Rob Watts vs the Neoconservatives

RMIT’s Rob Watts attempts to save the welfare state by attacking liberalism

Neoconservatives are winning the welfare debate because they take values seriously, says RMIT’s Rob Watts. In a recent paper on the welfare-to-work debate (pdf) he rejects the idea that the left is struggling because of a lack of access to funding and good empirical research. The problem lies deeper than that. Modern social scientists are incapable of arguing about right and wrong because they treat moral values as if they are nothing more than subjective preferences. As a result, neoconservative appeals to self-reliance and reward face no competition.

Unlike social scientists, ordinary people do not accept that morality is a matter of personal taste — they think that values have authority. Neoconservatives have always understood this. Thinkers like Irving Kristol and Australia’s ‘badPeter Saunders argue that society depends on a shared moral framework. Saunders says that intellectuals have shattered the old moral consensus by promoting moral relativism and asserting that individuals have a right to pursue any lifestyle they choose. The only thing that is forbidden is moral judgment (p 116-117).

Watts attacks neoconservatives by agreeing with them. He argues that relativism has been disastrous for the left. After all, if values are nothing but subjective preferences then how is it possible to defend policies which promote tolerance and social justice? Why isn’t xenophobia or selfish materialism just another equally valid lifestyle choice? When leftist intellectuals argue for humane treatment of asylum seekers and more spending on social programs aren’t they just forcing their elitist preferences on ordinary people?

During the 1940s thinkers like Aron Gurwitsch warned that if we insisted on abandoning abstract moral reasoning for concrete concepts like need, preference satisfaction, and utility we would end up as nihilists. The problem with nihilism is that it is defenceless against totalitarianism. After all, if some people prefer genocide to economic efficiency, who are you or I to pass judgment?

Like the neoconservatives, Watts thinks that ordinary people are wiser than value-free economists and relativistic postmodernists. At least they are not deluded into thinking that more data and better theories can save the world from a decent into chaos:

Progressives who work in the social sciences or the community sector need to get over its actual disdain for ordinary people and a long established preference for experts and their specialist kinds of knowledge. Progressives need to get over their simple faith that gathering all of the evidence together or engaging in critique by itself will win hearts and minds of those its needs to persuade.

Drawing on the work of American linguist George Lakoff, Watts argues that neoconservatives have done a better job of connecting with the values of ordinary people. By selectively appealing to the values electorate they have managed to win support for their harsh welfare-to-work policies. To turn the tables, the left needs to "begin by specifying the kind of ethical values that will secure a new and widespread consensus, and help to inform any outline of the design principles for a welfare state worth having."

Beyond Machiavellianism

In Niccolò Machiavelli’s time, values were expressed through religion. Machiavelli advised rulers to"favor and encourage all those things which arise in favor of religion, even if they judge them to be false…" Today he would almost certainly advise our rulers to celebrate the Australian civic religion of egalitarianism, mateship and the fair go. No ruler who wants to hold onto power should miss an opportunity to appear at sacred festivals like footy grand finals, ANZAC Day, or Steve Irwin’s funeral. A shrewd political strategist always cloaks his leader’s agenda in his subjects’ most cherished values.

The modern Machiavellian uses social science as a tool. And as long as the fact/value distinction holds, there is no intellectually sound reason why psychology, anthropology or sociology shouldn’t serve the interests of torturers, xenophobes and imperialists — after all, the rightness or wrongness of these things is a matter of personal taste. In an essay titled ‘What is Political Philosophy?’ the German-American political philosopher Leo Strauss wrote:

The habit of looking at social or human phenomena without making value judgments has a corroding influence on any preferences. The more serious we are as social scientists, the more completely we develop within ourselves a state of indifference to any goal, or of aimlessness and drifting, a state which may be called nihilism (p 14).

Most social scientists manage to avoid nihilism. But when they do, it is only because they accept their society’s values for the same reasons that non-social scientists do. According to Strauss, conflicts between rival value systems cannot be resolved by appealing to social science. As he explained in The City and Man, social science can increase man’s power over other men, but it cannot tell him how he ought to use his power (p 7).

Watts agrees. He begins his paper with a quote from the phenomenologist Alfred Schutz, "The social sciences are intellectually vacuous and ethically nihilist".* And after approvingly citing Strauss’ arguments against value-free social science he calls for a revival of the Socratic tradition in higher education:

The Socratic tradition suggests that it is a fundamental responsibility that falls on university teachers to both introduce their students to the basics of good thinking and writing and to ‘turn them on’ to the challenge of curiosity and the delights of thinking.

