If it is broke, do fix it
by Gwydion M. Williams
- It’s the Mixed Economy, You Fools
- Insulting Islam
- Capitalism’s Impure Truth
- Recently Invented Traditional Liberalism
- Appendix – Liberal Science Fiction
Americans like to say: ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Sometimes an excuse not to tackling deep-seated social evils that don’t hurt them or those close to them. Yet there is truth in it. Any fool can attack an imperfect system with the hope of making it better. Actually making it better needs thought and skill.
Like Yascha Mounk in his book The People vs. Democracy,[A] I agree our present system is in crisis and needs fixing. It could carry on indefinitely, like a man with a broken leg who is also lost in a wilderness. But far better to fix it.
But what needs to be done? What needs fixing?
To Mounk, the West must continue the liberal-left’s abject surrender to New Right economics. In their best years, the Keynesian or Mixed-Economy era from the 1940s to 1970s, liberals saw the Soviet Union as a dangerously successful alternative system. Felt they had to borrow its better features for their freedoms to survive. But with Soviet decline in the 1980s, liberals switched to the New Right Fairy Tale that it was always a failure.
It’s the Mixed Economy, You Fools
Would Trump be US President, if the Democrats had chosen Bernie Saunders? One of many off-message facts that Yascha Mounk omits.
Pankaj Mishra, assessing Mounk in the London Review of Books, calls him a defender of Tony Blair’s failed agenda.[B] He probably is that, but not just that. Mishra is just as confused about what’s gone wrong.
Most critics of ‘bad capitalism’ do not denounce 1980s economic ‘reforms’ as a massive wrong turning. Do not praise the West’s commitment to a Mixed Economy from the 1940s to 1970s. It was under strain in the 1970s, certainly. It had Technocratic arrogance that needed fixing. But it was also vastly the best economic and social system that real humans have ever created.
Bill Clinton famously said that the era of Big Government was over. I disagree. For me, 5000 years of human civilisation show that Big Government works. That if you dislike what it does, you are usually wiser to change the aims rather than deny the need for Big Government.
Improving the Mixed Economy would have needed care and serious though. Randomly attacking it was depressingly easy, like a man beating up his wife when he’s out of work and offended by life. And though the basics of the Mixed Economy survived the abuse, the very notion has dropped out of most public thinking. It is all capitalism: except that when they say capitalism, they mean capitalism rather than capitalism.[C] As clear as mud, even for most of the left.
Mounk himself is often ‘as clear as mud’. He says:
“Until recently, liberal democracy reigned triumphant. For all its shortcomings, most citizens seemed deeply committed to their form of government. The economy was growing. Radical parties were insignificant.” (The People vs. Democracy, page 1.)
Baloney. The economy was growing, but many suffered and many were unemployed. In the USA, 90% of the population gained nothing from vigorous growth since the 1980s. Almost all the extra wealth was sucked up by a more-than-millionaire class, also known as the 1%. He does mention it, but does not treat it as the core issue.
Voting for Trump was foolish, but based on real suffering. Suffering that Hilary Clinton ignored, just as Bill Clinton had.
My section-title is a variant on ‘The economy, stupid’: a 1990s slogan for Bill Clinton’s electoral staff. Meant rhetorical, obviously. But ingenious folly is typical of both the New Right and modern liberalism. I’m reminded of a remark made by the author-viewpoint character in a novel by Isaac Asimov:
“Such folly smacks of genius. A lesser mind would be incapable of it.”[D]
Bill Clinton did good on social issues. If I remember rightly, the only visible black man at Ronald Reagan’s inauguration was playing the piano: a proper role for him in traditional US racism. But after Clinton, Bush Junior had two African-Americans as Secretary of State: first Colin Powell and then Condoleezza Rice. (Who unfortunately did for World Peace what Torquemada did for religious tolerance.)
After much social pressure and soft-left leaders like Blair, the ranks of the privileged are now much more open to non-whites, to women and to open gays and lesbians. But the privileges of the privileged were maintained, and even increased. Poor whites saw that they were even less likely to join the elite than before. Instead of being generous and multi-racial, they listened to right-wing populists. Regrettable, but astonishingly predictable.
Understanding is often poor. The populist-left tactic of contrasting the 1% and the 99% overlooks how many people flatter themselves by putting themselves in a higher group:
“An opinion poll a couple of years ago found that 19% of American taxpayers believed themselves to be in the top 1% of earners. A further 20% thought they would end up there within their lifetimes.”[E]
And not all the 99% suffered. There is a ‘Next Nine’; people in the richest 10% but not the richest 1%. They have broken even, mostly. But they do also answer the claim that the increasingly-rich elite have earned it. In terms of intelligence, hard work, creativity, diligence or formal qualifications, the Next Nine are in no way inferior to the more-than-millionaire class. A much smaller gap between them and the ‘winners’ was the norm for the Mixed Economy era. Getting back to that would be a major step forward.
