Friday, September 25, 2009

The closing of politics?

On the surface it seems as if we have a choice in politics. We have a right-wing party, the Liberals, who are portrayed as the establishment, conservative option. Then we have a left-wing party, Labor, who are supposed to represent the dissenting, idealistic, reforming outlook.

But this view of the two parties is false. The reality is that both parties are committed to the one political theory, namely liberalism. Liberalism has dominated not only Australian but also Western politics for so long that it has become a political orthodoxy.

What this means is that the Liberal Party is not a genuinely conservative option. As its name suggests, it follows a liberal politics which is anything but conservative in its consequences. Nor is Labor a party of dissenting outsiders. Labor follows the established political orthodoxy just as much as the Liberals do.

The long-established dominance of liberalism has led to a closing of politics throughout the West. Debate about first principles is rare. We are supposed to accept that the fundamental issues and the general direction of society have already been settled. All that is left are the technical questions of how best to implement what has already been decided.

This has not gone unnoticed. John Gray, a professor of politics at Oxford University, has lamented that:

We are all liberals nowadays ... It sometimes seems as if the spectrum of ideas in political life ranges from the sovereign consumer of the neo-liberal right to the sovereign chooser of the egalitarian left.

Alasdair MacIntyre, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, puts it this way:

Contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself, that is, for putting liberalism in question.

Steven Kautz is a professor of political science at Michigan State University. He writes:

Classical and contemporary liberal teachings ... dominate our political discourse. America is still now, or perhaps now more than ever, somehow a liberal regime ... we are somehow all liberals.

Finally, Professor Appiah of Princeton University has observed that liberalism encompasses:

nearly all members of nearly all of the mainstream political parties in Europe and North America.

So it all comes down to liberalism. And here we have a problem.

What liberals claim is that we are made human by our ability to self-determine our own lives. Therefore, the aim of society is to maximise individual autonomy (and distribute it equally).

Obviously, liberals put all of this in the most positive terms. They see themselves as working toward individual freedom and human equality (the equal freedom of each individual).

This sounds pretty good. Until, that is, you look at the details of what liberalism logically requires.

The liberal aim is a self-determining individual. Therefore, whatever I don’t determine for myself is thought of negatively as an impediment to my freedom, as an oppression from which I must be liberated.

But this rules out a lot of the more significant aspects of life. I don’t, for instance, get to determine for myself whether I am born a man or a woman. Therefore, our sex isn’t supposed to matter in a liberal society. Sex distinctions are considered to be artificial social constructs. Masculinity and femininity are often condemned as oppressive. The liberal ideal is to show that we are uninfluenced by the fact of being a man or woman rather than expressing the better qualities of manhood or womanhood.

The liberal approach to sex distinctions has been taken furthest in the Scandinavian countries. Jens Orbeck, speaking as a minister in the Swedish government, announced that it was official policy in Sweden that “male” and “female” had no real, natural existence:

The government considers female and male as social constructions ...

In Norway the government has set up organisations to create a gender-neutral society:

The goal in contemporary Scandinavia is to make gender not matter ... "Gender is losing meaning," explains Jørgen Lorentzen, [who] is a member of the prestigious Norwegian Men’s Commission. The Commission was established to advise the government on how men can make the transition into a gender-neutral society.

And yet our sense of ourselves as men or women is inescapably part of our self-identity. So is it really a freedom to be liberated from being a man or a woman? Is being gender-neutral really what brings us to a sense of fulfilment?

It’s the same when it comes to forms of communal identity. Liberalism recognises only the individual parts of society: millions of autonomous, choice making individuals. The only significant connection of these individuals to each other is through the state: we show our social nature in a liberal society by supporting state action to redistribute autonomy more equally.

Liberalism is so oriented to the autonomous individual that it doesn’t have a strong sense of the value of the communities that individuals form, whether these are families, neighbourhoods or nations. Some liberals even see communities negatively as a threat to individual freedom and autonomy. Steven Kautz, an American academic quoted earlier, is a classical liberal. He reminds his readers that:

We have been taught by our classical liberal ancestors to think of ourselves as free individuals above all, rather than as children or parishioners or citizens, or as members of a racial or ethnic group - or, indeed, as members of any other communities ...