For Watts, higher education as a basic entitlement of citizenship. And to make sure everyone benefits, he argues that academics have an obligation to make their work as accessible as possible. Curiously, Leo Strauss reached exactly the opposite conclusion.

Strauss, Straussians and the neoconservatives

Strauss did not believe that it was healthy for a society to expose the majority of its citizens to Socratic scepticism. As Thomas Pangle writes:

Socratic skepticism threatens always to weaken the citizenry’s attachment to authoritative moral and religious opinion, whose deep-rooted, habitual or tradition-grounded, hold on the heart is an essential basis for healthy politics, especially in public-spirited republican society.

The ‘godfather of neoconservatism‘, Irving Kristol, agrees. He says that Strauss:

…was an intellectual aristocrat who thought that the truth could make some minds free, but he was convinced that there was an inherent conflict between philosophic truth and the political order, and that the popularization and vulgarization of these truths might import unease, turmoil, and the release of popular passions hitherto held in check by tradition and religion — with utterly unpredictable, but mostly negative, consequences (p 8).

Peter Saunders takes a similar line. He argues that capitalism "needs symbols to legitimate the inequalities of condition which arise from market transactions, and it needs a core set of values which can bind people together through ties of mutual obligation and social responsibility" (p 119).

Saunders doesn’t offer a philosophical defence of these core values. As a sociologist he stays on his side of the fact/value dichotomy. All he is saying is that society will fall apart unless we find a way of convincing citizens that capitalism is a fair system and that they have an obligation to take responsibility for their own welfare. This is an empirical claim which appeals to shared interests. Saunders doesn’t need to justify his moral claims to make his argument work.

If the neoconservatives are right then liberal education and Socratic questioning must remain an elite pursuit. Strauss himself argued that every political society is founded on opinion rather than on knowledge (p x). Neither social science nor philosophy can justify the values on which society depends.

Neither Athens or Jerusalem

Unlike Saunders, Watts needs to defend his ideas of right and wrong. He suggests a morality based around Martha Nussbaum’s idea of human flourishing. But this suggestion seems more like a pragmatic bit of political strategy than a serious philosophical justification.

In criticising the community sector’s response to neoconservatism and neoliberalism, Watts ignores role of church-based welfare agencies. Unlike secular social scientists, most Christian welfare advocates don’t buy into the idea of moral relativism or anything-goes-liberalism. Their values are grounded in their faith. And as Kevin Rudd argues, there is no necessary connection between Christianity and conservatism.

But perhaps Watts thinks that appeals to faith will lead to division and intolerance. Political appeals based on religious belief are appeals to particular faith traditions while a modern multicultural nation like Australia is made up of people from a diversity of traditions. A philosophy which appeals to reason could potentially offer a universal justification of values — one which does not depend on membership of a particular community. But this is exactly what Strauss and the neoconservatives reject.

The belief that moral values ought to guide politics is destructive when it is combined with the Straussian idea that values are internal to particular communities and traditions. It fuels the culture war and encourages political leaders to see terrorism as a symptom of a ‘clash of civilizations’ that the West needs to win.

Watts should think again about liberalism. Rather than being a value-based ideology, liberalism is a practical response to moral conflict. Since our values cannot be justified by philosophical argument and our opponents cannot (or should not) be destroyed liberals argue that values are a private rather than a public matter. Liberals do not say that all values are equally valid — anyone who believes that is a nihilist. Nor do they argue against shared social norms — just as long as these are not enforced by the state. What liberalism offers is a set of institutions and habits that can allow each of us to live according to our own values without destroying each other. That is why the only thing that liberalism cannot tolerate is freedom for people place more value on the destruction of enemies than they do on the continuation of their own way of life.

______________________________

* This seems to be one of Watts’ favourite quotes. I’ve seen him use versions of it in Arena Magazine (issue 42 p 22), the Australian Journal of Political Science (vol 36 No 1 p 173), a paper on youth violence, and in a textbook. I expected to find it here, but I just can’t see it. Does anyone know where it comes from?

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Amused
Amused
15 years ago

Why would anyone be surprised that neoliberal econoimic prescriptions require an elitist approach to social policy and practice? What I like about Saunders is his frank admissions that his preferred economic model rests, at its heart, on very old fashioned notions concening the relationship between polity and policy elites. How could it not. We are back to Burke via Manchester liberalism. Love it, and love the panics about post modernism as well. There is nothing as bracing as reading polemics fashioned by panicked economic liberals, as they contemplate the logistics of squaring the ‘winner take all’ circle with ‘traditional family/Australian values’. As the Ausrtalian leader said today-this is paraphrase-post modernists need to understand the real Australian values, not the ones held by inner city elites. It was a perfect example of the type. Simply delicious.