‘Fair Inequality’ should be the slogan.
I am not, however, saying that it is all economics. Though some who voted for Trump would have voted for Jewish progressive Bernie Saunders, Trump also appealed to fury at the fading of a solid US culture that was highly racist. People probably outraged at the American Library Association removing the name of famous US author Laura Ingalls Wilder from a major children’s book award:
“The novels are full of phrases that are unacceptable today. Even in her own lifetime Wilder apologised for her thoughtlessness and amended a line in Little House on the Prairie that said Kansas had ‘no people, only Indians’. It now reads, ‘no settlers, only Indians’.”[F]
Dehumanising non-European peoples was a global norm in the 19th century. There was slow comfortable genocide for those in the way of European settlers. It did not repel most Europeans until Hitler applied it within Europe. Murdered educated and articulate Jews, as well as gypsies, non-Jewish Poles, homosexuals and the incurably sick or disabled of any racial origin.[G]
Racism and prejudice declined when the fruits of economic growth were shared fairly, despite mass immigration. The pain of austerity has means a small revival of overt racism in the West.
More serious is the global decline of Hard Left radicals committed to Universalism. They met a social need. Were replaced by ethnic and religious extremists with an agenda of dehumanisation. Nepal with its part-successful Maoist insurgents was a grand exception, and has multi-party government.
Charles Darwin is correctly praised for his opposition to slavery. But most authors cover up his belief in racial inequality. His comfortable expectation that inferior races would eventually go extinct. (See Leon Zitzer’s A Short but Full Book on Darwin’s Racism.) Slavery was offensive cruelty to inferiors. Degrading to Master-Race males who exploited helpless and unworthy females.
Abraham Lincoln never believed in racial equality. After winning the Civil War, he was keen to find somewhere outside of the USA where Afro-Americans could be shipped. Partly realised in Liberia, just as the British Empire often dumped freed slaves in Sierra Leone.
Thomas Huxley, inventor of the term ‘agnosticism’ and Darwin’s champion in the public row over The Origin of the Species, was worse. His encounters with Australian Aboriginals left him keen to exterminate them:
“[Huxley] had fewer kind thoughts about Australia’s ‘hopelessly irreclaimable savages’… Australia’s nomads were blind to the Victorian ideas of private property, free-trade and Piccadilly fashion. His squatter’s morality was evidence; his final solution smugly horrifying. Their ‘elimination … from the earth’s surface can be viewed only with satisfaction, as the removal of a great blot from the escutcheon of our common humanity, by all those who know them as they are, and are not to be misled by the maudlin philanthropy of ‘aborigines’ friends’.”[H]
Like Darwin, Huxley was against slavery. It’s not such an odd attitude: people also apply it to cats, dogs, horses etc.. Cruelty is deplored, but the beasts may be freely killed by their owners. I documented all this in a detailed study called Jews Suffering in the Fall of the British Empire, now available on-line. What was done to Jews by Hitler was part of an older pattern: a point that many Jews recognised, and made further commitments to general human welfare as the best cure.
It must be recognised that Anglo culture had also offended: I noted that racism was an influence in the British decision to let vast numbers of Catholic Irish perish in the Potato Famine, though dogmatic belief in Free Trade also counted.[I]
That’s your grand liberal tradition, which Trump etc. are sinning against. Trump would be a wild leftist and multiracialist by the standards of most 19th century liberals. The US armed forces who helped defeat Nazism were rigorously segregated. They found 1940s Britain nothing like racist enough, since the small number of blacks then present in Britain were mostly tolerated in pubs, clubs and restaurants.
Socialists and communists demanded the social evils be fixed, sometimes at the expense of individual rights and freedoms. Liberals mostly let things drift, sometime causing disasters.
If Mounk is not aware of the massively racist nature of European and European-Setter society up until the 1960s, he is unqualified to write the book he has written. A book which the mainstream media is praising.
More commonly, you find that people know the off-message facts, but manage to avoid thinking about them. Do not mention them out of turn. Mounk does speak of ‘a clear racial hierarchy’. Once. On page 15. Nothing like good enough.
Mounk is also ill-informed when he says:
“One reason for liberal democracy’s triumph is that there was no coherent alternative to it. Communism had failed. Islamic theocracy had precious little support outside the Middle East. China’s unique systems of state capitalism under the banner of communism could hardly be emulated by countries that didn’t share its unusual history. The future, it seemed, belonged to liberal democracy.” (The People vs. Democracy, page 3.)
Hard-line Islam has been growing steadily in Muslim countries outside of the Middle East, notably Indonesia, where popular Islam used to be lax. This included some massacres and mutilations of ethnic Chinese, mostly dedicated capitalists and resented for being rich. Reported in World On Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, by ‘Tiger-Mother’ Amy Chua.