... the idea of community is always somewhat suspect for thoughtful liberals

... there are no natural bonds between human beings, and so there is no natural community. Indeed, the family is not simply natural, according to some of the founders of liberalism.

According to Kautz we become free individuals when our membership of communities no longer matters. And yet our communal identity is often an inseparable part of our self-identity. It doesn’t seem to be a true freedom to lose this identity, instead it seems alienating.

Liberals have an especially hard time accepting their own ethnic identity. Liberals want to be self-determining, but our ethnic identity is not something we choose for ourselves but something we inherit. It is therefore logical for liberals (but not for the rest of us) to stridently reject their own ethnic identity as backward or immoral.

These are just a few examples of what liberalism takes from people in the effort to create individual autonomy. The general problem is that liberalism is radically reductive: it makes a single good, autonomy, the organising principle of society, rather than recognising and attempting to balance a range of important goods.

And yet liberalism is the established political orthodoxy in the West. This means that we can’t rely on established institutions to put things right. The political parties won’t help, nor will the universities or the media. If we want to open up politics we have to start where we can, by not accepting the orthodoxy at face value, but by questioning the first principles from which liberal policies logically flow. It is this taking of a principled political stance of our own which will bring change.


  1. Hilaire Belloc wrote very intelligently, 100 years ago, about the complete absurdity of the pretence that Britain's two chief political parties (the Conservatives and the Liberals at the time he was writing) differed from one another on any substantial issue. I thank God that I discovered his comments before wasting too much time trying to civilise, say, the Australian Liberal Party.

    Of course, the degree of malice, corruption, and moral cowardice exhibited throughout the political spectrum in 2009 is far worse than even a pessimist like Belloc imagined it could be in 1909. Yet a remarkable amount of his commentary is still valid, even for those who do not share his religious views.

  2. Are you claiming that this desire for self-autonomy is the complete explanation of Liberalism? How do you explain environmentalism -- the self hatred of environmentalists for mankind?

  3. The gist of Paul Kelly's new book is that John Howard and Paul Keating both steered Australia on a similar path. But Kelly ventured into artificial constructs when he called his book The March of the Patriots. Given that both leaders advanced the disappearance of Australia as a distinct place in favour of it being just another nondescript global village, he should have titled his book The March of the Globalists. Kelly's laughable attempt to retain the label of 'patriot' smells of desperation and outright lying.

  4. Are you claiming that this desire for self-autonomy is the complete explanation of Liberalism?

    Not the complete explanation, no. But I do think it's a basic strand of thought within liberalism, from which flows a liberal political morality.

    For instance, it explains why a liberal would see a man being a breadwinner and a woman being a homemaker as being "sexist". Or a Westerner having a warm regard for his own ethnic tradition as being "racist".

    Liberals don't say to people: we think you are being racist or sexist because of the logic of our political theory. They just assert aggressively and repeatedly the idea that a particular act or thought is immoral and ilegitimate. So it's up to us to fill in what the liberals leave out - the background information - so that people can begin to think more independently on such issues.

    One other point. I don't think that liberalism makes up the whole of Western modernity. There are quite a few important strands within modern thought: political liberalism, philosophical scepticism, nominalism, scientism etc.

    A sophisticated traditionalism would have to, at some point, make a wider criticism that goes beyond political liberalism. Lawrence Auster does make an effort to do this and I expect that I will increasingly do so as well.

  5. should write a book. Use some of your articles as chapters.

  6. How do you explain environmentalism -- the self hatred of environmentalists for mankind?

    Why have some greenies become misanthropes, arguing for the extinction of humanity?

    I don't know for sure, but I have some ideas.

    If you live in a religious society in which God is taken seriously and is credited with authority in the world, then the rancour of those who think that existence has failed them will often take on an anti-clerical bent.

