ‘I have a philosophy, you have an ideology, she is dogmatic’. Though Liberalism has an ideology, it doesn’t have a dogma; if it’s an open ideology that concentrates on the message more than the mechanism, then it can be pragmatic without being rudderless. We don’t have to live by one holy text for ever and defy reality when it doesn’t have the answers, whether it’s the Bible, Das Kapital or the Financial Times stock pages. Because people change, so do Liberal solutions – it’s how we’re still going after all this time. Pragmatism about your methods and mechanisms is only sensible; claiming pragmatism about your ‘principles’ means no-one can know what you stand for. There’s often a confusion between ‘interests’ and ‘ideologies’: for socialists and conservatives, their interest group is bound up with their ideology, so everyone knows what they stand for – they don’t stand for everyone.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Market?

Liberalism is the opposite of authoritarianism; socialism and Thatcherite ‘free-marketeers’ are mirror images of each other, reversed economic views that still appear frighteningly similar. We know economics is important, but it’s just one sort of power, not everything. For Thatcherites their notion of the market is the most important thing. Everyone can understand – but you don’t have to live by – the appeal of class and clan, to feel good about achieving things for ‘your own’, I’ve never understood why self-styled ‘neo-liberals’ get so excited by the market. You can’t see the smile on the face of a market when you’ve put all your energies into helping it out. You can’t see the children of a market playing happily in the street. You can’t be photographed with a market, a market can’t cheer you on and cheer you up, and to be very brutal about it, a market can’t even vote for you – and when it fails, it doesn’t thank you for nursing it (and neither does anyone else).

Lady Thatcher’s acolytes claim to think the free market and the absence of the state is Liberalism; Mill wouldn’t agree. Any Liberalism worth the name must be a social Liberalism – equating Thatcherism with ‘neo-liberalism’ is rather like equating King Herod with ‘neo-childcare’. By raising the market alone as their totem of freedom, they threw the baby out with the bathwater. Fortunately, most conservatives have gone back to using “Liberal” as a swear-word and stopped trying to appropriate it. There are some things where free-market ‘efficiency’ isn’t appropriate, like running schools or hospitals for profit. Did Mrs Thatcher support private armies and police too, or was she just confused? Perhaps Jackie Ballard summed up this double-think best in a Liberal Democrat Conference speech on how people propose vouchers for education, but not for defence; she said she wouldn’t mind vouchers for two soldiers and a sailor! Liberals see no problem with a role for the state intervening to make the market work and to do the things the market can’t, just as we guard against the state when it tries to take on everything itself and run things it can’t or shouldn’t.

Liberals are not scared of the big bad market, either. The market’s a useful tool (if a great big clumsy one), not a master, and most jobs should be done with several different tools. Even the 19th Century Liberals that many accuse of being starry-eyed free-market ideologues brought in Factory Acts rather than just leaving the market to run its course, and often supported the free market and free trade in the first place because it was the best way to help the poor and break down privilege. Talk of distorting the market, though, is ludicrous for two socking great reasons. First, unless you’re one of its worshippers, you needn’t fear upsetting it. Second, because markets are always distorted. Free markets are distorted by anyone’s decision, by people not just buying what’s cheap, by people who buy with ‘non-market considerations’ such as the environment, by people who know what they’re doing…! The market is distorted by huge companies, distorted by big speculators, distorted by low pay, distorted by advertising, distorted by unions, distorted by government – but they’re flexible enough to adjust, and no other way of distributing resources as effectively as often has been found. If one came along, Liberals would go for it where it worked, too – even John Stuart Mill enthused about markets on entirely pragmatic grounds, not on principle. Markets have no interest in social justice, or even long-term practicality; left alone, they consume themselves by leading to monopoly and leaving talented but poor people destitute and homeless, and always create huge costs to business or taxpayer, not least through congestion and pollution.

