What about classical liberalism?

Some interesting pieces in The Australian Literary Review, 3 Dec, the insert that comes in the paper on the first Wednesday of the month. Richard Lansdowne wrote on the courage of Alexander Solzhenitsyn which he suggests made him the greatest writer of the 20th century. I am wary of buying into debates about “the greatest” whether batsman, race horse or writer. There are aways too many in contention. Bradman the standout? Yes, but Bradman said to his team during one of Stan McCabe’s great knocks “Come and look at this, you may never see anything like it”. One of the things that was impressive about The First Circle was the element of humour which gave it an almost Catch 22 quality in places. Later on humour was not a leading feature of Solzhenitsyn’s writing. Also it seems that the more he saw of the West the less he liked it. It is not hard to condemn a torture chamber on general humanitarian grounds and it became increasingly apparent that Solzhenitsyn’s deep political and social commitments had little to do with anything like western liberalism. Lansdown quotes an enigmatic statement – “If the 20th century has any lesson for mankind, it is we who will teach the West, not the West us”. As Russia under Putin reverts to its traditional mode of repression and assertive nationalism these are not encouraging words.

Under the heading “Stuck between Marx and Mill” is a review of Democracy: Crisis and Renewal, written by Paul Ginsborg and reviewed by Val Colic-Peisker, a research fellow at RMIT. As usual, the starting point is a crisis, the crisis of democracy, and this is approached by way of the works of Marx and Mill. The thought occurs, would a crisis in agriculture or engineering be approached by way of the works of scholars who died more than a hundred years ago? Maybe for historical perspective, but not for theories that might be used to resolve the problems or to mount a research program to address them. The rationale is that Marxism and liberalism are the intellectual traditions that have dominated our political thinking for 150 years but there has been signficant progress in political philosophy and economics during that time and classical liberalism has evolved to be quite distinct from marxism, left liberalism and conservatism as well. Key players in that evolution were Mises, especially in his neglected book on Liberalism (1929), Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies (1945) and Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (1963). The Appendix to The Constitution ‘Why I am not a conservative’ took the debate beyond left and right by clarifying the differences beween classical liberalism and the two other major poles of political thought – left liberalism and conservatism.

Ginsberg is concerned about the “simultaneous triumph and crisis of liberal democracy”. The triumph is the growing number of states that have the trappings of representative government and the crisis is the sense that the people have lost control of their representatives. He argues, (along with a great many others) that participatory democracy needs to be invigorated because the people have become passive, most obviously where voting is not compulsory. Colic-Peisker is inclined to see the problem in the tension between economic dynamism and democracy, taking up Ginsborg’s concerns about the connection between consumer capitalism and the lack of political activism. Both author and reviewer believe that commercial TV has become a pervasive and malign cultural influence, producing passive, conformist consumers. They also believe that deregulation has produced greater economic inequalities and that there is a tension between economic dynamism and democracy, between the consumer and the citizen.

All those propositions can be contested, especially the idea that everybody needs to “participate” somehow or other in decision-making at the highest level. There is an alternative approach, not to aim for more participation in the democratic process (whatever that really means, beyond the capacity to turn the government over at regular intervals) but to limit the scope of government so that less decisions are made at high levels and more can be made by people as we go about our public and private business.

Emma-Kate Symons reviews a book by France’s leading public intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy titled Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism. It was originally published as The Backward-Falling Corpse (a comment by Sartre on the Left) and it represents Levy’s attempt to explain why he can’t let go of “the big corpse” which is his leftwing ideological DNA. Despite past atrocities and compromises, it seems that Levy can’t escape the “family connection”. He wrote “I belong to the Left out of orientation and almost genetically: the Left is my family and you can’t change families the way you change shirts”. So much for the life of the mind, the life of reason and the critical play of the intellect in the life of the left-wing public intellectual.

This supports the view conveyed by Meaghan Morris in an essay in The Pirate’s Fiance, describing the way leftwing political activists become locked into a social matrix of fellow travellers who are also past, current and future lovers and spouses. Under those circumstances the price to be paid for deviation from the faith is too high for most to ever contemplate. It seems that Levy is “desperately seeking an anti-fascist Left”. Maybe one day he will find classical liberalism, presented in a form that elicits his sympathetic interest. In the meantime he is a formidible critic of various strands of self-indulgent leftism such as the “religion” of modern-day anti-Americanism, a la Noam Chomsky, Robert Fisk and Jean Baudrillard.

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Ingolf Eide
15 years ago

I don’t know about Baudrillard, Rafe, but in their views on foreign policy Fisk and Chomsky are much closer to a classical liberal viewpoint than most of those who seem to so enjoy running them down. Take this brief comment from Fisk:

And I will hazard a terrible guess: that we have lost Afghanistan as surely as we have lost Iraq and as surely as we are going to “lose” Pakistan. It is our presence, our power, our arrogance, our refusal to learn from history and our terror yes, our terror of Islam that is leading us into the abyss. And until we learn to leave these Muslim peoples alone, our catastrophe in the Middle East will only become graver. There is no connection between Islam and “terror”. But there is a connection between our occupation of Muslim lands and “terror”. It’s not too complicated an equation. And we don’t need a public inquiry to get it right.

Anti “anti-Americanism” has developed quite a following in sections of the left, Levy amongst them. As is so often the case, however, being “anti” anything as ill-defined as anti-Americanism can all too easily lead to impasses. Back in August, for example, Levy wrote a lengthy reportage from Georgia, praising the Georgians, urging the west not to fall into appeasement, lambasting the Russians. It was utterly one sided, almost fawning in its admiration of Saakashvili and very much in accord with the official US line at that time. And yet, as subsequent more sober investigations have shown, this David and Goliath story looks more and more like just that, a story. As it happens, it wasn’t hard to find strong conflicting evidence at the time if one cared to look at a few alternative sources of information.

People like Fisk and Chomsky have spent much of their lives trying to correct the almost continual flow of misinformation and distortion that’s characterised western reporting on so many foreign policy issues. America is of course far from alone in trying to shape events to its agenda; however, both because of its history and the power it commands, it’s in a unique position to influence international affairs, whether for good or ill.

Some on the “left” can indeed be absurd, and deserve sustained, careful criticism; then again,so do many from the “right”. It’s not anti-American to criticise the US when it has deviated so badly from its own ideals and from the norms of international behaviour and nor does the criticism uniquely come from the left. Sometimes, telling a good friend that you think they’re on a disastrous path may simply show you care. It all depends on why and how it’s done.

Ingolf Eide
15 years ago

Fair enough, Rafe.