Monday, April 30, 2007

Feminine rebellions: the Viking princess

Sweden has taken feminism much further than most other countries. Although I've criticised the theory behind this feminism at length, I've done so from a distance. So I was very interested to discover the Viking princess website, written by a Swedish woman now living in London. When the Viking princess criticises Swedish style feminism she does so with first-hand knowledge of its effects on her as a woman.

Amongst the more revealing articles are:

Femininity and womanhood today? In this article the Viking princess notes that she is effectively living the lifestyle of a man. This is what Swedish feminism aims at: it identifies autonomy as the key good in life and the male role as the autonomous one. Therefore, it insists that men and women are similar in nature and that women should pursue the "superior" male role in equal numbers to men.

If the Swedish feminists were right, then the Viking princess should be happy with her autonomous lot. But she's not. She feels as if she's lost something central to her own self, namely her femininity. She writes:

I can do most things that a man can do; I am independent, competent and earn a high salary. All this might make me think: What do I need a man for?

Yet, what do I crave more than anything? To be a real, old-fashioned woman. To have a man who cares for me and to have a home to manage (as opposed to managing stupid IT projects.)

She adds:

I get very little satisfaction from my ‘high-powered’ job. Why is this?

I think it is because what I am doing is against nature!

Everything I wanted to prove to myself and others about my competence or career, I have already proven. And to be honest, I wasn’t that fussed to start with. I just needed the money and happened to like IT.

But now I need to prove that I can be a real woman! I don’t even know where to start! I spent most of my life trying to emulate men and male behaviour!

I am sick of being so independent, of often being cleverer than men who fancy me (which is a turn-off). I am sick of wearing the trousers, metaphorically and in practice.


Another problem is that the more time I spend emulating male behaviour at work, the less feminine (and more masculine) I become. I have learnt military leadership techniques for goodness sake! I can push my guys as if I was a drill sergeant… And every time I do, it kills of another bit of my female soul.…

All my feminine qualities are undesirable at work. Being caring, giggly, pretty, emotional etc, are all negative things to a greater or lesser extent. In my reviews at work I have had negative feedback involving all of these qualities, believe it or not.

What all this suggests is that for women like the Viking princess independence through careerism is not the most important good in life. What she finds more important is to fulfil deeper aspects of her own given nature; it is most significant to her to reconnect to her feminine soul, something she feels she can't accomplish adequately whilst living a masculine lifestyle.

Growing up a unisex girl. This article describes the experience of growing up in a country in which gender difference was suppressed rather than celebrated. Even at nursery school feminist gender politics was drilled into the young children:

There was constant talk even in nursery school about how traditional split of work between the genders must stop. There certainly was no question of having pretty dolls for girls to play with; we all played with nice but very gender-neutral toys. I suppose there was a slight bias towards the kinds of toys you’d traditionally give to a boy actually.

It's interesting to note here a contradiction in modernist politics. Autonomy, in the sense of being unimpeded in selecting who we are or what we do, is the ruling principle. The Swedish government follows this ideal of autonomy. The end result, though, is a greater state intrusiveness into what people would normally choose to do or be compared to more traditional societies. Autonomy theory doesn't result in people being left alone to make their own way, as most people if left alone would choose things considered illegitimate under the terms of autonomy theory (most people would follow their natural instincts and adopt a pattern of gender behaviour; they would also choose to sacrifice some part of their autonomy in order to fulfil other aims, such as marriage and parenthood).

Our Viking princess accepted the unisex ideology until she became old enough to choose to read some classic girl's books:

Gradually I started to notice that the heroines of these books generally put a big emphasis on being girls and on taking pride in that. It was something I had never done. I started having a feeling I was somehow missing out on the experience of being a girl.

When going abroad to Southern Europe, I noticed that little girls there usually wore skirts and frequently even pretty dresses. I and my friends very rarely did. In fact I very rarely wore traditionally girly clothes at all. My parents told me that the Southern Europeans wore such clothes because they were old-fashioned, religious and couldn’t afford much clothes anyway. They made all these things sound very bad, which I as a child of course latched on to.

I also dreamed of wearing pink, or perhaps yellow clothes. But looking at photos, it would appear I was mainly in brown corduroy or navy cotton! ... I remember fantasizing about being asked to be a bridesmaid so I could wear a frilly dress and carry a bouquet of pretty cut flowers!

I was aware though that I was not supposed to want such things.

At puberty it was even more difficult to accept the unisex view:

When I started getting breasts and boys started changing their voices I felt somehow cheated.. There wasn’t supposed to be any difference between boys and girls! But we all started changing to be more and more different. The boys were getting violent, always fighting each other. They seemed to enjoy watching and teasing us girls while we started becoming interested in fashion, make-up and pop music.

Eventually, the Viking princess rejected unisexism in principle:

It started becoming increasingly clear to me as if man and woman are two pieces of a puzzle that fit together because they are essentially differently shaped… That their physique and psyche complemented rather than duplicated each other. The idea that they are identical pieces seemed to me as a tremendous misconception and I was terribly irritated at having been fed an incorrect version of things all through my childhood. What I had been told simply wasn’t true. All my recent experiences showed that men and women were different and that men could no less be like women than women could be like men.