    In such a society, the more intellectual types will direct their rancour at the church, mocking priests and nuns, making what was sacred obscene and so on.

    But what happens in a secular society in which God has been replaced with a cult of humanity? (The liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill used the term cult of humanity when explaining what he wanted to replace the church with back in the mid-nineteenth century).

    If you are a rancorous intellectual living in a society where there is a cult of humanity, then humanity itself becomes the "god that failed". Instead of calling out "God is dead" you might wish to call out "Humanity is dead".

    It is humanity that will have failed you - particularly if the one value you hold to is preserving the biosphere and it is humanity - your own kind - which alone is powerful enough to make a negative impact on the biosphere.

  7. Anonymous, thanks - I've begun writing a booklet, I might get it finished over the Australian summer.

    Michael, it's interesting that they still like to think of themselves as patriots even when they are so obviously committed to rapid globalisation.

    Eugene Rose wrote that it was a characteristic of liberalism to continue to use words (like patriotism) that they no longer truly believe in for their emotional effect - their resonance. A quote:

    "it is quite clear these words no longer mean what they once meant. No Liberal takes them with entire seriousness; they are in fact metaphors, ornaments of language that are meant to evoke an emotional, not an intellectual, response - a response largely conditioned by long usage, with the attendant memory of a time when such words actually had a positive and serious meaning."

  8. "If we want to open up politics we have to start where we can, by not accepting the orthodoxy at face value, but by questioning the first principles from which liberal policies logically flow. It is this taking of a principled political stance of our own which will bring change."

    I agree with your point on the similarity of the political parties. Its also something the public generally appreciates, "Oh but they're all the same". In the show Futurama political representatives are depicted as identical clones.

    I also agree that liberalism is the fashionable general construct of the elite. In boardrooms, business schools, G20 meetings, international organisations.

    This blog has made excellent progress in examining many of these accepted ideas which we have been immersed in and has argued against and refuted their assumptions. Its demonstrated what policy is motivated by liberalism, what policy is motivated by conservativism.


    Many people identify themselves as conservative. They can identify something as the "left". Many of these conservatives are in the public sphere and in the media. There are many more in America than Australia.

    When it comes to an issue such as immigration it isn't a situation, where they're all the same, with slight differences. There are many conservative voices opposed. They are also opposed to multiculturism, moral relativisim, the promotion of the "oh that’s just your social construct" view of looking at arguments. The flaccid surrender of civilisation.

    If you can find members of the "conservative" party who support liberal large intakes of immigration you can also find members who oppose it, or have deep reservations about it. Where you might ask? Look and you‘ll see, as I say they‘re more numerous in America.

    These voices are real and not just a different face of liberalism. Or if they are a different face of liberalism who cares they’re fighting for the society.

    Liberalism may be the default setting, if in doubt act liberal. But politicians are not conspirators. They will react to popular pressure. When there are sufficient conservative voices politics will be conservative. When liberal polices are shown to lead to mistakes and conservative politics are shown to be superior, conservative politics will dominate.

  9. Jesse, I agree that most of the genuinely conservative thought is coming from America. I've found a few good examples just recently which I might post in the coming week or two.

  10. Then what is conservatism? Is it Fred Nile?

    I think there are some synergies that can be achieved between conservatives and classical liberals (in contrast to 'left-wing liberals). Classical liberals do believe that overall people have the ability to define themselves, but they also respect the right of people to defend the values of their community or society, and associate (or not) with whoever they choose. The majority of classical liberals I know are people like myself who have made a lifestyle choice that looks pretty conservative - family, raising children, salaried professional, loyalty to community and country, love of western heritage especially post Enlightenment thought. I think conservatives would be foolish to overlook what could be achieved by working with classical liberals, especially since real conservatism isn't really so strongly on the political radar at the moment, and the left has the limelight in public thought.

  11. Although progressives like to claim environmentalism as their own, it's a political double-edged sword.

    To the extent that environmentalism ties in with preserving cultures, man's connection with nature, and a high quality of life, it's a conservative movement.

