Liberty, Libertarians, Liberals and Collective Society: Confusing I with We, me with us.
“Freedom is just another word for…” ? No, I am not asking you to finish the lyric from Me and Bobby McGee. I am asking that we be clear about political liberalism, economic liberalization, and personal freedom.
I want to argue that critics of the “neo-liberal agenda” of global capitalism are using words too loosely. Attacking the corporate program by labeling it “liberalization” is an imprecise way to frame what we dislike about our foes.
In the order of the world forced on us by the corporate and banking masters of our material reality, the words liberty and liberalism have to be kept away from the capitalist vocabulary. The capitalists want to claim those words.
The misunderstanding about capitalism and liberty is deep. Capitalists promote a version of history that links their economic practice with political freedom. They say, look at this fact: new forces of capitalist productivity and a new elite class of capitalists with vast wealth but no aristocratic bloodlines emerged in the eighteenth century, first in Britain, then France and America. At this very time emerged new forms of representative democracy. Conclusion: capitalists are democrats. It is a lesson drawn from history.
Capitalism means freedom is the political message. Is this true? One has to say yes and no. History does not teach one lesson. Historians teach. Historians are people with a point of view. When some say capitalism means democracy, be skeptical. Those historians have reasons for favoring capitalism that are derived from their personal inclination.
Review the history of England and France. A noble class was accustomed before the 18th century to rights not granted to commoners. In England, the power of the House of Commons was not less than the Lords but only relatively wealthy men could vote for MPs in the Commons. England, the first modern industrial-capitalist society, granted more political rights to poorer men in a series of parliamentary Reform Acts (1832, 1867, 1885). Voter qualification, setting bottom limits for property ownership as a precondition for the right to vote, ensure the lowest orders of society lacked political power. Gradually all property qualifications would be eliminated. England’s conventional opinion is that the absence of violent social revolution to extend democracy is a tribute to the Anglo-Saxon genius for compromise, and to the political intelligence of the English aristocracy. Other nations – the French, Germans, Spaniards, even American colonists – had violent liberal revolutions; sensible Englishmen avoided that.
Liberalism meant, in its early usage, attack on the privileges of birth of a noble class and its monarchic governments. All citizens must be equal before the law, is a basic tenet of liberalism. Liberalism among Europeans was the word to summarize political ideas that led to the weakening of power in monarchy and the nobility and the clergy, to put power in commoners’ hands. How was political power put in the hands of the Commons? In the form of ballots to be cast for for men who would represent the electors in institutions that made law.
Representative democracy, not direct democracy – as in ancient Athens — is the model.
How do economic Free Trade and political liberalism relate? The two seem connected by the words “freedom and liberty.” If citizens are free, and liberty makes them happy, then commerce of men should be free too. Freedom of markets and freedom of individuals can now proceed to be conflated. Liberty for the citizen-voter was linked to freedom to accumulate wealth as well as legal equality with all other citizens. The confusion comes with the imprecise use of a single word, liberty or freedom. Property (material wealth) was declared a sacred right by no less a document than France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789.
Liberty was the watchword of the American and French republican revolutionaries when they overthrew the power of kings. At the same time Americans were declaring Independence in 1776, the theory of free markets in an economy was published in a book called The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith). England of course was first to make Free Trade a principle of its economic policy, an idea found in the book by Smith. Powerful industrial-capitalist economies like England possessed, first among all nations of the world, need no barrier to the sale of its exports. Other nations should let in England’s products, said English “liberal” economists, and England would reciprocate. All people would benefit from free, open markets in global trade.
England then used war to force China to open itself to English imports of opium (1840), and the USA used the threat of war to force Japan to open itself to American imports (1853).
Before the USA, (or Germany or France) would open itself to the industrial imports of the UK’s factories, the Americans wanted to make their own industry as strong as England’s — and so the US was not agreeable to Free Trade before the 20th C. Now of course America is a champion of “liberalization” of trade, and demands other nations not keep American goods out by tariffs or any other political obstacle. Canada too, like all highly-developed economies, want this kind of global world order for the commerce of capitalist products.
My point is, “liberalization” is the word we use now, too loosely, to describe economic policies favoring corporate private interest. A Corporation has the same legal status as an individual, and that is a serious problem. Private business interest is not a natural ally of the popular political sovereignty on which democracy is founded.
Once the special legal privileges of nobles were overthrown, the richest commoners moved into the roles of a ruling class in the place of the former nobility. But still the commoners who had immeasurably greater wealth than their fellow citizen-voters, portrayed their politics as liberal, and they could make an argument.
Wealth makes a citizen more powerful than his supposed peer who has no wealth. But poor people too can rise in society by accumulating wealth by whatever legal means (and sometimes illegal, as with smuggling, bootlegging, or plunder of colonies overseas.)
