http://thesocialrepublic.blogspot.com/2009/05/republic-does-weber-ideal-type_08.html‘We Socialists consider Liberals to be dangerous compromisers’ – a very svelte Christopher Hitchens 1988
Liberalism in its many forms is probably the most important political ideology ever conceived. Whilst under its own banner, much of the world was transformed materially and conceptually; its offspring, Socialism and Nationalism continued to reassess and remodel human society. Liberalism, in many ways, charted and defined the rules and parameters of modern secular politics. Even as a dialectical antithesis or an inveterate and insidious creed o'corruption, Liberalism laid down the means and the expected norms of political thought and political activity. What meanings do the language of Rights, those of Laws or the nature of property or nationhood have without a basis within the Liberal canon. Liberalism makes up the political DNA of modern political discourse. It is a Leviathan, at times soft hearted, at other ruthlessly pitiless.
As for my ideal type, here goes:-
'Liberalism seeks a form of governance that strikes a balance between social stability and solidarity and defending against arbitrary rule via maximising individual liberty in a multitude of forms. The nature of both sides of this equation are informed by legalistic means almost to the point of fetish. It is essentially a materialistic creed that links self-worth and self-esteem directly to property but seeks to counter the alienating consequences of this reductionism by a collective nomos'
Unpacking blah blah
‘Liberalism seeks a form of governance...’ Liberalism is focused on government. Its central historical problem was the nature of ruling. How can one rule fairly, how can one rule legitimately, how one can rule effectively? Via wise governance, Liberal thought saw and continues sees the possibility of progress, of historical mechanisms driving towards a better world. Whilst the details of the 'end' are generally vague and the determination to overcome 'obstacles' varies, there is a clear dialectical relationship, a temporal and an implicitly futorial one, between action over and within governance and the improvement of humanity. When Locke or Smith saw the stirrings of revolutionary social changes, they attributed them to the forms of governance most informed by basic liberal tenets.
‘....that strikes a balance....’ Here is a core, indeed key element in Liberalism. Locke and others pondered the absolutist Leviathan and had to concede, after the bloody chaos of the 17th century, that some supra-individual overarching power was needed for order to survive. They were no anarchists, as Liberals today remain. Yet they dissented from Hobbes monarchical arbiter. Rather they conceived of an abstract state, directed not by the will of one deity anointed ruler, but by an aggregate of interests, a public will.
‘....between social stability and solidarity....’ Long before Marx, Durkheim, Tonnes or Simmel considered the centrifugal nature of an entirely ‘free’ society, Liberal thought had been painfully troubled by it. Liberals were no Levellers and sought to destroy idols, not out of sheer ecstasy of demolition, but to further human improvement within their own prejudices. A heat death society, one driven solely by individual passions was as abhorrent to the Liberal as a choreographed Tyranny.
As such, Liberals have attempt to find some suitable 'glue' for their societies. The principle of Nationality was an early candidate as witnessed in Defoe's popular francophobia and the Gironde's 'pure' hearted concern for those beyond the pale. American Nationalism is an undoubtably a child of Liberalism, both as a form of exceptionism and a sacred motive to reform/help/rule the rest of the world. In time, basically a-liberal sectarianism, racism or ‘Third Estatism’ (a vertical cleavage between producers and idlers) has also been synthesised.
‘…and defending against arbitrary rule...’ Liberalism, as a child of the enlightenment, carries within it a rejection of despotism and its historical characterisation of the absolutism regimes it sought to oust. While this may be partial and one-eyed, it is an important tenant. Resisting a form of tyranny, made akin to that faced by the pantheon of Liberal heroes, is an essential part of the Liberal makeup. One can still see the rhetoric and policy of the Third estate over the idlers and petty despots today. Be it Islamist regimes by pro-war Libs, or ‘plutocratic corporations’ by American Democrats or the perfidious nature of institutionalised poverty by Social Libs. Even the Neo-Liberals use such bombast when attacking the over-arching State. Arbitary rule, as in rule sans law, is abhorrent.
‘…via maximising individual liberty in a multitude of forms …’ As such, the defence against the despots/tyrants/idlers the maximum possible level of liberty within society. How much is changeable, as Liberals sought to change their societies without breaking them. For American Liberals, the dangers inherent in manifesting this aim for the Black chattel vital to the basis of American agriculture demanded a considerable and painful amount of circumspection and polluting compromise. Mills might well have been ahead of his time when he said ‘Over one's mind and over one's body the individual is sovereign’ but as a philosopher, his words had to be taken, at best, as something for later generations, or at worse, pious nonsense. Maximising Liberty, not perfect liberty was the Liberal creed.
The forms in which this was done varied as the ‘tyranny’ changed faces. Emancipation from the devilish travails of priesthood and sceptre might be replaced by those of peasant obscurism and idleness. Breaking the chains of Plutocracy and corruption might be replaced by the defeating the bane of racist laws or smiting nefarious red tape. Over-blown rhetoric aside, anything that seems to upset the balance, tilting into Hobbesian heat death or stony Leviathan, is to be conquered
‘... The natures of both sides of this equation are informed by legalistic means almost to the point of fetish…’ For the Liberal, the law cut both against anarchy and despotism. The law, when justly conceived and carried out (again greatly variable concepts….consider the long heritage of the torturable and non-torturable classes), is king. As a Lawyers’ creed, Liberalism is wedded to the law and legalistic methodology. The law provides both a rational and a-arbitrary route to gain consensus and punish as well as a in-built capacity to circumvent itself if the need arises. Robespierre, when he conceived of a situation too dangerous and fast moving for ‘normal’ legality, created a new class of legal norms, faster and more ruthless. Yet, he could not dispense with it. Consider the somewhat chicken-headed attempts to get or deny UN authority during the invasion of Iraq.
‘…It is essentially a materialistic creed …’ Which is not to say it is anti-spiritual. Rather, its dialectic is material. Progress is a matter of more, quicker, further and better. The liberal century, 1777-1914 was a parade of plenty for the ‘civilised’, the ‘enlightened’, the Liberal. More railway track, more yards of cotton, more boxes of matches, more science explored, more miles mapped. Whilst, the next fifty years somewhat contradicted this seemly endless momentum, material progress remained within Liberalism.
‘…that links self-worth and self-esteem directly to property…’ And the height of progress was universal or nearly so property ownership. Mass materialism was a primary defence against the serf owning divine lord, the centralised state, the communist collective, dehumanising poverty. For the Liberal, property became a rite of passage for the young or the self-made man. Before property, how could an individual be, how could they be worthy of the fullest extent of liberty? This absolute line has been modified, so rights are dealt out on the understanding property will eventually follow or at least be fervently sought. The property less freak or the society that cannot provide such opportunities is to be pitied.
‘….but seeks to counter the alienating consequences of this reductionism by a collective nomos’ Yet this property fetish must be countered by the aforementioned collective understandings. The anarchy of the rich must be tempered to a benevolent patriarchy. Liberalism demands of the rich only they be willing to forgo some of the maximum extent of their liberties to keep social peace. Much of this is material i.e. welfare, progressive taxation, much is mythos.