In the Middle East, the West went to great trouble and expense knocking over the secular semi-socialist dictators who were the main alternative to Islamic theocracy. Sew the wind, reap the whirlwind! The collapse of the government of the pro-Western Shah of Iran might have taught them the danger of destroying secular nationalists who simply wanted a fair share: Britain and the USA had in the 1950s helped overthrow Mohammad Mossadegh. Allowed hard-line Islam to flourish, imagining that they’d be as cowardly and weak as the USA’s ‘Fundamentalists’. ‘Christians’ who cringe when confronting the power of the USA’s elite.
The Republic of India has for decades nurtured its own Illiberal Democracy, the BJP, currently governing under the charismatic Narendra Modi. Blamed for past ethnic attacks, but surprisingly it now has Muslims voting for it. It has shoved aside the Moderate Socialism of the Congress Party, but could get shoved out again eventually by a coalition of diverse interests.
[Modi grew stronger after a successful election in 2019.]
Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, drifted from Moderate Socialism to a blend of Militant Buddhism combined with Sinhalese Nationalism. Encouraged by the minority Tamils seeking independence, but they have also been hostile to their small Muslim minority.
Something surprisingly similar happened in Myanmar, formerly Burma, even though they mostly follow a different version of Buddhism. This was little noticed until Buddhist Chauvinism surfaced in massive attacks on the Muslim Rohingya.
Thailand has its own very coherent culture, based on its Buddhist majority and its ancient monarchy, currently protected by some very illiberal laws against even mild criticism. Has seen much disorder based on attempts at moderate reformism within this system. Is currently ruled by a military junta. As far as I know, the majority are tolerant for as long as their dominance is accepted.
Cambodia had a nice reputation under Prince Sihanouk, not entirely deserved. Its ancient culture included much inequality and some cruelty. Everyone not of royal blood was expected to say ‘we who carry the King’s excrement on our heads’ when addressing him. He had a large harem, apparently not much used and given to frustrations. One instance: a lad of 15 visiting his sister who was a ‘secondary wife’ was several times caught by other palace women who would masturbate and humiliate him. And that little lad grew up to be Pol Pot: at least Philip Short reports the story in his book about the man.[J]
Pol Pot would have stayed obscure, had not the USA organised a coup and created a pro-US Khmer Republic that smashed Cambodia’s traditions. That ignored the convention that monarchies can only be abolished by a popular referendum. The US had a fantasy that Cambodia contained a secret Vietnamese Communist headquarters that they could wipe out and win the war. ‘COSVN’ proved as unreal as the Iraqi ‘weapons of mass destruction’. But unlike Iraq, the new ‘Khmer Republic’ was wildly unpopular. The USA maintained it by massive bombing, the main cause of later Khmer Rouge savagery. They had been marginal; but like other Leninists in an amazing diversity of different societies, they flourished in conditions of warfare.
I’d categorise Leninism as Militarised Socialism. The great error of the Soviet Union was not to adjust when the world changed, as People’s China has done.
Capitalism was slow to become democratic. Only in the 1880s did a majority of British men Isles get the vote – probably a minority among Catholic Irish. And in the 1930s, parliamentary government had collapsed in most of Europe even before Hitler. This was a reaction to economic pain, as it is now. But now, the pain is mostly due to the elite taking far too much.
Capitalism has yet to become peaceful, despite strange claims that this is in its nature. Countries with a strong commitment to the Mixed Economy have a rather better record.
Western values were never as globalised as Westerners thought. Japan remains a Mixed Economy, but harmed by copying too much of what the New Right recommended. They might also have intentionally chosen not to push for growth in the 1990s, since some in the USA viewed them as the next enemy after the Soviet collapse. Books and films like Rising Sun and Black Rain targeted them. They were then the world’s second biggest economy, and a rival. But Iraq was picked on instead.
From one brief visit, I found Japan very nice, safe, welcoming, and utterly alien.[K] Visiting an elegant temple that I could appreciate as an art-work, I was told that a group of business people in an inner room going were through a religious ceremony for ‘good luck’ before starting a new venture. Where else in the world would such things happen?
If Mounk accepts People’s China as a success, how can he also say that Communism failed? It was a hopeless mess before the Chinese Communists put it in order. The most coherent element in the mess, the Kuomintang, had been changed from no-hopers to champions during the few years they were in alliance with both the Soviet Union and Chinese Communism. That changed in 1927, when they were about to take Shanghai and had a choice between confronting global imperialism or cringing before it. Chose to cringe, and were permitted to rule so long as they did nothing radical, but built roads and railways. Further opened up China to the destructive unfair trade terms that had been imposed on them.
Both Marx and Lenin saw Communism as a process of transition. Lenin restored a controlled version of capitalism with the 1920s New Economic Policy. Deng Xiaoping was a more orthodox Marxist than Mao: he never dropped socialism as the long-term goal. President Xi would certainly claim to be continuing the same tradition, and may be correct.