Socialists once defined themselves as against markets, and instead for ‘their’ class, which could be helped out by changing the way economics worked. Both socialists and free market conservatives put money and economics first. Both served vested interests, big business and the big unions, and didn’t really see ‘people’ at all – just parts of groups, or economic units. The further each went to their extremes, the more it became clear that both believed in a material utopia, either of the ‘pure’ market or a publicly owned paradise which would set all injustices right. No wonder that socialism’s dead today; the wonder is that the market-worshippers are still going.

Utopia and Dystopia Are the Same Thing

Liberalism sees material well-being – freedom from poverty – as part of dignity for all, but as a base to build on, not an end in itself. Liberals never saw all privatisations as good, or all nationalisations as the answer, but judged each on how well it would work. Materialism-based, economically determinist political philosophies of ‘left’ and ‘right’ can set an end point based on people’s economic position, a final, perfect, utopian society. Because Liberalism believes people count, and are not just to be counted as economic units, it rejects seeing material advantage as the only thing that matters, and does not believe in utopia. Those who want to impose their views on everyone else – convinced they know the ‘right’ way to live in absolute certainty – are terribly dangerous. A ‘perfect’ society has no room for individual imperfections, or personal development, or challenging ideas, and generates that terrible creed, “the end justifies the means” – in Liberalism, working for a dynamic, open society that develops constantly in response to the individuals who form it and their changing ideas and actions, the road to ‘utopia’ is the road to hell. The ends cannot justify the means, not only because every individual is too precious to sacrifice, but also because for a Liberalism of real people developing in real life, the ends are the means. Isaiah Berlin said he liked unpredictability and the occasional miracle. That is much more likely to happen if you view the human race as a fabulous collection of six billion miracles than if you see people as just part of a process, a means to an end. Liberals are struggling for liberated individuals today, not crushing them for an impersonal aim tomorrow.

Labour and the Tories: Both Up a Cul-de-Sac

A formerly socialist, once utopian organisation, Labour now appear to want to boss families around because they’ve given up on economics and surrendered to the Tories’ vision of the unfettered free market, only ever able to see socialism or its polar opposite; in Jonathan Calder’s words, “from the Red Flag to the white flag,” and to paraphrase others’, Labour’s view of the state has shrunk down until it fits into your home. Mr Blair’s big idea is to force everyone to be ‘well-behaved’, as he sees it; Mr Brown’s is that everyone should be ‘hard-working’. Between them, there’s not a lot of room left for free will.

In a key way, however, even Mr Blair has not changed anything. Labour are majoritarian. They are only interested in being in power and exercising it, so they aim to look after ‘their people’ and not really care about anyone outside that (and if they can’t look after their own, they can try to please them by bashing others). They used to see ‘their people’ as the working class, and tried to get a majority of people that way; today, they’re trying to appeal to many different groups, some established, some changing, some only existing in Labour’s focus-grouped imagination, but their aim is still to build a majority and establish majority rule – and anyone outside their majority can get trampled down (in fact, they may consider it their ‘moral duty’ to do the trampling). This should not be mistaken for a new pluralism just because one of the groups Mr Blair is attempting to assimilate is the Liberal Democrats. Majoritarianism is an easy basis for authoritarianism, and one Labour is making clear use of. Liberals believe all people are important, whether the Daily Mail likes them or not. We could never attack everyone in ‘the poor’, ‘the young’, ‘the anti-social’, ‘the squeegee merchants’ or even ‘the rich’, because our politics has never been based on hating ‘other people’; everyone is one of ‘our own’, and should be taken on their own terms.

The Tories, defined in opposition to Labour socialism as free market apostles, are now in a dreadful mess. Now that Labour no longer exists, they’re turning inwards to nationalism. For nationalists, the nation or the ‘race’ is the group which is ‘their people’, and the Tories are terribly confused between the market and nationalism; the first is blowing holes in the credibility of the second. They try to defend ‘national sovereignty’ as speculators mock it; Lady Thatcher is still trying to get over having signed the Single European Act to further the market, our largest ever single act of ‘pooling’ sovereignty (a concept no nationalist can get their head around).