Since I wouldn’t want a man who behaves and looks like a woman, it makes sense that a man wouldn’t want a woman who behaves and looks like a man! True?

Why this ridiculous pretense that we are the same, when we very obviously are not? If I had been brought up more as a girl/woman instead of a gender-neutral being, I would have been stronger and more confident as a woman today! As it is, I had to discover the hard way that I was not the same as a man in a multitude of ways. I spent many years at work, trying to emulate an ‘alpha’ male in my behaviour…

I have no idea how the unisex ideal affected the boys around me. They too were brought up in a ‘unisex’ way.

I can tell you this though: In Sweden it is not common for men to help women with bags on public transport. Also, men expect women to regard sex in the same way as they do (i.e. casual unless expicitly stated otherwise…) They normally do not pay on dates, walk women home or pull out the chair for you etc.. Imagine my surprise when these things happened in England. I felt like a princess!

Until quite recently, every time I noticed a difference between me and men I kept thinking; this is wrong… I ought to be like the men… I felt like I was letting other women down unless I constantly strived towards the male ‘ideal’ that was set for Swedish women. I forced myself to carry heavy things (hurt my back badly when I moved!) to take work extremely seriously (with the result that I got very stressed out) and to never be scared or cry. These were girly, i.e. bad things. But let me tell you, it’s hard work hiding your true nature and pretending to be something you are not! (I still do it all the time, at work .)

Discovering that being feminine is not a ‘crime’ (in fact, it can be a positive thing) was a big revelation for me. I don’t actually want to be like a man!

I wish Northern European society would stop denying women the opportunity to be female! What good does it really bring? Who benefits?

This is nothing less than a feminine rebellion against liberal modernism and the Viking princess carries it through with a certain skill and style.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Fathers, autonomy, models

Personal political is the website of an Australian lesbian feminist who is raising a young son with a female partner. She recently wrote an entry on the topic of role models for boys. I found it interesting in revealing some of the ideological contradictions at play.

The writer is clearly into autonomy theory. This is the mainstream idea within liberalism that what matters is that we remain unimpeded (and therefore autonomous) in choosing to do or be anything we wish. The emphasis is usually on the self-determining, self-creating individual.

The writer's brother gave her son a book about boys who have achieved great things. Her instinctive feminist response to the book is this:

It's a strange kind of book. I mean, does anyone - including boys - really need to be told that "boys can do anything"?

This is the usual feminist assumption that since autonomy is what matters, and since men have power in society, that men must have autonomy.

However, the writer then backtracks and adds:

Which isn't to say that boys face no obstacles in being and becoming anything they want to be ...

This comment clearly reveals the writer's commitment to autonomy theory. But why backtrack? If I reproduce the quote in full, the answer is revealed: she believes that boys are restricted by masculinity itself:

Which isn't to say that boys face no obstacles in being and becoming anything they want to be - or even in getting to the point where they might feel a wish to somehow step outside of the accepted masculine constraints.

One thing to note here is that autonomy theory turns something that most men take to be a positive (their masculinity) into a negative (as masculinity is thought of as a constraint on being anything you want to be).

This is an undesirable feature of autonomy theory but not a contradiction. The contradiction comes at the end of the entry when we learn that the writer doesn't really want her son to be anything he wants to be after all. The writer has definite preferences for her son which she is actively guiding him toward. In her own words:

... we do take care to point out to Olle positive examples of men and boys. What, for me, is a positive example? I suppose it does incorporate men doing atypical things like dance ... I lean towards drawing his attention to men who are able to use their bodies with sensitivity, men who are expressive and intellectually creative, as a counterweight to all the bottled-up boofheads who get the mainstream kudos in our society.

What happened to the "be anything" ideal? The writer is here being quite particular in pointing out what she takes to be ideal types of character and behaviour for her son to follow, and reprehensible types to be shunned.

So even someone who is highly committed to autonomy theory doesn't stick to it in a consistent way in practice. The instinct to raise a child according to a positive ideal of character and behaviour proves too strong after all.

This means that the important issue, the one normally hidden by an emphasis on autonomy, is what a worthy ideal for boys is. There doesn't have to be a single, simplistic answer, of course, but nor is it helpful to deny the reality that such ideals will be brought forward.

The other area of ideological confusion in the entry concerns role models. The writer tells us, first, that she doesn't like the notion of role models. She believes that the formation of gender is much more complex than copying masculine or feminine behaviour. Therefore, she doesn't believe that her son, by having no father, is missing out:

That is, of course, why the claim that sons of lesbians are missing the essential role model has always struck me as nonsense.

Again, she then quickly backtracks when she adds:

(Which is different from the proposition that boys need men in their lives.)

So boys don't need a paternal role model, but they do need men in their lives.

Later, though, she states:

I don't think parenthood requires anything especially different from mothers or fathers.

I suppose this could all fit together subtly. It's not easy to put together, though. If there is no purpose to gender in our closest and most formative relationships (with our parents) then why do boys need men in their lives at all? In other words, if it's not important to our socialisation whether our primary carers are male or female, then why should it matter to our socialisation if our lesser relationships involve males or females?