Both Mao and Stalin achieved their stated aim of making the states they ruled industrialised and strong. Most Western books talk as if there was no economic progress under Mao. They will never actually say it, suggesting that they are well aware it is not true.
Angus Maddison’s The World Economy: Historical Statistics is generally accepted as the best source. It accurately shows a dip after the Great Leap Forward but otherwise vast success. China matched global averages despite being boycotted and threatened with invasion by the USA.
Until Nixon made peace, the USA claimed that the Taiwan exiles where the real China. Their leader Chiang Kai-shek repeatedly promised to retake and ‘liberate’ the mainland. Many Westerners took this seriously, until the Cultural Revolution showed that Mao could throw the entire society into chaos without any known organised opposition that wished to be viewed as anti-Communist, or even anti-Mao. But a Taiwanese invasion as a front for a full-scale war by the USA would not have been absurd. They did it successfully in Guatemala 1954, and with military success in Iraq 2003. Considered it for Cuba after the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. I detail this in China’s Maoist Foundations[L] and China 1949: Fixing a Broken Society,[M] both available on-line.
The Soviet Union as ruthlessly remade by Stalin was strong enough to break the Nazi invasion. The USA was stronger again, but unlikely to be willing to lose millions defeating the entire German Army. They shared the Western Front with other armies while fighting against just one-third of Nazi power, along with a war with Japan that Japan started. They might not have fought against Hitler at all, given a choice. Many US politicians in the 1930s were friendly towards Hitler.
Roosevelt could not take the USA into a war without approval by Congress. He managed to provoke Japan by strangling their vital overseas trade while they waged war on China. Japan responded unintelligently, attacking the much-stronger USA rather than ending their China war with a compromise that the dominant military fanatics would certainly have called treason. Equally foolishly, Hitler also declared war, giving Congress no choice but to respond. Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China shows that without the Communist-inspired Xian Incident, Kuomintang China might not have dared fight Japan.
Mounk is weak on the history of civilisation. He says:
“To make a copy of a long text, a professional copyist or a monk would need to transcribe each word in the original manuscripts…
“This helps explain what made the invention of the printing press so momentous. When Johannes Guttenberg first found a way to create a master plate for each page …he radically changed the structural conditions of communication.” (The People vs. Democracy, page 137)
Block Printing was developed in China eighteen centuries ago. It drifted slowly across Asia, along with paper. Both were common in Europe by 1300, and didn’t disrupt the society. Guttenberg’s 1430s innovation was to perfect the tricky matter of printing neatly with movable type. (Tried and abandoned centuries earlier in both China and Korea, in part because of the vast number of ideograms compared to the Latin alphabet.) Movable type was useful, but I suspect it was hyped because it was a Renaissance European innovation. Something much better to talk up than a mediaeval borrowing that came remotely from China. And Mounk is cockeyed to think everyone was copying by hand before Guttenberg liberated them.
Capitalism’s Impure Truth
Mounk’s long whine about nasty populists replacing nice liberals is too confused and conventional to be worth detailed study. Full of bias, such as classing Russia as a dictatorship. (Page 36). One of many Western liberals irritated that Putin keeps getting elected by large majorities in reasonably fair elections. Elections where the re-founded Russian Communists are the main opposition, while pro-Western parties are increasingly insignificant.
He also fails to mention how the Centre-Right cultivated racism and xenophobia to cover right-wing economics. Pure Capitalism has its supporters, but far too few to win elections.
Adam Smith famously put the case for Pure Capitalism in The Wealth of Nations. But if you can step back from 21st-century assumptions and look at what the man said, his views are alien. Commerce was best done by a small number of rich Partners: he disliked the diffusion of responsibility involved with corporations and tradeable shares. He did not favour democracy, and had strong links to the three British politicians held most responsible for provoking the American War of Independence.
Smith spoke of Freedom, “the natural effort of every individual to better his own condition”, which was supposedly superior to anything a well-meaning government might do. He opposed the “folly of human laws”, except those ensuring the individual had “freedom and security”.
If I could hold down an ordinary job but no jobs are available, does that help my ‘freedom and security’? In practice, the centre-right defend the freedom and security of the elite. Best served by full employment when the West feared both defeat in the Cold War and a revival of fascism. Best served by growing unemployment to weaken both trade unions and ordinary non-unionised employees, when the Soviet Union was visibly coming apart in the 1980s.
The liberal version of ‘freedom and security’ that Mounk correctly sees as endangered is at risk because both the centre-right and the centre-left saw no need to defend the freedom and security of ordinary people. Or else saw it as not possible. Regardless, they goofed. I see it as goofing rather than cunning plots. Plots undoubtedly existed, some realised and some not. But they cheated themselves in the 1990s by being mean-spirited to the new-born Russian Republic. Gave it incompetent advice about how to transform, ignoring the successful Chinese example. Turned friends into enemies, and made most Chinese much more wary of their advice.