GMB
GMB
15 years ago

OI!!!!!

When am I being taken off moderation!!!!

This has gone on LONGENOUGH!!!!

derrida derider
derrida derider
15 years ago

What a load of confused crap. Where to begin?

For a start, typology. Neoconservative is a term that is supposed to refer to ex-liberals pushing a radical (not conservative) foreign policy. Irving Kristol fits this, Peter Saunders and the others do not quite. Just try the word “conservatives”; the people who push Welfare-to-Work are people like Murray who are dyed-in-the-wool conservatives.

Postmodernists don’t generally bewail a lack of empiric evidence – they regard such evidence as inevitably being collected in order to privilege some discourses over others. You’re confusing them with modernists, who whatever their failings cannot credibly be accused of nihilism.

There’s lots more – but Amused got the biggest point. Liberal economics is incompatible with conservative sociology. That’s what did for Maggie Thatcher. Its a realisation that Saunders has had to confront and he has (wrongly, IMO) dumped some of the liberal economics.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
15 years ago

dd, you’re wrong.
‘Neoconservatives’ was a term used to describe ex New Deal Democrats who were Cold War hawks long before they were used to describe the current batch. There is of course a continuity between the two groups – both are more concerned with foreign policy activism and are more or less indifferent to domestic policy.

Also try to keep up re Murray. He has long abandoned his earlier welfare to work idea and is now proposing a guaranteed minimium income plan.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

Great post Don. Very interesting as usual.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
15 years ago

DD – I agree with Jason about this.

A lot of Australian academics use ‘neoconservative’ when they really ought to use ‘conservative’. I’d agree with you about that.

But if you agree that Irving Kristol is the paradigm case then you’ll need to let go of the idea that neoconservatism necessarily has anything to do with foreign policy. Jeane Kirkpatrick was not the first intellectual to wear the label.

If you want to know where the term comes from, take yourself down to the Hancock basement at ANU and find the Fall 1973 volume of Dissent. You’re looking for Michael Harrington’s article ‘The Welfare State and Its Neoconservative Critics’ (p 435).

Harrington wrote:

The Failures of the welfare state in the sixties have served as stimulus for, and rationale of, the rise of neoconservative thought in the seventies.

In addition to Irving Kristol, Harrington listed Nathan Glazer, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Daniel Bell. What made this group ‘neo’ was that they emerged from a separate set of intellectual traditions to America’s mainstream conservatives. They were definitely not part of the William F Buckley set at the National Review.

It’s a difficult group to define – some were Jewish (Moynihan wasn’t, neither was Novak) some were ex-liberals (Novak wasn’t) and some of them didn’t think they ought to be called neoconservatives at all (like Daniel Bell).

If this first generation on neoconservatives had a focus it was The Public Interest, a journal which deliberately avoided any discussion of foreign affairs.

As for Charles Murray, he identifies as a libertarian.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
15 years ago

I think a case can be made for identifying Saunders as a neo con in the Kristol sense. In his comment at Catallaxy he said he used to be a member of the Labor Party in the UK but quit because of their policy on housing. This is a bit like the Kristols who were never libertarians or economic liberals to begin with and like the welfare state but felt that parts of it were undermining a genuine leftist welfarist agenda,.

Amused
Amused
15 years ago

There is no ‘logical’ contest between hyper liberal economics and social coercion. That is the dirty little secret underpinning much of the current obfuscations. The real and largely hidden issue is the ‘politics’ that must be mobilised to continually ‘square the circle’ between abstract ‘freedoms’ and the institutional arrangements required to secure social and economic power, as a terrain beyond ‘politics’. You know, being poor and powerless at work is not a ‘political’ issue, it is an issue of inadequate attention to personal capital investment, which further and rigorous attention to markets will rectify as we move to ‘perfect equilibrium’.

That is what Saunders and his ilk are striving for, and that is what Thatcher meant by ‘there is no such thing as society’. What she really meant is, ‘there can be no such thing as concerted social action via politics anymore, only political action by economic elites and their hired help to depoliticise exisitng power arangements. Hence the blather about ‘values’, rather than detailed and empirical examination of the ways in which existing arrangments empower some, and impoverish options for others.