    To the extent that it promotes globalism and ideological dogmatism, it's a liberal movement.

    Over the next two decades we are likely to see increasing division in environmentalist ranks over issues like immigration and environmental management.

    The progressive argument that immigration and population growth don't harm the environment will be increasing exposed for the fallacy that it is, while the liberal left's dogmatic, centralised approach to environmental management will become increasingly unworkable as cash-strapped western governments have to reduce environmental funding to pay for pensions and health care.

  12. To the extent that environmentalism ties in with preserving cultures, man's connection with nature, and a high quality of life, it's a conservative movement.

    To the extent that it promotes globalism and ideological dogmatism, it's a liberal movement.

    That's exactly it. It's difficult for conservatives to give a blanket endorsement to the current environmental movement because it is used at times for non-environmental liberal purposes, such as globalism.

    But there does nonetheless exist a strong basis for a conservative environmentalism.

  13. I've read R J Stove's work in the various US paleoconservative magazines, journals and blogzines, as well as our very own Annals Australasia, and have always found his work entertaining and thought provoking.

    I understand the frustration of traditionalists with the party political system, as I feel those frustrations too, which have lead Stove to avoid "wasting too much time trying to civilise, say, the Australian Liberal Party."

    However, as I pointed out in a previous entry's comments [here, here, here, here and here], I am sorry to see so many great people, Stove included, who could well reinvigorate the carcase of party politics instead actively avoid them before complaining about their desolate nature.

  14. Mark,

    Thank you once again for a very illuminating post.

    It is a great pleasure to read yourself and Mike Courtman espousing thoughts, *any thoughts*, on conservatism's relation to environmentalism. I have long felt that this vital subject gets short shrift or really "no shrift" from the conservative establishment, even from its more perspicacious thinkers like Auster or Buchanan or Buckley, etc.

    However, I don't believe this is mainly due to any conflation between literal protection of the environment (natural areas, clean water, etc.) and more contentious climate change or immigration issues. Ecological reflection seems to be simply off the radar screen of traditionalist intellectuals here in America and elsewhere.

    Could it have to do with Biblical intonations about 'dominion over the earth's bounty' and such? Are traditionalists and others prepared for a future worldwide biota consisting of a handful of commercially important tree species, a few dozen food crops and adventive weeds? Maybe with a remnant native flora in remote deserts or on inaccessible mountain tops? That is the direction we have been headed in for centuries and I think it is due to general human ways rather than any left or right politics. Perhaps a majority of the world's population would only stare blankly if confronted with such a dire scenario; a higher culture is the antidote to such apathy.

    The Left has not been able to successfully integrate their anointed assignment to "save biodiversity" with more everyday problems of cultural cohesion, ethnic integrity or quality of life for average citizens. Because of their moral quagmire they will never be able to bring these things together as an integrated whole.

    Wresting control and direction of environmentalism-- in the traditional ecological sense-- could prove to be a major blow to liberalism's death grip on this realm. It will not take priority over families and maintenance of a healthy culture but it makes a natural compliment to these things. Indeed it seems to be a glaringly obvious omission at present.

    As a conservative I am not at all hesitant in speaking of nature: forests, birds, flowers, coral reefs. They exist for their own sake in our world and no further justification need be given, philosophically, for the advocation of their protection and careful stewardship. And yes, many natural areas can take care of themselves. Hunters and RV users also have legitimate interests in conserving natural areas.

    In terms of writing, the field is wide open. It is dominated by liberals of all sorts, but no logical obstructions exist to preclude thoughtful conservative contributions. They should be supportive of conservation and not simply reactions against leftist policies. I would like to see more of them.

    -- leadpb

  15. I recommend The Social Contract which is a quarterly magazine dedicated to immigration reform and has addressed the environmental aspects of overpopulation in the past. Likewise, Immigration Gumballs is a great video that discusses these issues and puts them in context.

  16. Good video and good use of props. Probably its the case that whatever argument will reduce the numbers is good.

    The idea that we take people in to "save" them and help the world is not workable.