By the 1980s , a revival of fascism was not feared. Docile versions of fascism or things close to fascism had been protected by the West in Spain, Portugal, Latin America and much of non-Communist Asia. Not to mention blatant racists in apartheid South Africa.
Another goofy aspect of the New World Order was an ignorant belief that their own long-evolved systems were natural and would spring up spontaneously if existing states were smashed. That was the logic in Iraq, and a complete disaster. Saddam Hussein was as open to slow transition to Western values as Franco etc. had been. But with the Soviet Union withdrawn from Middle-Europe and close to complete collapse, the leaders of the West thought that they could kick around the rest of the world just as they pleased.
Successfully kicked were Ceausescu in Romania, Mobutu in Zaire / Congo, Suharto in Indonesia and the weak squabbling leaders of what was then Federal Yugoslavia. But Saddam Hussein, threatened with ruin because the West would not write off debts he had run up as the West’s attack-dog against Islamic Iran, chose to be bold and invade Kuwait. He correctly reckoned that the West could not get a Western-orientated Iraq without him. His error was to suppose that Thatcher and Bush Senior were smart enough to know this.
The dominant belief then was that Freedom must triumph. Easy to suppose that when someone says Freedom, it is your sort of Freedom. Confusing for centrists and liberals when the Far Right, Far Left and various religious hard-liners also see themselves as defenders of Freedom.
For me, the key is to realise that when we say Freedom, we mean ‘a set of freedoms that we find socially acceptable’. Which was once the standard view among thoughtful people.
So why did we get into the present muddle? One problem was the cultural success of the radicalism of the 1960s. They disliked and feared the state, because they bumped up against it on matters of sex, censorship, drugs and the Vietnam War. Later captured the state machine, but did not properly update their thinking.
You might also ask, why are failed New Right policies continued? But they were not continued when the interests of the rich were at risk. Public spending was boosted after the almost-forgotten crisis of 1987, which might have brought the New Right experiment to an abrupt end. But then the Soviet Union collapsed. This was taken to mean that Communism had always been a failure, rather than going wrong in the 1960s after some grand successes. So after the 2008 crisis, both Obama and Gordon Brown were persuaded that the banks should be bailed out, but on no account taken into permanent public ownership.
Recently Invented Traditional Liberalism
Yascha Mounk is appalled that people reject nice liberal values, but does not recognise that this particular version of liberalism was invented in the 1970s. That it was bound up with a version of Globalisation that has failed to help most people. He talks as if liberalism was a continuous tradition that bad people of the left and right have wickedly gone against.
It was also in the 1970s that the Hard Left got over-ambitious, sabotaging the imperfect Mixed-Economy and Welfare systems created in the 1940s. Then and since, they have mostly forgotten to celebrate the successes of the Mixed Economy. (Which I have detailed with hard facts in an article available at my website.[N])
My father Raymond Williams is famous for his book The Long Revolution. From teenage Maoism, I came round to his view. Even in the 1970s, I was clear that Incomes Policy and Workers Control would be big steps forward for socialism. And that it was a disaster for socialism that reforms in Czechoslovakia were crushed in 1968. To me, the whole Soviet Bloc had lost its way after that. Its abrupt collapse in 1989-91 was a surprise, but not really a shock. And I saw no reason to sneer at what it had once been.
Born 1950, I knew how much social values in the West have shifted. Including mine: I had to do a lot of re-thinking to accept gays as normal humans and to recognise women as fully equal. So too did almost everyone alive then: but this has been written out of history.
British Liberals from 1906 did many progressive things, including expanding welfare. But they freed White South Africa without protecting non-white rights. Ignored Irish Home Rule until they needed Irish Nationalist votes after a Tory revival.
England in 1914 believed in a hierarchy based on inherent biological and racial differences. English first, obviously. The Scots a little lower than the English. In a third tier of the White Master Race were the Welsh, Irish Protestants, English Catholics, the more long-settled Jews, ‘colonials’ and US Citizens. In a fourth and decidedly inferior tier were the Catholic Irish, more recent and unfamiliar Jews, Dutch, Germans and Scandinavians. Below those other White Europeans, widely called Frogs, Wops, Dagos etc. They were still higher than Levantines and others seen as ‘Mixed Race’. And there were many grades of non-white below that.
All of this was modified by class – the British aristocracy confused matters by accepting some Indian aristocrats as social equals, whereas in British India they ranked below every member of the White Race. Jews might be ranked higher or lower by non-Jews, and most Jews naturally ranked themselves very high.
Only a small minority were universalists. In the 20th century, most who’d fight on the issue were socialists or communists. Liberals occasionally did the same, but mostly did not stand up to the racists. Many, including some socialists, saw Imperialism as the benevolent rule of peoples unfit to rule themselves.
This was the world that Global Leninism set itself against. Since its original foes have changed out of all recognition, Mounk has no right to call it a failure.
You’d learn nothing from Mounk about what once existed. He is often ill-informed: e.g. printing that I mentioned earlier. But he must know some of it.