This also explains the kultur kampf waged against ‘unrepresentative elites’, meaning anybody who is not a signed up shill for the real elites.

The mistake (in my opinion) that many make, including Watts in his Draft paper, is the neglect of politics as the arena in which the struggle is actually taking place. I understand the issues concernng an ‘ethical stance’ for which Watts is arguing in his paper, as the proper orientation for the engaged academic communtiy, but in my opinion this is beside the point. This does not mean that I don’t think ethics and values are unimportant, but rather that an uncurious and ahistorical approach to the role that universities and all hired help, whether ethical or not, play in the struggle over resources and power leads to the very traps that Watts has himself identified for the unwary who find themselves at the pointy end of the jihad being waged by the political Right.

By all means, let us analyse and expose the hidden and not so hidden assumptions and values that underpin much of the heavily ‘political’ garbage that spills from the business funded think tanks, but more needs to be done. It is true as the neolibs point out, that there is often self interest involved in the ways and means academics employ to deploy their arguments and hence their careers. My point is so what? What is really needed is rigorous attention to the politics of the ways in which academic work operates both as a way of earning a living, and as a potential site for critical inquiry. We all face those dilemmas, but the best way to draw out what the CIS and the rest is doing, is to ‘re’cover the politics of all intelletual endeavour, not as means of obscuring or denying vigorous inquiry, but as a means of illuminating the issues that people are working on, in ways that can engage and mobilise.

The old news is that most people (the overdetermined category of battlers) don’t own News Ltd, or recieve funding from the Australian Minerals and Mining Industry, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Business Council of Australia, and any other assorted well heeled and focussed political actors in the game of ‘public debate over public policy’.

The new news should be for everyone who is not funded to obscure in the name of power, politics is not dead, and it is everywhere, if you care to go looking and listening.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

Amused: You quote Maggie Thatcher’s line ‘there is no such thing as society’ and go on to say

What she really meant is, ‘there can be no such thing as concerted social action via politics anymore, only political action by economic elites and their hired help to depoliticise exisitng power arangements.

Can you back that up with other references to her words? I presumed she was making a kind of debating point which like most decent debating points is true in its own (limited) way in its context. These sound bites have a habit of escaping from their context and being read against the grain.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

In my own mind, even if it’s not in the literature, I”ve always thought of the neo-conservatives of the late 1960s and 1970s – the ones (I think it was) Daniel Patrick Moynihan said were “mugged by reality” – as essentially different from what are called ‘Neo-cons’ today. With the latter the emphasis is on foreign policy, the former domestic policy. With the latter there are a fair few trad conservatives, only being neo-conservative they’re anything but conservative – eg Cheney.

With the former, the older neo-conservatives would have argued I think that their response to the mugging by reality they got was necessary to preserve the progress that welfarists had made. That’s not what the Neo-cons are dedicated to. There’s not much in common between Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Dick Cheney.

Amused
Amused
15 years ago

Nicholas,
The full quote from memory:-
‘There is no such thinng as society, only individuals amnd families’.
I have no doubt there are people who remember exactly the time and date, and therefore the context, but not me. However it has always struck me as a very important and revealing statement, and worthy of more attention than is usually given it.

You are right it was a debating point, or should I say a rhetorical point, in defence of her position that the ‘social’ is nothing more than a term for the ‘private and personal’ sphere. This is a critical and important distinction in my view, and is a good way of understanding the neoliberal political project, from my perspective. It is always in the forefront of my mind, when I parse and analyse policy prescriptions from the CIS and the rest of the neolib blather sphere.
Cheers

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
15 years ago

Amused – I like your point about economic liberals ‘squaring the circle’ — attempting to reconcile free market policy with popular ‘Australian’ or ‘family’ values.

As Jason Soon and Andrew Norton would acknowledge, the right isn’t monolithic. There are traditional conservatives who sincerely believe in the values they promote. They think that virtue is more important than economic efficiency. They worry about unmarried teenagers having babies, about young people taking drugs, and about the ‘something-for-nothing’ ethos promoted by the welfare state.

Then there are free market economists who think that many traditional values are confused and irrational. They support free markets because they think that markets are the most efficient way to maximize preference satisfaction. Richard Posner will happily discuss establishing a market for babies. Friedman will happily promote a negative income tax.

Fortunately, both groups share a common enemy — leftists who attack traditional morality and want to enlarge the size and scope of the state. And as it happens, there are wealthy individuals and corporations who have a very practical interest in keeping leftists from influencing government. If it were possible to harness both conservatives and free market liberals in a concerted campaign against a larger more (economically) intrusive state then this would suit potential philanthropists very well.