Living Circles

Any party which starts off with groups will always see membership of the ‘key’ group as the most important thing about any individual who ‘qualifies’, and will never treat people who are ‘outside’ equally. They also allow acts to be done from above in the name of a collective ‘The People’ – not to arise from below, from real people. Liberals aren’t just for one group, or even one coalition of groups – yet two-dimensional socialists, for example, don’t aim to liberate the rich, only able to see them as ‘rich’ and nothing else. Liberals do, and have no interest in attacking them, ‘to put the boot on the other foot’; Conrad Russell has scathingly pointed out that Liberals hate jackboots, whoever’s wearing them. Equal love across the human family rules out politics based on a group’s self-interest. We start with individuals, who make and define their own groups, but treat every individual as important rather than the groups they’re in.

If you start with the individual, you can stretch out to anywhere, any way that individuals combine. If you start out with ‘the nation’, or class, or social group, you both sacrifice individuals for the group ‘good’ and set borders where you don’t care about those outside. Rigidly class-based or nationalist definitions of individuals go against the autonomy of the human mind, against independence of belief. It’s wrong to define a human being in terms of only one among the many attributes which make them up… We don’t make borders. We don’t try to force square pegs into round holes, our stereotype of what ‘a group should believe’ – a Liberal would never talk about a ‘class traitor’. Liberals, based on love for all individuals, are not ‘against’ particular groups; the most disturbing aspect of many parties is that they seek power to control everyone, yet they are formed to oppose certain people, only most blatantly in fascists like the British National Party. I could never support a party based on hating other people, or telling me what to think; one way in which my old “Love” speech did actually work was in contrast to the hate-filled rhetoric of the Trotskyites who were our main opponents in university politics. Liberalism works better when you’re willing to be nice to people!

Being against exclusive, unitary definitions by social group does not mean that Liberals see no identities bar the individual and the whole of humanity; Liberals see that an almost infinite number of identities can co-exist. A vivid exposition of pluralism of identities was given by Paddy Ashdown in perhaps his best Leader’s Speech to a Liberal Democrat Federal Conference, at Nottingham in Spring 1996.
“There are some who believe that ‘we’ is a singular concept, that it can refer only to one group, define only one identity, fix only one position”
was the proposition he knocked down – because everyone uses ‘we’ in a myriad different contexts. “We’re having Christmas at home,” “We’re getting up a petition,” “We’ve got a new export order” and “We’re playing away this Saturday” all, Paddy pointed out, illustrate different groups and communities that we belong to and identify with, easily and naturally, all at the same time. As a result, identifying with just one label fails to sum people up. To say, ‘I am British,’ or ‘You are gay,’ and only that, diminishes an individual’s identity and limits the space people want to call their own.

When I was LDYS Chair a few years ago, I worked with several other European parties’ youth wings, whether explicitly Liberal or with strong social Liberal currents. One of the latter at the time was the Flemish Volksunie Jongeren, and I got to know one of their leaders, Sigurd Vangermeersch, who had a persuasive insight into the way people’s groups combine and co-exist. Sigurd described this pluralism of identities as “living circles”; people overlap into many different groups that are important to them, not just class or nation. Rather than the ‘closed circles’ of one defining group, living circles are built up by individuals in all directions – I can see myself as part of my relationship, family, workplace, party, Doctor Who fan, friends, Manchester, North-West England, London, America, neighbourhood, gay community, Britain, Europe, humanity – with different circles having been more or less important at different times. One of the few occasions in politics when I lost my temper through feeling personally affronted was with someone persistently labelling me with their version of what my most important identity was. Liberalism must be opposed to those philosophies which tell people which groups they belong in and which one matters – because nobody has just the one.

You can find the evolving links to the whole of Love and Liberty with an introduction here. Over the following days, I’ll be expanding on the consequences of putting love at the heart of my Liberalism – check back to that contents list and watch for those links to spring into life, though there may be a bit of a delay while our home internet connection’s knackered. Oh, and don’t forget to give your opinion on whether #LibDemHeart or #LibDemValues makes the better tag!

Back to II

Forward to IV

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