Nixon is mentioned once, in the safe context of his fall. Not his ‘Southern Strategy’. This won over Southern Democrats, racists but originally believers in welfare and the rights for the white working class, plus inferior but definite rights for ‘niggers’. (I insist on using racist words to describe actual racists.)
US Republicans have massaged the prejudices of right-wing voters, while privately regarding them as ignorant trash. While making sure they got nothing. Then along comes Trump, treating propaganda as if it were true.
In 1914, most liberals were racists and imperialists. That world self-destructed in World War One, with fascism and communism as logical responses. Both swastika and hammer-and-sickle weirdly echo the Christian cross that so many young men had been buried under.
My sister Merryn, a noted poet, encapsulated the sense of loss in a work called ‘Poem for George Dalling’. My mother’s family lived in Devon, but our great-uncle went to Australia. He volunteered for World War One and died at Gallipoli:
“Far from Devon, from Australia;
“why he went – a mystery –
“he took his skeleton, his rifle,
“leaving no posterity.”[O]
Puzzled that liberalism fails now? Learn at least a little bit about how it failed then.
Politics labelled ‘liberal’ go back to the 18th century. But British liberalism was lukewarm about evolving concepts of liberty in the 19th and 20th centuries. Mostly it was a small radical fringe that favoured the abolition of slavery, racial equality, rights for women and sometimes anti-Imperialism. But H G Wells was one of many who dreamt of a World State that was an enlarged and perfected version of the Empire they lived in. His SF novel The World Set Free, published in May 1914, was an excellent anticipation of the folly of World War One. Sadly, he was one of many pulled along by war-fervour. In 1916 he published Mr. Britling Sees It Through, a dull novelisation of himself as warmonger. It was enormously influential at the time, helping bring the USA into the war. Supporting the notion that Imperial Germany was uniquely wicked and must be smashed.
Germany was no worse than its rivals. From 1915, it saw the war as deadlocked and was ready to revert to pre-war borders. France and Tsarist Russia were reluctant: they had been mauled and an indecisive war would have amounted to defeat. Russia would probably have had a revolution, almost certainly producing a liberal Russia. Bolshevism gained power only after continuing Russian suffering and a ruling liberal government that insisted the war must continue.
The rise of Bolshevism was part of something much wider. From the late 19th century, the small radical fringe within liberalism gained a socialist flavour. Independent socialist groups became more than marginal.
In 1848, when they issued the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels led a movement with less than a thousand members. Other versions of socialism and communism were little larger. All declined when the 1840s wave of revolutions failed. But in the longer run, the more modern types of socialism grew enormously.
Curiously to modern minds, in Britain there were also socialists within the Tory Party. There was intense debate within the Fabian League before they threw in their lot with the Liberal Party, and then the new Labour Party. Tories had promoted generous welfare during the Napoleonic Wars. Tories through to the 1850s gave basic protection to workers with various Factory Acts.
Nor was it a continuous Tory / Liberal division: there were significant shifts and mergers. Gladstone, greatest of British liberals, began as a Tory. Joseph Chamberlain was a radical within Liberalism before splitting over Irish Home Rule. His Liberal Unionists – very different from Ulster Unionists – were eventually absorbed into Toryism.[P] And this major event in British politics has been massively downplayed in conventional histories of Britain. I’d thought I knew British history quite well, but it was only from Brendan Clifford that I became aware of how important a change it had been.
What was Liberalism? The Whig hegemony established in 1688 was intensely protectionist. Whigs and Tories were factions, with Tories much more favourable to the monarchy. Both would probably have accepted the labels ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, and denied that these were opposite principles. And this remained broadly true when the two admired qualities were made party labels in the 19th century.
Both Whig and Tory were gradually converted to the Free Trade. Adam Smith was closely associated with the three British ministers held responsible for pushing British North America into rebelling and creating the USA. This is one of many forgotten facts detailed in my book Adam Smith: Wealth Without Nations.
My book made no impression a the time, sad to say. It remains mostly ignored despite being the only left-wing criticism of Smith available in English.[Q]
I checked in detail for who else had talked about Smith on the left, and found just one book that had many words but little coherent meaning. I know of nothing in any other language either, but they might exist.
Whatever he intended, Adam Smith has been a cover for greed and selfishness by the rich.
Free Trade dogma encouraged Tory Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel to let the Irish starve during the Potato Famine, rather than let them eat the vast amounts of food they’d grown but had to surrender as rent. (Notions of Catholic Irish inferiority also counted.) Starvation caused by exporting food from a famine zone was used as an excuse to repeal the Corn Laws.[R] That damaged British agriculture and paved the way for hunger in Britain in both World Wars.
Peel’s supporters left the Tory Party and helped created a new version of Liberalism. Yet over the decades, Liberalism became the main party of Workers Rights, Welfare and State Regulation. They fought and won a bitter struggle with the House of Lords, reducing the power of the British aristocracy. (Also achieved by corruptly selling honours, making titles much less respected than they had been.)