This is where Irving Kristol makes his appearance. Kristol argues that the future of capitalism depends on bourgeois morality. While Friedrich Hayek was happy to admit that a free market society wouldn’t reliably reward merit or conform to any notion of social justice, Kristol observes that:

Professor Hayek’s rationale for modern capitalism is never used outside a small academic enclave; I even suspect that it cannot be believed except by those whose minds have been shaped by overlong exposure to scholasticism.

Kristol never says that markets really do reward merit or that they are compatible with bourgeois morality. All he says is that capitalism can’t survive unless the majority of citizens accept that their position in society and that their responsibilities are morally justified. "In every society", he says "the overwhelming majority of the people lead lives of considerable frustration…" And because most people aren’t able to accept their lot with the philosopher’s detachment and resignation, they need something like religion. If they don’t have it, then they’ll become uncontrollable. Free market libertarianism would lead to an orgy of destructive consumerism and a complete breakdown in the social fabric. And if Plato is right, the next step is tyranny.

For anyone who wants to run a free market think tank, this is a very useful story. It’s the link in the intellectual network that holds conservatives, free market liberals, and corporate philanthropists together. Everyone keeps their own story but agrees to work for the team.

And it’s not hard to see why everyone on the team agrees that left wing intellectuals are the enemy — particularly intellectuals who carry on about Foucault, Nietzsche or Derrida. Conservatives hate them because they think they’re wrong. Free market liberals hate them because they think they’re incoherent (and taxpayer funded). And neoconservatives hate them because they think they’re right (and therefore ought to shut up).

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

Very nicely put Don.

I wonder whether any of us really thinks we’ve got what we deserve. For myself, I think I’ve got much less and much more than I deserve. All I want and hope for is a system that’s tolerably just – not just in some utopian way. Human beings can be pretty nasty and it’s miraculous that they’ve managed to come together in civilisations and achieve what they have, and have the fun they’ve had.

And in that regard the mixed economy that we live in is OK. And I agree entirely with Hayek that the market’s returns are not very just but I think he’d argue that while this is true in some ‘first order’ sense, it’s not true in terms of realistic comparisons. He thinks other systems are not just less efficient but also less just (someone can correct me if they think I’m wrong).

So I don’t think you need a Peter Saunders myth of justice. Capitalism (and even more the mixed economy) gives most people a reasonable shot at the stumps, but also throws up some eggregious cases of undeserved riches and poverty. The welfare state helps that greatly, but will also fall well short of utopian justice.

I don’t know any better system, and I don’t think my lot is too bad, and while it’s better than lots of other people’s lots, I don’t think many of their lots are so bad either. And that some do much better than me – well that’s life.

Amused
Amused
15 years ago

I am less interested in intellectual systems, than I am in the ways in which public policy is developed and deployed along various networks. I think you have put the issues well Don, but for me the intellectual interest lies in tracing the particular way various intellectuals seek to either obscure (neolibs) or construct (neocons) a political discourse and practice in order to give their schemes practical real world efficacy. That is just a long winded way of saying-the struggle to make ideas real and concrete.

The term ‘left wing’ intellectual I take to be little more than a rhetorical device. After all the most radical systemmmatic attack on fixed and traditional forms of ‘being in the world’ is of course, the market, but the ‘market’, this radical rupturing of the traditional, quietistic, pious and dutiful, is itself the product of radical schemes of intellectual daring and vast, ambitious social and political mobilisations that make the cutural revolution of Mao’s china look like the amateur hour it was, albeit with disruptive and fatal consequences for many. But isn’t that the way of the world. After all, you can’t make an omlette unless you break a few eggs. Just ask the enlightenment economists, scottish and english, that brought us ‘economic freedom’, economic and poltical emancipation from the ‘landed interest’ and the death of one milion Irish peasants in the 1840s.

The problem for its most enthusiastic and least reflective exponents is that once established, the ‘market’ understood both as a mode of life and a rhetorical device, can only exist by at once, ‘conserving’ the conditions for its continued existence, whilst at the same time, agitating continuously for ever greater conquest of the reach of its forms and modes of relationships. That is what I mean by ‘squaring the circle’ and that is why I never cease to be amused at the puffing and posturing by the captains of industry and their paid shills on the litany of social ills for which the blame apparently lies, with social workers, the welfare state, cultural studies wonks and lax, pot smoking parents born between 1945 and 1960-the baby booomers. Such peurile and trite analysis indicates among other things, that politics is not only not dead, but is the cheapest and most accessible form of amusement going.