I might be wrong, but I wonder if the writer is trying to justify her son having no father, without drawing the very radical conclusion that men aren’t needed in family life.

This, though, is the logical conclusion to draw: if two women are as likely to raise a son as successfully as a father and mother, then fathers aren’t necessary to family life. If men and women were truly to believe this, then the intrinsic motivation for men to feel responsible to stay with their families, and for women to encourage them to do so, is considerably weakened.

In short, the writer isn't able to present a view of gender and parenting which is both moderate and coherent (and she does seem to be trying to be moderate).

Thursday, April 26, 2007

In brief

Some recent items of interest:

Losers of the sexual revolution by Miranda Devine. Miranda Devine complains, rightly I think, that:

Mutual respect between the sexes, romance and a legacy of chivalry by men entranced by the feminine mystique have been trashed in the name of female equality and sexual liberation.

It was assumed, under the terms of autonomy theory, that the removal of impediments to sexual behaviour would liberate women. In practice there have been a number of negative consequences. Autonomy theorists failed to consider, amongst other things, that traditional moral restraints might have had a positive, protective function.

Migration 'tipping point reached'. A British think-tank has warned that the "seemingly reckless pace and scale" of immigration into the UK could fracture the sense of national identity. The shadow home secretary has called for a cap on the numbers of those arriving.

To those arguing that Britain has always been a nation of immigrants the author of the report replies that,

The view that Britain is a nation of immigrants suggests Britain has always experienced immigration on its present scale from time immemorial, which is by no means the case.

Another article debunking the myth of Britain as a nation of immigrants is The great deception by Sir Andrew Green. This article points out that since 1066 there have only been two significant waves of immigration into Britain, the first by the Huguenots which represented a 1% addition to the population and another by eastern European Jews representing a 0.5% addition.

Leo McKinstry has written an article describing his love for traditional England and his sadness at its passing. He objects to the Government's insistence that:

I should be embracing cultural diversity, not clinging to an England that is being systematically demolished. To me this is a morally reprehensible argument. If you genuinely love something then it is grotesque to be asked to celebrate its demise.

Hat tip: Lawrence Auster

Teen dope users 'life's future losers'. According to Professor Patton, who has conducted research on cannabis users for Melbourne University,

the overwhelming evidence was that cannabis was "the drug for life's future losers".

Couch entitlement presents evidence, drawn from data from 25 countries, that when paid work and domestic work are combined men and women spend the same amount of time each day working. The idea that women work longer hours than men is a myth.

Most child abusers are women. A report by Child Protection Queensland 2005-06 has found that women were responsible for 55.5% of cases of child abuse. Patriarchy theorists won't like this finding as it undermines the idea that domestic violence is a result of a patriarchal social structure in which men commit violence against women and children as an expression of control and dominance. This theory doesn't explain very well the fact that women are more likely to commit acts of domestic violence against children than men are.

Sex & the footy. Some myths, though, are being actively perpetuated. In a front page article in The Age Angela Williams claimed that:

One in three women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. The greatest cause of injury and death in women under 45 is not cancer or accidents or drugs, it's the men who purport to love them.

Patriarchy theorists use such bogus statistics to advance the idea that violence against women is "systemic" - that it stems from the very structure and culture of society.

Last year I did an investigation into the claim that the greatest cause of death for young Australian women is domestic violence.

Of course, it proved to be false. In 2004 in Australia by far the biggest killer of young Australian women was cancer (673 deaths). Then followed suicide (238) and car accidents (215). Deaths by external causes totalled 290, but this includes accidental deaths such as drowning, burns, falls etc. So there is no way that the claim that domestic violence is the largest killer of young women can be correct.

As for the rate of violence, about 1.3% of Australian women will experience violence at the hands of their partner in the course of a year. Drunkenness is a factor in about half of these cases. Throwing around figures of 30% of women suffering sexual assault (or, in the case of Swedish feminist academic Eva Lundgren, claiming that 50% of Swedish women are the victims of male violence and that men kill hundreds of Swedish babies in Satanic rituals) creates an overly negative picture of male attitudes to women.

Finally, let me give a plug for the Australian Traditionalist Conservative Network.

The language of liberalism

Andrew Bolt recently wrote a column on the Victorian Law Reform Commission. The Commission was set up to advise whether single mothers and lesbians should be granted access to IVF and adoption.

Bolt's main point was that the "experts" appointed to the Commission were hopelessly biased and that there was an effort to bypass Parliament when making social changes.

However, what particularly caught my eye was the typical "language of liberalism" used by the experts. For instance, Bolt quotes Ruth McNair as saying,

we must challenge the limited view of family, and the fear of alternative family structures and diversity.

Similarly Kristen Walker, a law lecturer, rejected the idea that children need a male role model on the grounds that,

This assumption is based on rigid notions of sex and gender and rigid notions of what is appropriate behaviour for boys and girls.

Note that Ruth McNair criticises the traditional family structure specifically on the grounds that it is "limited" and lacks alternatives and diversity. It's no accident that she uses such terminology. Liberals believe that our lives should be created through our own will and reason. The traditional family structure, though, is not a creation of our own will and reason. Therefore, for a liberal, the traditional family represents a kind of "limitation" or impediment to our capacity to determine our own living arrangements.