Another off-message truth is that Russia after the Soviet collapse was keen to be Western, and was hurt by the West. I was slow to see that Boris Yeltsin as President had transformed from Heroic Rebel to Drunken Bungler. I needed Brendan Clifford to push me to a clearer vision: but I have kept that vision. Yeltsin created the authoritarian Presidency that the West complains about. They backed him when he shelled his own parliament after a revolt that could have been talked down.
The economy shrank under Yeltsin. Criminals grabbed much of it. Putin is popular because he stopped the rot. The re-founded Russian Communists are the main opposition. Pro-Western parties are marginal. But Mounk ignores this. Never mentions Yeltsin, and classes Russia as a dictatorship (page 36).
Then there’s the Internet, which Mounk mentions as a lost hope. Myself, before retiring I made a living as a very ordinary Computer Analyst with mainframe computers, which are still the backbone of computing. I knew the skills of the equally ordinary people I worked among, and was certain that any major states would have some very exceptional and smart people working for them. That the web would not be a way round, and was appalled that people were being told it was. I felt anguish for foreign dissidents getting caught, even when I saw their dissent as foolish. Published a warning in the year 2000, ‘The Web Is Always Insecure’.[S]
I was as usual ignored, but something similar is now the consensus. Whether dissidents exposed via the web were recruited as spies, sent to jail or ignored, I do not know.
By 2000, I did know was that mainstream views on freedom were naïve, and often selfish. ‘If it ain’t broke FOR ME, then inconveniencing me to fix it is A WICKED ASSAULT ON FREEDOM’.
There are of course a handful of sincere anarchists, who do not want the state protecting them even when they need it. But they don’t count.
My generation –now called Baby Boomers, though many of our leading spirits were War Babies, born between 1939 and 1945 – were aggressive radicals who created an expanded notion of freedom for ourselves. A ‘Cultural Metamorphosis’ that the Centre-Right in Britain and Ireland now like to pretend they always supported.
We were also selfish, more often than not. We took the freedoms we wanted – sex, drugs, less formality, weaker hierarchies. We also demanded and still demand that the state protect us from violence and from discrimination. Which I agree with – but protection of the poor and weak gets neglected.
It has been an issue in several countries whether a cake shop is entitled to refuse to decorate a cake with pro-Gay slogans. To me, it would be discriminatory if they’d refused to sell existing cakes: but no one should be coerced into expressing views they do not share. It makes no more sense than a law compelling disapproving relatives to attend a Gay Wedding. But I share the general belief that state power is needed to end discrimination. See this as part of a much bigger and illiberal picture of what the state should be doing.
In the 1980s, when the status of many Boomers was rising within existing society, many of them scorned the successful Mixed Economy and Welfare State that had raised up most of us. Decided taxes were a horrible burden and that the world would work better without them. That the state could not fix problems and was the main problem, as Ronald Reagan put it.
I was part of the Generous Minority among Baby Boomers. We were always a minority. The generation that fought Hitler saw the need for collective action: somehow this was not passed on. Many ageing Baby Boomers hate what the New Right did, but have swallowed their notion that the state is no answer and is in fact part of the problem. Indeed, you could say they had it first, as Hippies. That they generated the New Right via the short-lived flourishing of former Hippies as Yuppies. Yuppies as such soon evaporated, but their values became part of the mainstream culture.
In the 1990s, liberal-leftists like Britain’s Blair and the Clintons in the USA surrendered to New Right economics. Had some success – Bill Clinton did get rid of the USA’s unhealthy deficit, though Bush Junior soon re-created it with tax giveaways that gave most to a more-than-millionaire elite. They did not tackle the main pain of the Working Mainstream. Their popularity faded. And with the Soviet Union gone, they were part of a global lynch-mob keen to use the West’s military muscle.
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but the Cold War ended with their loss in 1989 of the Warsaw Pact countries. It re-created the former Mitteleuropa that Germans and Austrians ruled up to 1918. Made a happy peaceful world possible, but the West vastly overplayed its hand.
The pattern of the USA as ‘Global Boss-Man’ began in 1990, with the decision that Saddam’s regime must be smashed after its invasion of Kuwait. Smashed even though Saddam had first floated the idea with the US Ambassador, and had not been warned off. That ‘accident’ reminds me of Edward Grey as a very experienced British Foreign Secretary failing to warn Imperial Germany that a march through neutral Belgium would mean war. Germany inquired during the long crisis before the actual outbreak of war. They acted in the belief that Britain would not mind much.
For many years before 1914, there had been many in the British establishment who felt that a war with Germany was inevitable. Or that a war should be sought before Germany displaced Britain as the leading power in world trade, as was increasingly happening. One must suspect that Germany was lured into the First World War, even though the actual war accelerated the decline of the British Empire.
