Friday, July 8, 2016

Some Forgotten Truths about Politics

Things to ponder on:
(1) Classical liberalism of the 19th century was a left-wing movement, when placed on the political spectrum of that era. It follows that a major strand of the left was strongly in favour of laissez faire capitalism in the 19th century.

(2) 19th century Conservatism had a strong protectionist and anti-laissez faire capitalist strand: think of the British Tory Paternalists, Tory Radicals and High Tories, some of whom led the Parliamentary reforms that regulated working conditions and child labour. (Admittedly, they had no coherent economic program to put in place of laissez faire capitalism, and often had naively Romantic views of the medieval and rural world of orders, hierarchy, monarchy and aristocracy.) Some of the more substantive, early attempts to implement welfare state measures were taken by Conservatives (even if supported by progressive liberals): think of Otto von Bismarck and Benjamin Disraeli. As the 19th century progressed, conservatives were gradually taken over by economic liberalism, until by the early 20th century the process was complete as many pro-free trade Classical liberals defected to conservativism, as the Left was increasing taken over by socialist, social democratic and labour-based political movements. There was a reversal from about 1945 to the early 1970s, as even most mainstream Conservatives accepted the Keynesian, mixed economy consensus. (For a fine discussion of British Victorian political movements, see Jones 2000.)

(3) The Old Left of the early and mid-20th century was, more or less, socially conservative (with a Bohemian fringe) and strongly opposed to mass immigration. In fact, outside of Europe, in Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand, the trade unions and labour-based parties were easily the most vocal and hostile to mass immigration precisely because it undermined labour rights, working conditions, and wages in the colonies.
In our time, things have reversed:
(1) old-style, laissez-faire capitalism is associated with the Right and what used to be called Classical liberalism is essentially a form of libertarianism, which is generally grouped with the political Right.

(2) Conservatism has been largely taken over by the neoliberal or Thatcherite vision of capitalism since the 1970s, and the left-wing political parties have been converted to neoliberal-lite economic policies since the 1970s.

(3) The Left is now extremely liberal or even quasi-libertarian on cultural and social issues and, at least amongst the elite and middle class representatives of it, strongly in favour of mass immigration.
Jones, H. S. 2000. Victorian Political Thought. Macmillan, Basingstoke.


  1. "The Old Left of the early and mid-20th century was, more or less, socially conservative (with a Bohemian fringe)..."

    I'm not at all sure about this. We have to be very careful with what we consider 'culturally conservative'.

    The Old Left -- in its Fabian guise in the case of the UK -- were culturally radical. But they were culturally radical in the way that radicalism then expressed itself: mainly in the form of a scientistic worldview that ended up promoting genetics and mass abortion. This was a view of society that should not be dominated by 'tradiion' or 'old-fashioned moral principles' (mainly Christian moral principles) but should instead be run in a pseudo-scientific, technocratic way to 'better the species'.

    These views were viewed with extreme hostility by cultural conservatives -- as they still are today. Today the left still adhere to these ideas but some of them have been watered-down a bit and have also included the ideas of what you refer to as the 'Bohemian fringe'. These latter are morally relativisic ideas that can also be found on the liberal left in the 18th century (i.e. the 'freethinker' movement). These are not new but they have certainly seen a revival. You blame 'postmodernism' but I think that these ideas can be found in the 18th century tied to the modernist political movement.

    So, we have to distinguish here. Cultural conservatives -- like Edmund Burke, George Berkeley and Peter Hitchens today -- believe that Tradition and Law must be adhered to. These are grounded in moral principles that must be considered absolute. In order to ground this moral absolutism these thinkers typically refer to religion.

    Cultural radicals come in two forms. You have, on the one hand, scientistic radicals who want to engage in social engineering in order to bring about some abstract principle of 'social good'. This 'social good' is usually referred to along utilitarian or evolutionary lines. These people typically deny moral absolutism and, if pushed, have no capacity to ground Good and Evil and instead resort to evaluating behavior in terms of a utilitarian or evolutionary social good. Cultural conservatives find this abhorrent and point out the evils that it has carried with it -- from mass sterilisation onwards. The New Atheist movement are the key representatives of this line of thinking today.