My favourite bit at the moment is the speech given Howard at the Quadrant dinner. It is the most perfect example at the ‘retail’ political level of the things that make me laugh out loud.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
15 years ago

There is no pointy engaging with ‘Amused’. He refuses to even acknowledge that liberals actually believe in what they say. Worse of all, he is intellectually un-curious. As he puts it himself:
‘I m less interested in intellectual systems, than I am in the ways in which public policy is developed and deployed along various networks’

In other words, a hack and a crusader exhibiting the typical conspicuous indignation of the Manichean elements of the left. Blather on all you want, Amused, while we grown ups talk amongst ourselves/.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
15 years ago

Nicholas – I agree. Markets are a good thing but it’s ridiculous to argue that they give people what they deserve. Hayek thought free markets were procedurally just but not distributively just.

The problem with Kristol’s story is that it hits the poorest citizens twice. First they suffer economic disadvantage and second they suffer a social disadvantage — the stigma of being labelled as less deserving of income and also of respect.

Those at the bottom of the income distribution become a kind of collateral damage in a culture war between between neoconservatives and their opponents.

It seems to me that there are good arguments for tolerating income inequality in a society as wealthy as Australia. But even this tolerable level of income inequality becomes intolerable when think tank intellectuals link income to judgments about moral worth. Watts is right to talk about respect.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

Yes, I see and agree with your point Don.

Amused you write this.

[O]nce established, the ‘market’ understood both as a mode of life and a rhetorical device, can only exist by at once, ‘conserving’ the conditions for its continued existence, whilst at the same time, agitating continuously for ever greater conquest of the reach of its forms and modes of relationships.

Now I can go with you on the fact that markets both live off certain social capital and that at the same time they subvert it. But why can they ‘only exist’ that way. Sounds like rhetorical excess to me. There’s a tension or contradiction there sure. It’s an interesting contradiction. What does it achieve to say they can ‘only exist’ by doing so?

Amused
Amused
15 years ago

Nicholas
Because if it ceases agitating for continuous expansion, the ‘market’ fails to properly reproduce itself, but at the same time, the conditions once stablished for the proper functioning of this mode, must be continuously and strenuously defended from all comers and anything that would undermine the ‘naturalness’ of the social and political arrangements established for its functioning. It is both revolutionary because it has to be to conserve and reproduce itself, and must be ‘conservative’ if it is to continue to be ‘revolutionary’.

Jason I am sorry you think I am intellectaully uncurious.

I do not think I am as a matter of fact, just time limited. I also think you are a little emotional on the issue of whether ‘liberals’ truly believe what they say. I have no doubt that they do. I take people on what they write and what they do, and what they argue for. I have no reason to doubt that serious people mean what they say, even if they don’t always say what they mean. Unlike you, I do not put all ‘liberals’ in the same category and I think there are many varieties of ‘liberal’ thought on many issues.

This thread began with a reference to the paper by Rob Watts, which I read. You make a number of mistakes in relation to my politics, especially and including the reference to ‘manichean’. I would have thought that an intelligent person like yourself, who has the time to spend on the history of ideas and intellectual systems would see that I am anything but manichean in my thinking and understandings of the world. I promise you,I am second to none in my admiration for the liberatory project of capitalism. It is just that I am also historically literate as well as intellectually sceptical, and thus I do not take on face value, any system’s ‘claims’ about itself or its world historical mission as self evident or beyond critical analysis.

As to ‘left wing’ I have long ago ceased to engage in that kind of debate. We either enage with ideas or settle for labels. I prefer ideas myself, since labels can be very misleading. Imperfect knowledge can lead to sever market distortions.
Cheers

Sacha
15 years ago

This is an interesting thread.

Corin
15 years ago

Quotes such as Thatcher’s are designed to shock and rock the enemy. i.e. they are intensely political – not necessarily enduring. Also see the “lady is not for turning” – which I always wanted to know the context of!

However they can become enduring beyond their time and indeed David Cameron is running hard that there is such a thing as society.

Overall – the idea of political “tags” such as traditional or moderniser are also contextual: i.e. in some ways Thatcher was traditional, in others a moderniser, and mostly in method a radical. I would say Blair is many of these things as well but whether and in what “values” they manifest may change.

Neo-con is simply another tag without reference to context. As to whether Howard is a neo-con – I agree that he is more traditional Tory. Indeed I doubt Australia has a real neo-con movement. We are a deeply “realist” people.