The probable luring of Saddam fitted nicely with the openly expressed idea that history had ended with centuries of enlightened or liberal Western values vindicated. That no one had any right to be any different. Which I would see as the main cause of the increasing unpopularity of the West all over the world.
I never had any fondness for Saddam’s Iraq, Gaddafi’s Libya or Assad’s Syria. But I was also virtually certain that breaking those regimes would fail to produce something better. A wiser rule would have been: if you can’t fix it, don’t break it.
From my time as a Computer Analyst, I vividly remember a co-worker confidently telling me that the war against Iraq was a clever scheme. Saddam would be replaced by someone just as repressive, but ready to sell oil cheap to the West. Cheaper petrol for his car. As it happened, the man lost his job during the later financial crises. Unemployed last time I saw him.
The removal of Saddam’s repressive regime led to the emergence of everything he had been repressing. Most of it far more alien to Western values than he’d been. Only the Kurds running what is functionally a separate state in northern Iraq still had familiar values, including heroic female fighters. But a revival of a Kurdish nationalism with claims on some of the territory of the Turkish Republic must have fed into the rise of Political Islam in Turkey.
I hadn’t foreseen that breaking existing Libyan politics and trying to do the same in Syria would produce a flood of refugees. Or that this would in turn produce hysterical anti-immigrant feelings throughout the European Union, even in places where there were very few immigrants. But no one is surprised when an individual put under stress blows up into fury over some minor issue. An unemployed man beating up his wife, even though she is obviously not at fault. It would be logical to expect the same irrationality from whole societies.
Also logical to decide that fixing real grievances would be a general cure: the main problems being high unemployment and too little welfare. But to address that would be to admit that the New Right project had failed. For Mounk, everyone else has failed. The politics of the 1990s were wonderful apart from mysteriously going wrong.
Mounk does mention the growth in inequality since the 1980s – though not that it has been largely a recovery of the inequality that existed before the 1940s. But he refuses to see this as much of a problem.
Mounk can’t see that ‘Our Freedom’ won’t last unless it is also ‘Their Freedom’.[T]
Appendix – Liberal Science Fiction
Writers like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke could sensibly be called liberal writers. What’s interesting is how drastically their viewpoints shifted.
The original Foundation ‘trilogy’ is a collection of twelve connected short stories. It would read more logically as two volumes: first the rise against a declining Galactic Empire and then the disruption caused by a mutant with Mind Control. Several volumes set earlier or later in its timeline were added much later, beginning with the excellent Foundation’s Edge, which linked the stories to his previously-separate robot stories.. Later volumes I found OK, but not of the same quality apart from The Robots of Dawn and Foundation and Earth. Likewise the various authorised additions by other writers.
What’s very relevant here is how Foundation’s Edge showed big shifts in Asimov’s world-view. The hidden technocratic ‘Second Foundation’ were originally seen as the correct end-point: in the continuation it is the enigmatic soft-power ‘Gaia’.
Likewise The Robots of Dawn continues a trend in other late-Asimov robot stories in accepting the robots as people and meriting equality. This was definitely not the case in the original stories.
Asimov’s older view as robots properly kept as loyal servants has so far been continued in Star Wars, apart from the occasional dissenting note in the mutli-authored ‘Extended Universe’ writings. I’ve written elsewhere about its moral weakness: The Moral Void in Star Wars.[U]
British and US imaginative writings are also significant in the shifting views of Imperialism, Racism, Genocide, Sexual Equality, and acceptable sex. The topic of genocide is covered in ‘Vrilism and Fantasy-Genocide’, part of a larger study of Anglo genocide.[V] A study of the rest is something I plan to write eventually, if I live long enough.
This first appeared in a magazine called ‘Problems.
Issue 36, 4th Quarter 2018. November 2018
[A] The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, by Yascha Mounk
[B] 27th June issue, page 9
[D] This is in the first-written volume, called just Foundation. See the Appendix for more.
[E] The Economist, September 6th, 2003
[F] The Guardian, 24 Jun 2018
[H] Desmond, Adrian. Huxley. Penguin Books 1998. Page 144
[J] Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare, page 27 of the 2005 paperback edition.
[K] Japan – not going to the dogs or daemons, https://gwydionwilliams.com/politics-various-articles/japan-doing-ok/
[P] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_Unionist_Party
[Q] Mysteriously listed as unavailable at Amazon. Still available from Athol Books, http://www.atholbooks.org/. Parts of it are also on-line, see https://gwydionwilliams.com/48-economics/
I checked in detail for who else had talked about Smith on the left, and found just one book that had many words but little coherent meaning.
I know of nothing in any other language either, but they might exist.
[T] I originally studied Mounk after being asked to do a review for a mainstream publication by someone who thought they liked my criticisms of liberalism. This essay is largely a merger of my two attempts to do this. I’d suppose they found my views insufficiently wishy-washy.