Thus we arrived in the 19th C at the social order not too different from today. Formal democracy, with one vote per person, legal equality, upward or downward social mobility depending on one’s material possessions: this is modern social order. Our political discourse absolutely refuses to use the phrase “ruling class,” however. “Elite” yes, ”Class” no.
Liberty for capitalism, then, means freedom for the strong to compete with the weak – and no government of the weak shall interfere in the natural working of the market. In strict legal terms, all products are thus equal in the market. But as in a single society, those states who are already wealthy enjoy an advantage over the nations which are much poorer. This is the myth of economic liberalization, that a level “playing field” is fair for all. Fairness is not to be found in helping weak economies with political protections. History has examples of just that policy sheltering American industry behind tariffs against British imports in the 19th Century, but ignore that inconvenient truth.
Today, “liberalization” of the global economy by rich-world policies and institutions like the World Bank, the IMF, and various trade pacts like NAFTA or CEPA, are the new norm we hear as conventional wisdom from all sorts of media and politicians. It is today’s common sense. But progressives dismiss — quite rightly – the arguments of strong capitalist states and their corporate interests for this liberal or new liberal (neo-liberal) global order. Critics rightly point out that this liberal economic order serves capitalism in the rich nations more than it serves the weak nations and undeveloped economies.
While progressives can rightly attack the notion of liberalism for corporations doing international business, inside our own national societies progressives are vigorously supporting liberty for the individual with great passion.
In the years since the economic form of liberalism has installed corporate power globally, the political and legal forms of liberalism also have made strides. Is this a co-incidence, a collision of principles, or a collusion of liberal values in all spheres of human life?
Progress for women and for minorities – for groups whose identity has been historically subjected to hostile discrimination – has been remarkable. At the same time as there is progress for these causes, global neo-liberalism has entrenched the power of corporations in the economies of all states, strong or weak as may be. Each individual is now asserting rights for their sexual orientation, their gender, their ethnicity, culture, mental or physical challenge, and so on. Today, politics is more about rights for these hitherto “marginalized” people than about democracy as a system to ensure that majorities rule. If indeed the wealth of societies is concentrated in the hands of a minority, and it surely is – what can politics do to redress the balance? And, are we losing sight of that redress in our passion for individual rights?
Here’s a case in point that reveals the hyper-individualized focus of politics now; it occurred on the day I am writing. In Saskatoon, a swift assembly of protesters was brought to a store which had refused service to a trans-gendered individual. “Her rights were disrespected,” people in the crowd told media. “It’s an outrage that the store discriminated against this transgendered person!” one woman said. A poster read, “Say no to trans-phobia!”
Rights for an individual who is identified with a minority is the heart of this issue. Individualism has trumped collective political movements. Socialism was an early casualty.
Political activism that pours its energy into individual rights, has been called “identity politics.” Everyone now has a fragmentary piece of society with which they claim the most identity. No one speaks in generalities, about the public good, the commonwealth, or a social class interest. It is the new normal to focus on one special topic at a time for a mass or collective effort in the streets. Online “click-activism” is a vast new phenomena. Petitions signed online get tens of thousands of signatures.
The Occupy! Movement claimed to speak for 99% of the population, and its failure to make that claim believable helped its dissolution into fragments. The anti-capitalist movement of street protests outside of G-8 or IMF or Davos events for rich nations, is fading into memory. It seems that the socialist vision of a massive collective called “the working class” which uses democracy to re-distribute wealth more equitably, is a dying ideal.
I intend no criticism of individual rights and the movements that push for them. All power to every one and each special identity and be sure that identity is enshrined in legal equality!! No one to be subject to discrimination or nasty -isms!! (sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. etc.)
But I would like us to notice that while each one of us pursues our liberated unique identity and ego, the collective power of the corporate order has opened an abyss between the obscenely wealthy and the rest of us, and made the planetary habitat perilous for humanity and other species.
This physical and material world that corporate capitalism has made will contribute to and even cause the deaths of millions over the coming decades, as it has already in the past century. Even as those deaths occur, we celebrate the liberation of our sexual mores, beliefs, cultures, ethnicity, skin colour, and so forth from the judgments of other people.
In the grand balance of human history, of gains and losses for individuals and societies, and the rises and falls of different regions in and out of global power, it is not clear to me what all our individual liberation has achieved in the grand scheme of humans pursuing happiness. We taek steps forward as individuals with rights, while collectively we sink under capitalism’s relentless accumulation of material in private hands. The material comes from nature and deprives nature while it enriches the capitalist. Nature rebels, and humans die.
As a transformed materialist, Marxian, anti-religious person myself, I feel differently now about the victory of capitalism than I did in the 1960’s. Then I raged that we would smash capitalism with socialism. Now, I turn inward and look for spiritual significance in the history of human consciousness.
Charles Jeanes is a Nelson-based writer. The previous edition of Arc of the Cognizant can be found here.