Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A disappointed liberal

Not all liberals are pleased with what they have created. Clive Hamilton is a leading left-liberal thinker here in Australia. He has written a lengthy 50 page article titled The Disappointment of Liberalism.

In this article, Clive Hamilton describes very well what liberals set out to do. The basic idea of liberalism is that we should seek a particular kind of freedom, namely, a freedom to shape who we are and what we do according to our own individual will and reason.

The main impediments to this kind of freedom are the important parts of our personal and social identity which we don't choose, but are born into, such as our gender, race and class. If only, thought the liberals, we could abolish the "oppressive" influence of such things, we could create an autonomous, independent, self-defining individual, free to pursue his own happiness.

Here is Clive Hamilton himself telling this story of how liberalism has made people "free" to define themselves according to their own will and reason:

Now that the constraints of socially imposed roles have weakened, oppression based on gender, class and race is no longer tenable, and the daily struggle for survival has for most people disappeared, we have entered an era characterised by 'individualisation' where, for the first time, individuals have the opportunity to 'write their own biographies' rather than have the chapters foretold by the circumstances of their birth. For the first time in history, the ordinary individual in the West has the opportunity to make a true choice.

We are today "free" in this liberal sense in a way no-one has been before. As Clive Hamilton puts it,

... the shackles of minority oppression and social conservatism have been cast off. The traditional standards, expectations and stereotypes that were the target of the various movements dating from the 1960s - the sexual revolution, the counter-culture and the women's movement - ushered in an era of personal liberty that could barely have been imagined by the classical advocates of liberalism.


In theory, the success of liberalism should have brought a new wave of happiness and contentment to Westerners. Hamilton, though, observes that something has gone wrong with the theory and that liberalism hasn't delivered what it was supposed to.

He writes that although "the citizens of rich countries have never enjoyed greater political and personal freedoms" that people are no happier today than were their parents and grandparents in the 1950s and that,

the extraordinary proliferation of the diseases of affluence suggests that the psychological wellbeing of citizens of rich countries is in decline. These diseases include drug dependence, obesity, loneliness and a suite of psychological disorders ranging from depression, anxiety, compulsive behaviours and widespread but ill-defined anomie.

Perhaps the most telling evidence is the extraordinary prevalence of depression in rich countries ... Newspapers report that nearly one in four French people are taking tranquillisers, anti-depressants, antipsychotics or other mood-altering drugs.

For Hamilton the conclusion to be faced is that "These disappointments of money and freedom must be seen as a profound challenge to liberalism, and especially its more dogmatic child, libertarianism."

Right liberalism

What then does Hamilton suggest has gone wrong? To understand his answer it's useful to note the distinction between right-wing and left-wing liberals.

All liberals begin with a view of society as a collection of individual wills, with each individual trying to pursue his own desires. Once liberals adopt this view, they then have to solve a significant problem: how do you regulate a society made up of millions of competing wills?

Liberals have given two main answers to this question. Right-liberals believe that the free market can regulate competing wills to the overall benefit of society. Even if we selfishly pursue our own profit, this creates beneficial outcomes for the whole of society.

Left-liberals, though, don't like the idea of the "hidden hand" of the market regulating competing wills. They believe that individual wills can be regulated by rational human intervention, especially via the influence of the state.

In this contest between left and right forms of liberalism, the left seems destined to lose. Once the traditional, more conservative forms of culture and identity are broken down by liberalism, there is little to stop the growing influence of market forces in people's lives.

Left-liberals are revolted by this "commodification" of life, even though they have helped to bring it about. They really do not want the market to define or control human existence.

So, when Clive Hamilton answers the question of "What has gone wrong with liberalism?" he does so from the point of view of a left-liberal who dislikes the domination of the free market. His explanation for the failure of liberalism is that people are not making considered free choices, despite their new liberties, because they are being manipulated by capitalism to make spontaneous or impulsive choices which don't serve their real interests.

Market rules

Exactly how does Clive Hamilton express his objections to the market? He writes,

The very purpose of the marketing society is to make us the slaves of our passions ... What does it mean to have personal freedom if one's choices are formed and manipulated by powerful external forces...

