Friday, February 26, 2016

Liberalism Considered Harmful

I decided to open this new chapter in this blog's history with two provocative points:

  1. Our country is governed by a general "liberal consensus" even, and perhaps especially, on the right, and
  2. I do not accept that consensus.

 Defining "Liberal"

Contrary to most political voices today, I do not see the distinction between "liberal" and "conservative" to be that useful.  The distinction is a narrow one, what sort of liberalism to push, and not one that involves actually questioning the philosophical underpinnings of liberalism itself.

The tradition of liberal thought arises out of the so-called "enlightenment" which was a reaction to the perception that the European Renaissance was on one hand two Catholic and on the other hand too cozy with Islamic thinkers.  However, the Renaissance was at its roots a Classicist movement, filtered merging Catholic and Islamic developments largely on Greek thought.  Liberalism, as found in thinkers like Locke and Hume posits that the primary relationship in politics is between the individual and the state.

From this approach arise the ideas of individual rights and social contracts as we know them.  The old order, which still exists in atrophied form, and which I will discuss more below, is to be subsumed within this framework, where individual investors and capitalists morally deserve to be rewarded off the backs of the workers, and that jobs and employment, in the good Protestant Industrial Revolution work ethic, combined with appropriate government machinery, will solve all our social problems.

From this perspective, the difference between the parties is that the Democrats would like the State to be the Mother writ large, and business to be the father, while Republicans would like to reverse these gender roles.  Our choices are thus between what Dorothy Day called "The Holy Mother State" and what I would call "The Holy Mother, Inc."

The basic consensus is that the modern state consists of individuals and a government, where the government's goal is to insist on ordered liberty for individuals, and the individuals who must respect the social contract.  Individuals band together into corporations which are given a sort of artificial personhood, and the rights of an individual, as a passthrough vehicle to protect the rights of the investors.

Liberalism itself, as Hilaire Belloc pointed out, depends for its success on the poor and disadvantaged, and the forces of the reformation were necessary to create the displaced workforce that would allow the industrial revolution to succeed.  Belloc was not the only one to make this assessment.  Many of the early Capitalist theorists including Adam Smith's contemporaries, believed that the poor must be kept both poor and disadvantaged so that they would be willing to work.  Thus both classical liberalism and neoliberalism require poor people to be disempowered so that corporations can work as efficient social machines.  In future posts I will critique the role of social welfare in modern American society, and other aspects by which the upper classes continue to ensure that the poor must be kept poor.

This consensus also borrows the ideological internationalism of Christian thought.  The idea is that there is one social truth, one set of human rights, etc. that is applicable to all people in all cultures, even when that is obviously false.  A right to private property cannot apply to the hunter-gatherer in the same way it applies to the city dweller.  It is a great irony that our discussions and frameworks of human rights are built on a system dependent upon injustice in order to function.

Liberal Cosmology

The basis of liberal cosmology is the analogy of everything to machinery.  Workers are but cogs in the corporate machine.  The body is but a machine, capable of being altered, fixed, and improved.  Our homes are machines.  The universe is a great machine (see the previous two books as references).  Today we take this even further, with many believing that neuroscience can explain all of human behavior despite of course the obvious evidence to the contrary: chemistry cannot be reduced to applied quantum physics (pdf alert).

The cosmology of liberalism then is fundamentally reductionist, and based on the idea that as we gain experience, we can build ever more complex social machinery in the name of social progress.  The only real disagreements left are what sort of social machinery to build and which direction we want to progress.  Do we put our faith in government or private industry?  Do we want the government to be a moral authority, or a system of social nourishment (Day's "Holy Mother State")?  Nobody dares challenge the basic framework though.  Even the socialists and communists largely accept it.

Towards Alternatives

First, we must recognize that a lot of deep thought regarding society was wrongly discarded in the enlightenment, and also that liberalism is not as scientific as it appears.  In particular liberal social thinkers tend to be quick to dismiss anthropological assessments if they are opposed to the favored policies.    Science itself on both sides is a tool for furthering a priori political agendas, not for measuring success or failure.  This is human nature.  When science challenges us and counsels us against arrogance, we (as arrogant humans) ignore it, having faith that any limits now present will be overcome.
If you look at the current race, the argument is about job creation and who got us into this mess, and both sides blame the wrong Presidents.  The Presidents both sides idolize (Reagan and Clinton) are the very ones whose policies set up this mess through financial deregulation and encouragement of lax lending policies, see Hyman Minsky's theories of economic instability.  But both sides ignore models that work and predict the current crisis and finger point at the other in order to protect the image that the policies that got us here are what we need to do to get out of this hole.

So what is the alternative?  It is to look to twin sources of anthropology and more traditional models.  One model, suggested by Aristotle in Politics, consists not of individuals and states but rather of individuals coming together into households, and those households forming communities.  The state can be seen as a layer on top of this.   Corporations can be seen as another form of community, one dedicated to producing and distributing goods and services.  Profit then becomes important but only one goal, subservient to the greater mission (which arguably is the case for most successful businesses at least in their initial stage).

This model is fundamentally pluralistic.  The structure of the household may vary from society to society, and the collective interests of the community may be different as well.  There may be commonalities that we can explore but we can agree that control should be at the most local level possible.  It is not internationalist like liberalism is.  We don't have to push the "economic development" religion on foreign cultures.    They can join us or not if they want.

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