So what is our state ideology? In Australia, as elsewhere in the West, the state ideology is liberalism. Liberalism is one of the most radical of ideologies as it is based on a single, overriding good which society is expected to conform to.
Liberals would describe that good as “freedom” or perhaps as “equal freedom” but they mean something very specific by this. They mean that the individual should be unimpeded in self-defining, or self-creating, or self-determining their existence, in other words, that the individual should be autonomous.
That sounds appealing, but when it is made the sole organising good of society, it has exceptionally radical outcomes.
It means that anything that we cannot self-determine is looked on negatively as an impediment to our freedom.
What can’t we self-determine? We do not get to choose which sex we are. Therefore, liberals are forced to conclude that our sex should be made not to matter. The liberal future is a unisex one, in which men and women are expected to live undifferentiated lives.
That’s why gender equality in a liberal state is not thought of as ‘equal but different’ or as ‘equal with complementary roles’ but as ‘equal with the same roles’. Where roles continue to differ it is assumed to be the product of sexism or discrimination and the state intervenes with policies or laws to overcome the situation.
There are liberals who even question the reality of sex distinctions. They believe that the distinction between male and female is a social construct rather than a natural reality. For instance, Professor Judith Butler has written that,
... gender is a performance ... Because there is neither an “essence” that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires; because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. Gender is, thus, a construction...
Similarly, an influential Australian academic, Dr Michael Flood believes that we should not,
take as given the categories of "men" and "women". The binaries of male and female are socially produced ...
The Swedish government has made it official state policy that sex distinctions are nothing more than social constructs. Jens Orback, a government minister, declared that,
The government considers female and male as social constructions, that means gender patterns are created by upbringing, culture, economic conditions, power structures and political ideologies.
Another Swedish state official, Monica Silvell, followed up by noting that as a result of the new thinking in her country,
The old view of men and women complementing one another was replaced by the notion that the sexes were basically similar.
Nor is our sex the only thing we don’t get to self-determine. We also don’t get to choose our own ethnicity. That means that the older national traditions which were largely based on shared ethnicity are considered morally wrong by liberals. They are to be replaced by nations in which people are bound together by a shared commitment to a political ideology which, conveniently for liberals, is liberalism.
That’s why David Cameron, the British PM, responded earlier this year to concerns about a lack of a unifying identity in the UK by talking about the need to push the liberal ideology harder on society:
we must build stronger societies and stronger identities at home. Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active muscular liberalism.
Cameron went so far as to claim that anyone who didn’t believe in liberalism didn’t belong in the UK:
A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them … It says to its citizens, this is what defines us as a society: to belong here is to believe in these things.
But is liberalism much of a basis for unifying a society? The Oxford Companion to Philosophy in its entry on liberalism doubts that it is:
A similar question has been raised about the long-term political stability of a liberal society. Non-liberal societies are typically held together by shared conceptions of the good, such as a common religion, or by common ethnicity. Members of these societies are willing to make sacrifices for each other because of their commonalities. But what holds a [liberal] society together?
Some liberals suggest that the tie that binds the citizens of a liberal society is simply a shared commitment to liberal principles of freedom and equality. It is debatable whether this is a 'thick' enough bond to keep a society together.
Conservative critics have argued that the stability of liberal societies is based on a pre-liberal sense of shared identity. Citizens of England, for example, do not see each other primarily as individual rights-holders, but as fellow members of the English nation, with a shared history and culture. This gives rise to a sense of solidarity which is prior to, and deeper than, a shared commitment to liberalism. It is this national solidarity which explains why the English work together, and make sacrifices for each other. Conservatives worry that this sense of being members of the same 'people' or culture or community is gradually being eroded by the individualism of liberal rights, which treats people in abstraction from their communal ties and responsibilities.
...few liberals are willing to acknowledge that these liberal nation states depend for their viability not only on adherence to liberal values, but also on the inculcation of deeper feelings of national identity.
Because we don’t get to self-determine our sex or our ethnicity, liberals treat these negatively as impediments to individual freedom. So we are to be freed from being men or women, Australians or Canadians, rather than as these things. The liberal mistake is to make autonomy the sole, overriding good, rather than one good to be balanced with many others. Liberalism is a devouring ideology, and unfortunately it is our state ideology.