Australia is not Amercia or Britain with real intellectual threads deep in public life. We are captured by a “show us the money” mentality. I recall the 1998 election and the ALP gave me a tax table on which I could consider my position – would I be better off? and under who? Do you like the US? How is your drinking water?

That sort of thing.

Yobbo
Yobbo
15 years ago

I don’t Thatcher’s quote was intended to shock.

“I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.

I think the point she was trying to make is very clear and valid: When you ask “society to do something” what you are really doing is asking the government to take money from “individual men and women” or “families”, because that is actually who will be paying for it (either by taxation or by living under the new laws you create).

The point is simply that taxation is not some magical bowl of money supplied by some omnipotent god-like entity called “society”. It is money that is stolen from the pockets of the individual people you see every day.

Sacha
15 years ago

I was heartened to read Thatcher’s actual quote, which made a lot more sense than the catchcry-slogan “There is so such thing as society”.

Sacha
15 years ago

Sorry, that should be “There is no such thing as society”, and I read the full quote a while ago.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

Thanks Yobbo,

Exactly my point. I have seen the quote before and remembered it as something like that. In other words it’s a piece of commonsense rhetoric.

In Australia we had a similar speculative bubble over the meaning of Mal Fraser’s “live wasn’t meant to be easy”. Well I don’t know about whether it’s meant to be, but life’s not easy.

Corin
15 years ago

Common sense yes – but also highly charged – indeed picked out by the spin doctors to press buttons in middle England. I know Thatcher was at heart more moderate than she is now portrayed – but the whole premiership was based on her gravitas of kicking the Labour side and goading them onto her turf.

The fact that people agree means stuff all – it is contextual warfare on the divided Left. Strength versus weakness!

It’s exactly the same as Howard’s imbecillic culture war – it means stuff all in 20 years – but it captures the Left in a spin of fear, fury, and forces them to turn on themselves – the divided versus the united. It’s sham politics but it works.

The same goes for Keating for that matter – indeed Thatcher and Keating are very similar – incredibly effective when the opposition is poor but once they lose their gravitas it was all over electorally.

Sacha
15 years ago

Corin said

“The fact that people agree means stuff all – it is contextual warfare on the divided Left. Strength versus weakness!”

What does this mean?

Ken Parish
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Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
15 years ago

Corin means that Thatcher’s “no society” comment was in part what we would now refer to as “wedge” politics, even if it may also have expressed a proposition that seems to most people to be commonsensical. However, it wasn’t all that difficult to wedge a UK Labour Party that in the 80s still contained a substantial body of opinion (probably still a majority) that didn’t see any reason to re-examine the old womb to tomb welfare nanny state mentality for which Labour had come to stand. Thatcher had no difficutly in fomenting “contextual warfare” in Labour ranks, because thankfully even then there were people who realised that the old ways were unsustainable and were sending Britain rapidly down the plughole. Hence the eventual accession of Kinnock and then Blair and the adoption of more sustainable “third way” policies involving accountability in welfare provision through mutual obligation (see some of Fred Argy’s posts on this website), contestability in provision of public services etc etc.

It was this acceptance, on the part of the non-troglodyte elements of the Labour Party, that at least significant parts of the Thatcherite critique of the socialist welfare state were on the money, that made Labour electable in the 90s. Of course it may well be that Corin and her mentor Red Ken Livingstone have a different perspective on all this.

Sacha
15 years ago

Thanks Ken. Sounds like a solid political strategy from Thatcher, one that any political leader attuned to economics and the ideas percolating through society would adopt.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

Corin and Ken,

Are you sure that Maggie Thatcher’s side promoted the soundbite about there being no such thing as society? Certainly it was the left of centre Fraser haters that jumped on ‘life wasn’t meant to be easy’ and turned it into a kind of mantra that was supposed to capture the elitism of the Fraser Govt. (Turns out Fraser’s elitism – his preparedness to stand for actual liberal values – was the best thing about his govt. Its economic fecklessness was one of its worst attributes.)

I’d be very surprised, but happy to be corrected if it was different with ‘there is no such thing as society’. A comment taken out of context and given a symbolic meaning that is not justified in the original utterance.

Ken Parish
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Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
15 years ago

Nicholas

I was just explaining what I understood Corin to be saying, not endorsing its accuracy. I simply don’t know whether Thatcher was calculatedly engaging in “wedging” Labour by her “no such thing as society” comment. It may well be that it achieved public prominence, as you suggest, through being leapt on and taken out of context by the Left in order to demonise Thatcher rather than because of any Machiavellian motivation of Thatcher herself.