Logically, a liberal will call for alternatives to the traditional family, as a diversity of family types gives some scope for our own will or reason to determine how we shall live.

This is what matters for liberals. This outlook overrides any concern that the traditional family is connected strongly to the innate drives, instincts and needs of humans, that it provides the best conditions for the socialisation of children, or that it provides the best structure for an independent and self-sustaining family unit.

It's a similar story with the Kristin Walker quote. Kristen Walker thinks that it shows too rigid a view of gender to believe that children need a male role model.

It's not surprising that Kristin Walker doesn't believe in the need for boys to be masculinised by the presence of a male role model. For her as a liberal, it would once again be a kind of limitation or impediment for a boy to be socialised into a traditional manhood. Again, this is because we don't choose whether we are born male or female, so to adopt typically masculine or feminine behaviour makes us, in the liberal view, "other defined" rather than "self-defined".

That's why Kristin Walker criticises "rigid" notions of sex and gender. She wants the idea of gender to be as flexible as possible, so that there is a large scope for us to act unimpeded according to our will and reason, rather than through the influence of an unchosen manhood or womanhood.

Again, this is the overriding concern of liberals, based on their first principles. It is thought to be more important than any sense of the inherent goodness to be found within traditional masculinity or femininity; or of the importance of an "accomplished" sense of manhood or womanhood to our self-identity; or of the appeal of traditionally masculine and feminine qualities within a heterosexual culture.

Liberals place their first principles above all else, and in the unique "language of liberalism" used so frequently by academics and activists, you find the underlying philosophy of liberalism clearly revealed.

(First published at Conservative Central, 19/05/2007)

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The case against Sweden

The Swedes are engaged in a radical project. They are attempting to remake their society to fit an ideal of gender equality.

The seriousness of their efforts is made clear in two speeches, one by Monica Silvell from the Division of Gender Equality (2004), the other by Margareta Winberg as Minister for Gender Equality (2002).

In the Monica Silvell speech we are told:

That gender equality is an issue directly linked to economic and political democracy is a cornerstone of Swedish Government policy.

... Gender equality is a key to the future.

Margareta Winberg puts it this way:

gender equality is a fundamental factor in democracy ... Gender equality must therefore mainstream all aspects of our lives. This is the expressed opinion of the Swedish Parliament as well as the Swedish Government.

What, though, is meant by gender equality? How is it to be measured?

The answer is predictable. The Swedes are following liberal orthodoxy and taking autonomy to be the key good in life. Therefore, equality means men and women having the same amount of autonomy. This is thought to require women having financial independence from men, and therefore having careers and equal earnings.

According to Monica Silvell:

The basis of independence, choices of one's own and thus gender equality, is money in the hand, in the wallet, in the handbag. The fact that Swedish women are able to support themselves and can live their own lives, if they want to, is the result of the struggles of many generations of women.

Adding to this, Margareta Winberg states:

First I would like to describe my fundamental views as regards the gender equality issue, the rights of both men and women to shape their lives ...

...One of the basic reasons for women in Sweden today having a relatively equal status is that we over time have worked for all women being able to have the opportunity to support themselves from their own employment. Our own income! Own money - our freedom.

This, then, is the starting point for the radical remaking of Swedish society. I believe it to be deeply flawed.

First, it is simply assumed that autonomy is the higher level good around which society should be reorganised. You might think that a community would choose to recognise, as important goods, the behaviours and qualities which allow it to continue as an ongoing tradition, but this is not the case when autonomy alone is selected as the basis of social organisation.

And does independence really so outrank other goods such as wisdom or virtue that we are to be thought superior if we are independent but foolish and vicious? Is it really true that a woman is unequal to me if I provide for her but she is more wise and virtuous and contributes more in service to the community she loves?

Then there are the "hidden" consequences of making autonomy the organising principle of society. If the aim is to make people autonomous, then impediments to the self-determining, self-creating individual have to be removed. This means removing whatever is important, but unchosen, in individual identity, including anything which we receive as tradition or as part of our biological nature. However, it is often the very things most important to us which have become hardwired as part of our biological nature or which have endured as part of a tradition.

Therefore, making autonomy the organising principle of society leads to the odd situation in which individuals are to be "liberated" from the very things which matter most to them. The two most obvious examples are our ethnic identity, which is based on tradition and ancestry and which is therefore illegitimate under the terms of autonomy, and our sex identity as men and women, which is a "biological destiny" and therefore, once again, considered illegitimate.

So even if autonomy really is a good in certain circumstances (which it is), it's unwise to make it the organising principle of society as there is an ultimately destructive logic to the way it unravels.

We could also question the assumption made by the Swedes that it is a career which brings autonomy to a woman. It's true that in the traditional family a woman depends on her husband to provide a family income. In a career, however, a woman will depend on a superior to keep her position, or for promotions or pay. It's often the case that this kind of dependence is more stressful than the domestic one as it's based on performance criteria and office politics, rather than an intimately personal relationship.

