Discrete Political Entities

There are two possible dominant political entities in liberal democracy, the individual and the state. Progressivism, republicanism, liberalism and libertarianism see the individual as the dominant entity whereas conservatism and nationalism sees the state as the dominant entity. Most of history has been a struggle for the individual to rise to the position of political dominance, suffering all manner of arbitrary governance, from monarchy, to tyranny, and even colonialism. Liberal democracy is currently the best technology to represent the relationship between governed and governor, but may be replaced if a better technology to represent the individuals interests is found.

Forms of Liberalism

Liberalism places the focus on the individual and espouses political equality. Consequently inequalities such as the divine right to rule and hereditary rule were discredited and political equality advanced within the boundaries of nationalisms own political inequalities.

The ideologies of progressivism, republicanism, liberalism and libertarianism all draw heavily from Liberalism and are essentially arguments of what form of Liberalism the relationship between governed and governor should take. The ideologies are also articulations of political technology, after all, politics itself is a human technology. The starting principle of these ideologies and hence technology, can be used to derive the base truths, or relationship, between the individual and state.

Since the central tenet to progressivism, republicanism, liberalism and libertarianism, is that the individual is the dominant political entity it follows naturally that political equality becomes an exclusive right – where a right is a just basis for any relationship between an individual and government.

We see this recognition in the language of ideologies; progressives tend to call it human rights, republicans call it natural rights, liberals call them political rights and libertarians call them individual rights. These are all in the same descriptive bag; because the individual is the dominant entity, there are liberties that the individual holds as unassailable from legislative intrusion and executive force.

Australian Republicanism holds the view that civil order is impossible with the presence of state tyranny or arbitrary governance. As a consequence any just relationship between the individual and state must be predicated on this, as it follows no rational individual would submit themselves to be governed if there are no benefits from civil order, they may as well be in a state of nature. Without the guarantee of rights there is no just relationship, there is no liberal democracy, instead their is the presence of tyranny and arbitrary governance.

Conservatism and Nationalism

Conservatism and nationalism both approach the dominant political entity from the other side, elevating the state above the individual. Gary Sauer-Thompson described this very succinctly;

Conservatism understands that nationality and society are rooted in biological, cultural and historical heritage. The difference between these two concepts becomes particularly obvious when one compares how they visualize history and the structure of the real. Nationalists are proponents of holism.

Nationalists see the individual as a kinsman, sustained by the people and community. which nurtures and protects him, and with which he is proud to identify. The individual’s actions represent an act of participation in the life of his people, and freedom of action is very real because, sharing in the values of his associates, the individual will seldom seek to threaten the basic values of the community with which he identifies.

Because conservatives and nationalists see the state as being the basis for nurturing the individual they allow for political inequality, effectively arbitrary governance, against individuals that threaten the state. We have seen this in the past with sedition laws and political prisoners which made up a significant portion of Australia’s initial European immigration. For instance one of the Scottish Martyrs, Thomas Muir, was detained and deported to Australia for handing out copies of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man.

This style of conservatism and nationalism also enable discriminative political inequality often over arbitrary issues such as ethnicity, which are little more than accidents of birth. The treatment of the Australian aboriginal people between the 1880s and 1960s are some of the worst excesses of that mindset. More recently we have seen the creation of camps outside of legislative and judicial jurisdiction such as Guantanamo Bay and the Nauru Detention Centre.

I am not saying conservatism and nationalism are all bad. The steady as she goes nature of small ‘c’ conservatism and its desire for empirical decision making from history are positive attributes. By the same token the nation-state and nationalism have been decent technologies over the last several hundred years since the Treaty of Westphalia. It has enabled increasing global economic activity and a semblance of international order between nations; though the break-downs in order have been catastrophic but generally only short in destructive length.

However it does need to be recognised that some conservatives and nationalists who support this ideological position enable tyranny and arbitrary governance inside a liberal democratic system. Tyranny is a big word, one that we often equate with dictators and despots but it does not have to be absolute to be destructive – just persistent, and arbitrary governance is what we call persistent tyranny.

Party Marketplace

The major and minor parties in Australia are predominantly economic liberal, culturally conservative and politically nationalist. Most of the political arguments between the Liberal Party, Labor Party, Nationals, Australian Democrats and Greens are within this framework. It is already a crowded political marketplace in that area.

Often too, ideological naming is mis-appropriated by parties, Australian liberals calls themselves classical liberals to disassociate themselves from the Liberal Party or the slur-like meaning ‘Liberal’ has taken on in America. Australian Republicans are horrified at the lack of republicanism shown by the American Republican Party. Conservatives are horrified at the authoritarianism being espoused in their name in the United States. Genuine libertarians are also dismayed at the appropriating of their language by liberal-conservative-nationalists who see the claim to libertarianism as carrying a cachet of cool.

All these parties and ideologies require a quiet moment of genuflection, to reassess the basic principle from which they stem. This basic principle of the dominant discrete political entity becomes the basis for the choice of political technologies; ie constitutionalism, separation of powers, governance etc: as well as the founding principles with which prosperity, liberty and the on-going advance of humanity are achieved.

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15 years ago

Somewhat unlike the Cam I thought I knew a bit to suggest kneeling before ideologies… now Chris Latham, that’s another prospect altogether!

Nicholas Gruen
15 years ago

Thanks for the post Cameron. I doubt we’re particularly far apart, but for myself I just take a melange of ingredients from these traditions which I outlined at Troppo here.

I suspect so too do most people. John Howard, Kim Beazley, Bob Brown would all pick and choose what principles they appeal to depending on the circumstances. I don’t really know what it means to attribute different actions – like our behaviour towards aborigines to different motive ideologies (like ‘conservatism’ or ‘nationalism’.)

Though he was probably much more libertarian and optimistic than his contemporaries, I would imagine that you would be able to find passages in John Stuart Mill reflecting the belief of the time (is it wrong?) that people at different stages of economic, social and political development might benefit from different kinds of government.

15 years ago

Nicholas, I was trying to make the point that they have more in common than they do apart. As you said in that link, all of the ‘isms have merit, especially in certain circumstances. Conservatism also has value with its steady as it goes philosophy and seeking historical proof first. Not all conservatism elevates the state above the individual either, Goldwater Conservatism is a good example of the individual remaining dominant while still adhering to conservative principles.

I don’t really know what it means to attribute different actions

I am arguing there that the elevation of the state above the individual immediately makes it discriminative because the first thing lost is the importance of the individual and their political rights (equality). With the aboriginal people it was because we practiced ethnic-nationalism and mono-culturalism it enabled the government to discriminate against those outside of those boundaries. As it turned out we tried to forcifully assimilate those half in and half out to. It was similar with the Chinese in the 1880s.

I would imagine that you would be able to find passages in John Stuart Mill reflecting the belief of the time (is it wrong?) that people at different stages of economic, social and political development might benefit from different kinds of government.

Yeh that is consistent with Deniehy as well, he believed that it was an ongoing process where the framework of governance had to match the enlightened abilities and practices of its people at any one time with the end goal being moral perfection. But he was the first who saw an Australia utopia.

Richard Phillipps
Richard Phillipps
15 years ago

I don’t have the learning to follow most of the argument, but I do know that it is hard to discuss entities in our polity without including possibly the most powerful people, which are the corporate persons. I know they don’t vote, but they wield a lot of political power. And other power.

I am not objecting to this state of affairs; “company” is a plural noun (or was, when people still spoke some form of English) and the invention of corporate personality is probably the most important conceptual jump in the last few hundred years.

Of course my first para is not quite correct, because they are not limited to one polity.