    Then there are the moral relativists. These people seem to want to attack all cultural institutions. They just push the ideas of the social engineers even further. Again they claim that there are no moral absolutes. But they say that there is also no social good that can be clearly defined. Thus there is only the personal good and that should be pursued with no regard for social norms. These people can be found prominently in the 18th century -- Lord Bolingbroke was a fine example -- and today. They were fringe, as you say, in the 19th and early 20th century. But they were only 'sleeping'.

    A cultural conservative sees the two groups as synonymous. They see the moral relativists as being the end result of the weaknesses in the scientistic worldview -- specially the inability to ground absolute moral notions of Good and Evil.

    Start from there. Then we can have a coherent debate.

    1. (1) my general response:

      (2) "These latter are morally relativisic ideas that can also be found on the liberal left in the 18th century (i.e. the 'freethinker' movement)."

      I think you have badly misunderstand moral relativism. Also the New Atheist Movement.

      The New Atheist Movement, say, as in Sam Harris, is vehemently opposed to modern moral and cultural relativism. You don't know this, possibly, because you've not looked at what they actually say.

      Modern moral and cultural relativism is to a great extent an outgrow of post-WWII Boasian cultural anthropology.

      This in turn was a reaction to the crimes of Nazi fascism and excesses of 19th century hereditarian racial views.

      Its greatest supporters in the 20th century were precisely the French Poststructuralists and Postmodernists whom (previously) you seem to approve of.

    2. Correction:

      "The greatest supporters of moral and cultural relativism in the late 20th century were precisely the French Poststructuralists and Postmodernists whom (previously) you seem to approve of."

    3. You're not listening to me.

      The New Atheist movement are not moral relativist. Rather they have attempted to form something resembling a moral system by appealing to the principles of natural science - evolution, mainly, and when that fails, utilitarianism.

      Cultural conservatives see this as a fruitless enterprise and they claim that, in questioning moral truths established by custom and religion, the New Atheists are just opening the path for the moral relativists.

      For cultural conservatives, the New Atheists and their materialist ilk in previous times hold to highly inconsistent views that don't withstand the tests of simple logic. For cultural conservatives the moral relativists are actually far more consistent. They are honest. The New Atheists are not.

      Here is an example of such a culturally conservative commentator in the US today. She is obviously an evangelical and an ID type - positions that not all cultural conservatives hold. But her views on this particular issue are those of cultural conservativism generally.

    4. So when you speak of "cultural conservatives" you refer to traditional Christian theists, for whom morals are absolute and given by god?

      Yes, no doubt they bitterly oppose any attempt to argue that morality can be justified rationally without god.

      Whatever the merits of secular consequentialist ethics, the divine command theory of morality of these theistic cultural conservatives is itself an abysmal failure.

      If we take divine command theory of morality, it -- when all is said and done -- essentially says that what is good is what is ordered by god, and that there cannot be any external standard of goodness by which to judge right from wrong.

      Looking at the Bible we see god ordered his angels to kill all Egyptian firstborn children and cattle because their king was stubborn (Exodus 12:29), orders the Israelites to commit genocide in Canaan (even children: Joshua 6:20-21, Deuteronomy 2:32-35, Deuteronomy 3:3-7, Numbers 31:7-18, 1 Samuel 15:1-9), and god orders his people to kill their own wives and children for worshiping other gods (Deuteronomy 13:6-10). And that is just a sample.

      The only remotely defensible and workable ethical theory is secular consequentialist ethics, which despite what the cultural conservatives think often tends to support a lot of traditional morality anyway, precisely because many of the core moral principles that we as a social species have developed to survive are actually rational and conducive to human happiness.

    5. Not interested in a debate on that. If I want to reflect on the actions of Abraham I'll read 'Fear and Trembling' rather than listen to New Atheists ramble on while engaged in literalist readings of non-literal texts.

      But no, they do not necessarily have to be theists. There are plenty of people who believe strongly in the need to respect tradition and authority who are not theists.

      My point is that the views you are espousing are absolutely NOT cultural conservative views.

  2. My first paragraph should read 'eugenics' and not 'genetics'. Please do edit that. Thanks.

  3. This may be of interest as it ties Bolingbroke to the libertarians.

  4. perhaps relevant here is the analysis at the beginning of Ishay Landa's "The Apprentice's Sorcerer," which draws attention to a contradiction between different aspects of liberalism. on one hand, economic liberalism enshrines a class structure, while on the other hand political liberalism is founded on an ideology of radical egalitarianism, and the two have been butting heads for centuries now. fascinating stuff.