A career, too, locks up much of our time; we have to run our lives according to someone else's schedule and we have to perform tasks as instructed by our superiors. For many people this does not equate to freedom, especially in comparison to home life. This explains in part the reluctance of many young people to commit themselves to steady employment and it explains too the preference of many people to be self-employed. And there definitely exist women who, having had the experience of paid employment, prefer the more traditional stay-at-home role.

Which brings me to a contradiction in the autonomy principle. The idea of autonomy is to allow us to "write our own script". The Swedes have asserted that in order to be autonomous women must be financially independent and earn the same amount as men. However, this in itself is a restriction on a woman's autonomy as it means that she cannot choose to stay at home to care for her own children. This is especially true in Sweden where the level of tax is so high and the tax system so favours dual income families that it's not possible for most women to spend more than the allotted time at home with their children. So rather than "writing her own script" a woman in Sweden is likely to have only the choice of a career, due to financial necessity or social pressure.

Autonomy also does a strange thing to equality. It turns equality into sameness. Monica Silvell recognises this in her speech, noting that the effect of the "sex role debate" in Sweden was that:

The old view of men and women complementing one another was replaced by the notion that the sexes were basically similar.

If men and women are going to occupy exactly the same roles at home and at work, then men and women will be assumed to be similar in their natures. If there have been differences in the past, these will be assumed to be socially constructed rather than natural. Monica Silvell is also upfront about this consequence of autonomy theory:

The government must regard "male" and "female" as social constructions, i.e. patterns of behaviour determined by a person's upbringing and culture, by economic conditions, power structures and political ideology.

Note that Monica Silvell places the terms male and female in scare quotes, as if their real existence is to be questioned. This scepticism toward the reality of sex differences brings Swedish society into conflict with two significant forces, namely science and heterosexuality.

Heterosexuality is based, after all, on an appreciation of gender difference. Can we really love the feminine qualities of a woman and then doubt their real existence?

Modern science, too, has more than adequately confirmed the basis for naturally existing gender difference, both in terms of hormones and differences in the structure of the male and female brain.

Finally, there's the issue of patriarchy. The Swedes are convinced that gender was constructed as an act of patriarchal dominance. The masculine role, assumed to be more autonomous, is identified as the superior one, with women being limited to an inferior role. Margareta Winberg complains, for instance, about:

the social structure that keeps separate and segregates the sexes, women and men, and which tells us:-that the norm is men, and women are the exception-that men are superior and women are inferior-that men have great power and women have little power.

Monica Silvell warns:

we must be aware of the existence of a gender-based power structure that makes women subordinate to men.

But this argument has its own problems. First, it does exactly what Margareta Winberg doesn't want to it to do - it makes the male role the superior, socially desirable one. It means that women have to align themselves to the masculine in order to be considered equal, whilst men somehow have to be persuaded (against their best interests presumably) to share in the inferior feminine pursuits in order to make things even.

Second, it leads to the view that men traditionally were set against women, and that the patriarchal structure of society led men as a superior class to enact violence against women as an inferior class.

Monica Silvell writes:

Men's violence against women is largely an expression of the imbalance of power that prevails in the relationship between women and men. Thus, preventing men's violence against women is a gender equality issue of great importance.

Margareta Winberg contributes this claim:

This power and gender structure is also the reason why men in the present society are sexually harassing, abusing and exploiting, raping and exposing females to other kinds of physical and psychological violence.

This view of domestic and sexual violence leads to inflated claims of female victimisation; it leads to false portrayals of the most mainstream of men as being responsible for violence; it establishes an unhealthy degree of suspicion and resentment toward men among some young women; and it misjudges the motivations of men in their traditional roles of protecting and providing for their families.

The view of men and of masculinity arrived at via patriarchy theory is a road to nowhere, as is the larger Swedish effort to remodel their society along the lines of gender equality. The Swedish understanding of gender equality is too flawed at a fundamental level to maintain social stability over time. There is reason enough to reject the policy in principle and to find more worthy goals to guide the organisation of Swedish society.

What is conservatism?

Conservatives got their name because they wanted to conserve important aspects of their own tradition.

What conservatives wanted especially to defend were particular forms of human identity and connectedness. For conservatives, the need for these forms of identity and “relatedness” is an unchanging part of our human nature.

These forms of connectedness include:

- the connection existing between members of an ethnic group based on a shared ancestry, culture, religion, history and language

- our masculine identity as men or feminine identity as women

- our role as fathers and mothers or husbands and wives within a family and our place within a family tradition

- marital love and paternal & maternal love

- our sense of connectedness to nature and our attachment to a particular locality

- a positive sense of our moral nature and of the existence of an objective moral order

Historically, individuals did not create these things for themselves. Instead these forms of connectedness grew in a distinctive way within a particular tradition. This is one reason why conservatives have tended to be strongly traditionalist.


However, from the time of the Renaissance in the 1400s there arose a strong challenge to conservatism, which is best known today as liberalism. Liberalism was based on the idea that the individual should be radically autonomous, so that he could choose to do what he wanted according to his own will and reason, and be able to create himself in any direction without impediments.

Most liberals did not want to radically destroy their own traditions. Unfortunately, the logic of their own first principles (known as liberal individualism) meant that the traditional forms of human identity and connectedness were undermined.