Of course, my own motivations in this thread ARE Machiavellian to an extent. I quite like the idea of provoking a robust but polite cyberspace barney with a political adviser to the Mayor of London.

Sacha
15 years ago

Nicholas, I heard the out-of-context sound bite many times from lefties in the 90s. It sounds plausible that it was taken out of context and used against her.

It could well be that Maggie said it without trying to wedge anyone, perhaps it was a genuine thought.

Corin
15 years ago

Nicholas – very good – I’m in danger of being horribly wrong. A big assumption on my part I admit.

Sacha
15 years ago

Corin said a few posts back:

It’s exactly the same as Howard’s imbecillic culture war – it means stuff all in 20 years – but it captures the Left in a spin of fear, fury, and forces them to turn on themselves – the divided versus the united. It’s sham politics but it works.

People needn’t engage with the spin. Eg, Howard and Julie Bishop today justified (in part) the federal government taking over the formation of school curricula on the basis that the state and territory curricula had been infected by ideology. Now, the truth of this is irrelevant: it’s a culture wars argument no doubt designed to appeal to people uncertain about the efficiencay of the education system. There is no need for anyone to engage on this level, instead, state education ministers should engage on the substantive and real question of whether there should be one school curriculum across Australia, or whether the curriculim should be regionalised (as at present).

It seems to me that being sufficiently thoughtful leads one to tend to be not be engaged by the spin, which is almost a prerequisite for wanting to make a real contribution.

Sacha
15 years ago

sorry for the misspelling!

Corin
15 years ago

Sacha – need not but they do – I mean why do I go to McDonalds when a better burger is on offer from the local chippie? I mean some people think McDonalds is good food – but frankly most people think its pretty average – yet even smart people still respond to the arches and stuff. What is getting interesting is that people are starting to rebel against McDonalds and what I might class McDonalds politics – the rehearsed and the emotive. But the rebellion is itself an spin induced yuppie domain of independence and freedom.

I would admit whole heartedly that in my articles I use the emotive all the time – words such as “empowerment” and “mobility” – it is clear direction to me but it is also emotional blackmail of a sort because no one on the planet wants disempowerment. i.e. you can’t disagree with me. Oh well such is frank admission – it may end my career of pushing buttons.

Sorry I’ve ranged well off topic. But the essence is that Howard uses emotive positions, blackmail and button pushing. The difference from me is he actively divides for little policy gain – but great political traction.

Corin
15 years ago

Ken Parish – I just read your quote above more fully – as a man I can say forthrightly that I am neither a she nor a mentress. I am finishing with Ken’s lot in January which will mean I’m certainly not a mentress then. A return to oz in February indeed – probably not politics for me – we will see. Making money might be more fun – McDonalds corporate or McDonalds politics – or even the rebel without a cause yuppie road – it’s all up for grabs. What does Oz (probably Melbourne) have to offer after 5 years abroad. Who knows.

Sacha
15 years ago

Corin said:

What is getting interesting is that people are starting to rebel against McDonalds and what I might class McDonalds politics – the rehearsed and the emotive. But the rebellion is itself an spin induced yuppie domain of independence and freedom.

I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what you mean here.

Yobbo
Yobbo
15 years ago

McDonalds are not the government. There’s not really any need to rebel against them. Just don’t buy their burgers.

Corin
15 years ago

Sorry my 2 minute posts at work are more problematic than helpful. What I mean is that almost all political or even corporate branding is now emotive – i.e. Howard’s culture war – not substantial. McDonalds is probably the best example of it in the corporate sphere. I am well off topic.

Yobbo
Yobbo
15 years ago

Actually the best example of it is “The Body Shop”, but because that is a left-wing brand people tend to pretend it doesn’t exist. There is not particular right-wing bias in MCdonalds’ branding, unless you consider the entire concept of profit to be right-wing.

Ken Parish
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Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
15 years ago

A comment I made a couple of days ago on another Don Arthur thread is relevant to Corin’s points about spin, button-pushing etc (sorry I thought you were a woman. I’m sure I’ve known Corins who were female. Is it one of those interchangeable names like Shane?). I’ll reproduce the relevant bit of my comment here, because I think the issue worth exploring further:

Nevertheless, what with all that academic research exposing the vulnerability of the citizenry to cynical manipulation by spin doctors, you’d expect democracy to be in much worse shape than it in fact is. There’s the Schank and Abelson work you mentioned today about people’s susceptibility to “goodie”