2015 05 – letter on Liberalism


Letter from Mark Cowling

The basic point I have in mind is that liberalism is the dominant philosophy of the early 21st-century. So an editorial (April 2015) which says that the forthcoming election is basically a contest between three liberal parties is not as helpful as it might be. I think the basic point is that all three parties accept too much of the heritage of Thatcherite 19th-century liberalism. The characterisation of the SNP as nationalist and mildly social democratic is fine as far as it goes. However, the SNP plainly accept many central liberal values, for example representative government, free elections, a free press, the rule of law etc. Moreover, social liberalism of the sort which developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries overlaps considerably with social democracy.

Moreover, so far as I can see the other parties involved in the election – UKIP, the Greens, the DUP – also accept the core liberal values. These values are also accepted by the main parties which contest elections in the various states of the European Union.

With regard to the same area, I thought that Gwydion William’s reflections on liberalism in his Notes on the News were very inadequate when it came to giving an account of what liberalism is – it contrasts poorly, for example, with the article in Wikipedia, which itself is broadly on the same lines as articles in politics textbooks.

His comment that imposing western liberalism on other societies has not worked well is appropriate.

However, some of the core liberal values such as the rule of law or a (relatively) free press have tended to extend to, for example, South Asian societies.

In other words, things are much more mixed up than would be imagined from some of what is written in Labour Affairs.


Reply to Mark Cowling

Cowling is right that there are many aspects to liberalism. But he is wrong to imply that the orientation of LA is liberal, despite what it claims.

Working within a parliamentary system, universal suffrage, accepting the rule of law and freedom of media and opinion are not the monopoly of liberals. Historically speaking, liberals have thought that the privileges of liberalism should apply to a small elite and not to the mass of the population. To say that because we wish to work with these institutions we are therefore liberals is like saying that because we support elections by the citizenry we must subscribe to the views of Ancient Athenian Greeks.

If anything has been consistent about liberalism over the centuries it’s been the desire to restrict political freedom to a narrow group who can exercise the maximum of individual scope for action without constraint, either in public or private life. Where it has been conceded to broader groups this has been invariably done under pressure from below.

Liberalism can survive and flourish under a system of universal suffrage, formal freedom of the press and opinion and the rule of law (at least in the mother country) for a very good reason.

It concerns both the mistakes and the weakness of their opponents. A parliamentary democracy is invariably run for and on behalf of an elite often through competition through sub-elites of the dominant oligarchic group, bound together by wealth, thus satisfying classical liberal aspirations for the maximum freedom in public and private life, for that elite. The advantages of organisation, incumbency, family connection, wealth and political know-how all make this possible and relatively plain sailing.

But it is possible to develop another elite through working class organisation which would make such competition more of a genuine choice. This was a possibility that lay open in Britain between the 1940s and the 1970s when the trade union movement was strong. Its own political failure at the end of the 1970s closed off that development. Such a system of genuinely competing elites would not have been liberal as the existence of an alternative elite based on trade union power would force the recognition of a wider range of interests within the society than a party system which merely represents the different interests and tastes of an elite based on the private ownership of wealth. Even so, its success would have been dependent on the extent to which it was able to work within the narrow parameters within which it is only possible for parliamentary democracy to work. The only way in which it could  have done this would have been through ‘altering the facts on the ground’ through changing the nature of civil and economic society to its permanent advantage. The British trade union movement completed the first phase of such an alteration through its obstructive power. The next step of the development of worker power at the heart of the economy was a form of political activity that proved to be beyond the trade union movement and led directly to its decline and the revival of a particularly vigorous form of liberalism.

The institutions of parliamentary democracy were developed through the activities of an anti-liberal working class movement and were, over a long period in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, turned to its own advantage. Its early co-option by liberalism, together with its own ability to play to its own strengths, however undermined and eventually nearly destroyed it, leaving us with the three liberal parties that we have today.

It is simply a historical mistake to identify liberalism with the current political arrangements in the UK and other western societies. These are the product of conflict with liberal elites and their current narrowing of perspective is due to the failure of working class and trade union movements to continue to advance their interests effectively.

A good example can be found in workers’ control. This is anathema to most liberals as it undermines the control of capital that underpins their dominance. That is why societies like Germany are different from the UK, despite superficial similarity – they spread power much more around the different interest groups than does the US or the UK, in a way that does not correspond at all with liberal theory.

There is an element of truth in what Cowling claims when one considers that the boundaries between liberalism and other ideologies is not absolutely watertight. John Stuart Mill for example envisaged the development of a form of workers’ control in his political economy as economic development proceeded. This makes him a kind of syndicalist. But in political reality liberals have opposed such developments unless they have been forced into them. And the British Labour Movement failed to push such development and still fails, despite the efforts of some. It is worth noting that a very ‘illiberal’ institution, the Catholic Church is one of the main advocates of workers’ rights and a taming of the injustices of the wage system, which is one of the reasons why it comes under sustained attack from liberals for its social attitudes.

The result has been the dominance of both social and economic liberalism, which privileges on the one hand the unrestrained development of individualism and on the other, the market mechanism as the means of securing and preserving the wealth of elites, the stealthy privatisation of public services such as health and education, the narrowness of opinion that is tolerated as acceptable in the commercial and state media and the grinding down of the legal right to take industrial action. The market tends to favour those with connections and insider knowledge and thus tends to reinforce privilege, something liberals have always deemed indispensable for themselves.

All the main political parties support this agenda and that is why we call them all liberal parties. They are all the product of the dominance of an elite and exist to promote the agenda of that elite, albeit with small differences of emphasis. They are able to ensure that the parliamentary system that had been developed through class struggle to open up some alternatives to the liberal view and liberal practices can be turned to the advantage of the liberal agenda.

One other point, liberalism has always flourished on the basis of exploitation. The UK is a master of this, not only domestically, but in the way in which it continues to hoover up wealth from all over the world, sustaining the domestic population way beyond its own productive capacities. That is almost a defining characteristic of liberalism. Without this ability it would wither and die.

Christopher Winch