This is because liberals can only accept those things that the individual has chosen for himself. Most forms of human relatedness though are not chosen by the individual. For example:

- We don’t choose our own traditional forms of national or ethnic identity. Instead, we are simply born into them. Therefore liberals have tended to either reject nationalism altogether in favour of internationalism or else they support forms of nationalism, based solely on citizenship, which the individual can choose, or else they support fluid and pluralistic forms of nationalism based on multiculturalism.

- We don’t choose whether we are male or female. Therefore, liberals insist that masculine and feminine behaviour is simply an oppressive and artificial social construct which can be overcome through social engineering. Liberals prefer gender sameness or “androgyny.”

- The actual form of traditional family life, involving a husband, wife and children, was also unchosen. Liberals want to claim that there are many models of family life, and they want very easy divorce laws so that the individual can choose at any time who they will live with. Similarly, liberals don’t want gender based family roles, such as distinctive roles for fathers and mothers, since gender itself is unchosen.

- The existence of a moral order, as expressed through a traditional moral code, also restricts choice for the individual. Therefore, liberals have advanced the idea of a "personal" morality that is chosen by the individual alone and applies only to the individual.

Further differences

There are some typical differences between the way that conservatives and liberals think about things. For instance:

Human nature. Conservatives believe that there exists an essential human nature. This human nature is flawed, having both higher and lower qualities. Our human nature gives a definite direction to our lives. It is a part of the aim of any society, and of every individual, to draw out what is best in our nature, and to repress the worst, a difficult process that might occur over a long period of time.

Liberals, in contrast, want the individual to be created through his own will and reason. They therefore prefer to view the individual as a “blank slate” without any inherent qualities to influence his behaviour or to encourage particular loyalties or forms of association.

A further consequence of this belief in the individual as a “blank slate” is that individuals can theoretically be perfected under the right social conditions. Therefore, liberals have often put great faith in the idea of a human progress to perfection, and in the idea of reforming social conditions as a solution to any social problem.

Progress. Liberals have often believed in the idea of linear progress, which means a constant advance of humanity toward a perfect individual and a perfect society. It is because of this belief that liberals have sometimes been called progressives.

This belief is rarely held so naively these days. However, it is still evident in the fear of liberals in “going back” (to the 1950s etc) and in their enthusiasm for social change, even when the effect of such change is poorly thought through.

Conservatives tend to view societies as rising and falling according to their inner strengths and weaknesses rather than inevitably advancing. Furthermore, conservatives have a more protective attitude to their own tradition, and want to keep it alive for future generations. Therefore, conservatives tend to be more cautious about social change, as they want to know the long term effects that such changes will have on the social fabric.

Equality. Liberals often raise the slogan of equality. By equality, they seem to mean treating people the same, or not discriminating against people.

Conservatives don’t believe in treating people the same for the simple reason that people are different, in their inner natures, in the quality of their beliefs and actions, in their capacities and in the relation in which they stand to each other (for instance, we will usually discriminate in favour of people to whom we are closely related, such as family members).

There is a levelling tendency within liberalism, which denies the distinctions between people and refuses to judge the worth of their actions.

Rationalism. Liberals want people to decide things according to their own individual reason. This has led many liberals to support the idea of rationalism: that we come to our beliefs and knowledge of the world through abstract reason, ie through the analytical intellect, alone.

This belief in rationalism makes it hard for liberals to accept inherited forms of knowledge, and even more importantly, it undermines the position of whatever in life is intangible, in other words, whatever is hard to measure intellectually. How, for instance, can you validate through abstract reason such qualities as love and beauty, or nobility and honour, or whimsy and fancy?

Liberty. Liberals believe that by removing impediments to individual behaviour they are creating ever greater levels of human freedom.

The conservative view is that humans are fundamentally social creatures. Therefore, if we pursue a purely individual freedom to choose anything, we will fail to maintain the social conditions in which we can choose those things that are most important to us.

Varieties of Liberalism

There are two different varieties of liberalism. Left liberals place their focus on social individualism. They resent restrictions on the social behaviour of the individual, and so have sought to deconstruct traditional family life, gender roles, moral codes and so on. They are strongly statist, believing in a high level of government intervention in both society and the economy.

The focus of right liberals is on economic individualism. They tend to see individuals as economic units, and oppose restrictions on the economic activity of the individual or on the operation of capital (such as the movement of labour, or restrictions on investment etc.) Right liberals have often preferred a more limited role for government.

There is also a distinction between radical and gradualist (or mainstream) forms of liberalism. Radicals want to rapidly push liberal individualism to its logical conclusions, and are sometimes willing to use violent means to achieve their aims, whereas gradualists tend to work peacefully within the system and only want to take liberals principles one step at a time.

How do these distinctions work out in practice? Left liberalism is strongest amongst government employees like public servants and teachers. It is also well represented in the mainstream media, in the churches, and at universities. Left liberals have considerable influence politically through parties like the Australian Labor Party, the British Labor Party and the American Democrats.

Radical left liberalism is represented by movements like the anarchists, the communists, and the radical wings of the feminist and animal rights movements. It draws much of its support from the intelligentsia.

