Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Liberalism, power, and the state

Tony Travers, Financial Times:

The [British] government is making changes that accord with Conservative instincts -- favouring a smaller state and less top-down intervention. But there is also a willingness to try out ideas whose impacts cannot be predicted, amounting to “suck it and see” experimentation. This mix of cost-savings, reform and target-dumping disguises a more coherent underlying philosophy: the twin aims of reducing the size of government and bringing about a dramatic shift of power away from the centre.

Every government reflects the balance of domestic power. Inequality shifts that balance to favor certain groups over others. Because the natural logic of capitalism creates and sustains inequality through the ever-greater accumulation of wealth in ever-fewer hands, a government wedded to capitalism will always default to this purpose absent any demonstration of greater power by contending groups.

In this sense, what Marx called "bourgeois government" -- government by the private owners of social wealth -- can be assumed in capitalist societies as constant. The least amount of government will act to sustain capitalism, because without government, capitalism, and the property relations that it implies, cannot be sustained: the majority of people would not voluntarily submit to someone else's terms of employment if they didn't have to. Our laws are written in large part to ensure that we have to.

Liberalism evolved into a politics of "big government" out of an acknowledgment of this constant factor operating within the state. A government that "governs least" may be appropriate for a society whose economic affairs can be administered by free networks of small farmers and craftspeople, as Jefferson had hoped. But when the organization of all economic life falls to possessing minorities via "the compulsory nature of centralized authority," in Dick: Armey's words, then "less government" just means government for one part of society, and less for everyone else.

This is the sense in which liberalism came to embrace "big government" -- as a consensus policy arising from the conflict between classes. Big government added to the state's constant component a variable element: government for the rest of society.

That government for the rest of us functions as a variable phenomenon is plain to see in the various "reform" and deficit-reduction initiatives which have assumed priority-status. It is also evident in the cultural associations, for example, which have gained traction in the minds of Generations XYZ, that "Social Security won't exist when we retire," because "that's what they say." The expectation that one should retire at all is now being whittled away at by the same popular trend setters in the corporate press as well.

Contemporary liberalism should be understood as advancing a conception of domestic "rights" under capitalism. One needs a big government to do this, because "small government" is assigned to preserving property relations alone. This raises important questions about how the inequalities attending capitalism can be addressed and eventually overcome, since big government is only variably responsive the public, while its "bourgeois" directive pushes constantly to make it less so.


Anonymous said...

so well said.

i check your blog out every day. almost never comment, but love it.

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

Liberalism now includes progressivism, which loves "more, better regulation" like liberals love "more, better Democrats." This has been another boost for the modern Liberalist government, because all the non-producing "service economy" jobs are so specious in durable goods production, and the money that is "grown" full from imagination via derivatives and other hypothecations of real value... all this stuff needs regulation because the liberal and progressive believe in PROGRESS which means BIG SCALE in everything possible. Liberals and progressives love commercialized agriculture as long as it can be sold to the dirty greenie hippies with a USDA Organic logotype somewhere attached. They love real estate bubbles, derivatives, and other financial chicanery. Rather than suggest remaking the economy, they prefer to over-regulate it. Witness their mouth-foaming obsessions over wanting Elizabeth Warren to jump from Harvard to some new regulatory entity, so that Warren can let even more bullshit fly under her radar because she approves of it whimsically but justifies it with shit jurisprudence. Liberals and progressives are like 3d cousins that are hot for each other. And they're working at the Hotel New Hampshire Avenue, so something's gonna give.

Joe said...

I take a somewhat dimmer view of contemporary liberalism. I see its primary function as advancing the interests of capitalism by giving just enough to those who are left out so as to prevent open revolt. Also not sure I agree that government is simply a reflection of the balance of power in a society; I think it plays a pretty big role in creating that balance. In other words, there's a sense in which big government is "conservative"--in that its activism is often (mostly?) on behalf of big business. (This ties in with your last sentence, I think.) So I guess my point is that liberalism is self-defeating at best, and at worst, just a cynical con job of the kind Oxtrot pointed out.

JRB said...

Good observations!

Let's return to the idea that government reflects the balance of power within society, because I think this encompasses much of what you are pointing to.

When I say "contemporary liberalism," I basically mean since World War II -- since FDR.

I say that liberalism came to embrace "big government" as a consensus policy arising out of the conflict between classes: After World War II capital was hemmed into the domestic economy, and organized labor was strong. This is the context where contemporary liberalism finds its intellectual roots, much of it influenced by socialist activism.

Obviously, we aren't in the same situation today, yet "liberalism" remains. So we have a very different kind of liberalism. When you have unionists shutting down production, you get government policies responsive to this. China is going through this right now, by legalizing the right to strike and moving toward a consumer society.

On the other hand, when you have generalized apathy, weak labor organizations, and the 20-second, disposable amusements of mass consumerism, you get different policies from these "variable" operations of the state.

To my view, "progressivism" has its intellectual roots in the fact that liberalism is no longer whatever its acolytes believe FDR made it, so, you know, we have to elect another FDR. But because progressivism doesn't have a mass movement to advance its policy preferences through class conflict -- it doesn't even understand class conflict -- yes: it becomes a cover for whatever awful things capital decides to pursue under a "left" administration, with plenty of well-intentioned people looking the other way because they don't see any alternative.

I hope any of this helps!