In recent decades, the market itself has evolved into an instrument of coercion. Modern marketing actively sets out to deceive us; it prays on our insecurities and doubts to convince us that we will be persons of lesser worth in our own eyes and those of others unless we do as we are being urged..."

Is not the absence of inner freedom ... the dominant characteristic of modern consumer capitalism, a social system that cultivates behaviour driven by momentary impulse, temporary emotions and moral and intellectual weakness? ...

Do we enjoy political freedom when we are conditioned to believe that the only responsible vote is one that elects a party that promises to put the interests of the economy before everything else?

Clive Hamilton does not blame "conservatives" for this dominance of the market. He correctly sees that it is free market liberals who have triumphed in modern culture (he does not call them right-liberals, he uses the terms neoliberals and libertarians).

Some conclusions

Clive Hamilton's own solution to this market dominance is clear enough. He believes that people need to reach a state of "inner freedom" in which they make decisions not on short-term impulsiveness but through,

a more considered position based on reflections on our moral values and longer-term interests ... what may be called 'considered awareness'.

This argument has some advantages for a left-liberal. It suggests that the true liberal, the one who maximises individual autonomy, is the one who has "sufficient command of their own reason and moral strength" to resist the influence of market forces.

I'm not sure, though, that Hamilton's argument will become generally popular amongst left-liberals. Many such liberals won't like the idea that true freedom requires an inner self-discipline, which only the most morally strong can achieve. Even though this turns left liberals into a kind of elite, it means that the whole liberal project has limited applicability and that freedom will necessarily be held unequally.

And what of conservatives? How should we react to Hamilton's ideas?

There are some aspects of Hamilton's arguments which are likely to appeal to conservatives. Hamilton's criticism of the market means that he is opposed to the "crass materialism" of modern culture, as are conservatives. Similarly, Hamilton does not believe in the idea of happiness as a pursuit of hedonistic pleasures in a consumer society. He suggests that there are more meaningful forms of happiness that need to be better understood, and conservatives would wholeheartedly agree.

Hamilton also openly admits that the liberal project, in its current form, has some serious failings. For instance, the whole purpose of rejecting unchosen forms of identity, like gender, race and class, was to allow people to be self-defined, independent and autonomous. But Hamilton quotes studies which show that young Americans are increasingly tending to believe the very opposite: that rather than being self-authored their lives are being controlled by outside forces. In Hamilton's own words,

On the face of it, the rise of individualism and the falling away of the social constraints on people imposed by their class, gender, race and so on should have given rise to a much stronger internal locus of control in the populations of rich countries.

After all, we are told endlessly, not least by the advertisers and Third Way politicians, that the course of our lives is a matter of personal choice. The evidence, however, shows that the opposite is the case. Compared to the 1960s, young Americans today are substantially more likely to believe that outside forces control their lives ...

Even more remarkably, the same studies show that despite the dramatic decline in patriarchal attitudes and institutions and the enormous expansion of opportunities for women the increase in 'externality' is greater in young women than young men.

In other words, young people don't feel themselves to be more free and independent even after they have been "liberated" from the "oppressive" influences of class, race and gender.

For the left-liberal Clive Hamilton this is because the market has distorted the process of individual choice. For conservatives, though, there is a deeper explanation.

If people feel less free today it's because the liberal conception of freedom is wrong. True freedom means an ability to fulfil important aspects of our nature - even if such aspects of our nature are simply given to us or inherited, rather than being individually chosen.

We do not, for instance, choose our sex, but this does not mean that our gender identity is experienced as an oppressive constraint on our freedom to be self-defined. A man doesn't become free by destroying his own unchosen manhood.

Rather, we are free when we are free to be men, and when our culture supports our instinctive efforts to develop the stronger and better part of our masculinity.

The task for conservatives, therefore, must be to go beyond the terms of political debate set by liberals, both of the left and the right, so that the first principles of liberalism can finally come under critical examination.

(First published at Conservative Central, 03/01/2005)

No comments:

Post a Comment