Right liberalism is supported by big business and the commercial classes. It is much more poorly represented intellectually than left liberalism, but has considerable political influence through its ownership of the mass media and through political parties like the Australian Liberal Party, the British Conservative Party and the American Republicans.

There is a more radical form of right liberalism called libertarianism. This movement is stronger in the US than Australia. Libertarians are often uncompromising in opposing the role of government in society and in their admiration for individual economic enterprise.

The realities of electoral politics have somewhat blurred the distinctions between mainstream left and right political parties. To achieve the necessary support to win office, the Australian Labor Party has been willing to adopt some right liberal policies, such as economic deregulation, whereas the Liberal Party has been willing to accept higher levels of taxation to maintain government social programmes.

Conservatism in Modern Society

Conservatism is sometimes wrongly seen to be an establishment philosophy. In fact, the establishment in all Western societies has for a long time been dominated by liberalism.

It is true that right liberal parties, like the Australian Liberal Party, are sometimes described as being conservative. However, there is at best a conservative tinge to a particular section of these parties.

The right liberal parties are “conservative” only in the sense that they sometimes object to new liberal measures introduced by the left liberal parties. Once implemented, though, they are usually content to carry forward the new programmes. Similarly, they might be “conservative” in being more concerned to carefully manage the process of social change. They rarely object though to the fundamental direction of the change.

In short, there is little principled or substantive conservatism within the right liberal parties, and certainly nothing that can withstand the primary emphasis in these parties on economic liberalism.

If genuine conservatism has had any influence in recent times it is because conservative values are still held to some degree by the general public. Populist conservatism, though, will not succeed by itself. It’s important also to have people who can present conservatism in a clear and consistent way as an alternative to the current liberal orthodoxy.

(First published 2002)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Another casualty

"Where have all the good fathers gone?" asks journalist Tracee Hutchison in a recent column.

The question was prompted by the competition between several men to be declared the father of Anna Nicole Smith's baby. After watching Larry Birkhead jubilantly confirm that he had been found to be the real dad, Tracee felt a little undone:

I suspect I wasn't the only single, childless woman of a certain age who belched up a slightly sour-tasting ironic burp ...

... it seemed incredible, from my experience, that each of them seemed so desperately keen to own up to firing the winning sperm.

If only there were men queueing up for fatherhood duties with such fervour in the real-life version of what happens to women in their late 30s. With due respect to the many doting fathers I know, who love and support their kids in one — or two — homes, I seem to know a lot more women who have either given up chasing child-support payments from absent and/or financially gymnastic fathers or given up the idea of having a biological child at all.

If anecdote is the litmus test for truth, the latter category feels like an epidemic. Especially if you're immersed in that special something that happens to women when their body clock starts shrieking like a wounded hyena and there's not a willing bloke within cooee.

... There aren't enough blokes with sufficient enthusiasm for child-rearing to go around.

What can explain this lack of willing fathers for late-30s women? I'd put the answer as follows.

Back in the mid-1980s Tracee Hutchison was an idealistic feminist:

I was young, passionate and idealistic and felt I was part of something with powerful momentum. I walked with thousands of other women in the annual women's day marches and proudly wore the green, white and purple colours of the sisterhood. I felt that - together - we could make the world a better place.

Feminism in those years did have a powerful momentum. Its message to young women was to remain autonomous, which meant in practice focusing on careers, travel, and casual relationships. The independent, single girl lifestyle was to be stretched out as far as it could be, with marriage and motherhood deferred until some time in a woman's late 30s.

The hold of such ideas over university educated woman was very strong in the late 80s and early 90s. It couldn't help but affect the male attitude to relationships. Men discovered that women were rewarding players and shunning men with traditional, family type qualities. They were also confronted with the message that the male family role was sexist and "anti-woman"; the male effort to provide, for instance, was no longer thought of positively but as a source of inequality hurtful to women.

What were men to do? Some accepted the player role; others opted out completely; some focused on careers or personal interests; a number tried to complement a female autonomy with a male one, in which a loss of love and marriage was to be compensated by a greater freedom of choice in work and a greater independence in relationships.

When many women eventually did decide, in their 30s, that they wanted marriage and motherhood they faced a significant problem, the one troubling Tracee Hutchison. They had been all too successful in their 20s in discouraging the family instincts of men. Suddenly there seemed to be a lack of "good men" who would commit to the role of self-sacrificing husband and father.

So the problem derives, at least in part, from the tendency of feminism to follow the autonomy strand of liberalism, in which what is thought to matter most is our ability as an individual to be self-determining (and therefore independent). This didn't lead most women of Tracee Hutchison's generation to reject marriage or motherhood in absolute terms, but it did lead them to fatally defer such commitments.

Which raises an interesting question. Autonomy liberals often talk about life being given a purpose by our having a life plan which is determined not by tradition but by our own reasoned choices.

Can it really be said, though, that the feminist cohort of the 1980s and early 90s had a life plan based on reasoned choices?

Even when I was in my early 20s, I thought some of the choices women were making were madly shortsighted. Why would you defer motherhood to your late 30s, to the very last moments of potential fertility? Even now Tracee Hutchison speaks of women in their late 30s having shrieking ovaries, when fertility decline actually sets in much earlier at about the age of 30.

Why too would you sacrifice the opportunity for love in your 20s, at the very time we are most impelled toward love by our romantic and sexual impulses? Why would you accept a more cynically casual attitude toward relationships at exactly this time?

It wasn't difficult to predict, even back in the 1980s, that there would be many regrets later on, such as those experienced now by Tracee Hutchison and her circle of friends.

So why might autonomy liberals find it difficult to make life plans based on rational choices, when this is so frequently emphasised in their philosophy?

I suppose we could answer with Edmund Burke that individual reason is not as effective an instrument for most people as liberals assert it to be:

We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and ages.

Yet, even if a feminist woman had enough private stock of reason to generate a successful life plan, there are other factors likely to hold her back.

For example, the belief in autonomy has two separate effects. First, it generates the idea that we should determine our own life plan based on rational choice as a means to bring meaning to our existence. Second, it then tells us that these life choices should maximise our autonomy.

But the two effects can only complement each other if it's always rational to prefer autonomy over other goods in life. Otherwise, the second effect (of always maximising autonomy) leads us to make irrational choices.

This is, I believe, what happened to the feminist cohort. They were encouraged to choose an independent, single-girl lifestyle over marriage and motherhood as this appeared to maximise autonomy. Yet the single-girl lifestyle was unlikely to prove a superior good in the longer-term for most of these women, and so it involved a set of irrational choices (whilst serving a "logic" of autonomy).

There are other factors too in explaining this problem of liberal life plans, but I'll leave discussion of them for a future post.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Conservatism vs Liberalism

One of the great choices in life is between conservatism and liberalism. This choice is not just about politics, but about the way we see the world and the values we hold.

Unfortunately, we are rarely given the information we need to make this choice intelligently. It is especially rare to get the information from a conservative point of view.

This essay aims to fill the gap. Hopefully it will make clear for the reader the most basic features of both conservatism and liberalism, and the significance of the differences between them.

Chapter 1. What is Liberalism?

Liberalism is made of up several elements, including individualism, rationalism and linear progress.


Sometimes the word individualism is used in the same sense as individuality: the rejection of conformism to create an individual style or personality. Individualism in this sense would be supported by both liberals and conservatives.

The term liberal individualism, though, means something quite distinct. It refers to the belief of liberals in a certain kind of individual autonomy. In short liberals believe that human freedom depends on individuals being subject only to their own reason and will, so that individuals are left free to create themselves in any direction.

This belief has been asserted strongly in Western societies ever since the Renaissance. For instance, the fifteenth century writer Pico della Mirandola once imagined God saying to man that,

You, constrained by no limits, in accordance with your own free will ... shall ordain for yourself the limits of your nature ... We have made you ... so that with freedom of choice, as though the maker and moulder of yourself, you may fashion yourself in whatever shape you shall prefer.

In order for individuals to be "self-created" in this fashion, liberals have to clear a path for the exclusive operation of individual reason and will. Usually this involves:-

(i) An assumption that the individual starts out as a blank slate, without anything inborn to limit or give a natural direction to individual behaviour.


(ii) A rejection of forms of identity and authority which can't be shaped by individual reason or will.

Conservatives are opposed to liberals on both of these points. Firstly, for conservatives it is simply untrue that individuals start out as a blank slate. Instead, conservatives believe that individuals are heavily influenced by an inborn human nature. This human nature is flawed, intricate and difficult to shift. Much of the effort of society is to draw out the finer qualities of this nature, whilst discouraging the worst.

Secondly, conservatives don't reject forms of identity and authority simply because they aren't chosen by individual reason or will. Conservatives have often found themselves attempting to "conserve" such forms of identity and authority because of their value to individuals or to society. Specific examples of this are given in the next chapter on conservative belief; in general, though, conservatives would argue that rather than creating human freedom, the liberal approach tends to undermine the social framework and erode important forms of human "connectedness".


As already mentioned, liberals only wish to accept what has been validated by individual reason. This forms the basis of liberal rationalism: the idea that we come to our beliefs and knowledge of the world through abstract reason, i.e. through the "analytical intellect" alone.

Conservatives are critical of certain aspects of liberal rationalism, especially when it is crudely applied.

This is because abstract reason is really only able to deal with a small part of human experience. It is unable to adequately recognise many of the finer, more subtle and more intangible qualities of life.

How can you, for instance, validate through abstract reason such qualities as love and beauty, or nobility and honour, or whimsy and fancy?

At its worst, liberal rationalism has applied rigid "machine principles" to human life. For instance, the French utopian reformer Charles Fourier once calculated that humans should live in phalanxes of exactly 1620 people. The British utilitarians believed that they could scientifically calculate morality according to a balance of outcomes. And the German Bauhaus architects went so far as to define a house as a "machine for living in".

Another conservative complaint against rationalism is that it sometimes leaves liberals curiously dependent on abstract ideology. There are times when liberals cannot simply accept the most natural and healthy of human behaviours (e.g. romance between men and women, boys playing with trucks etc. ). Instead, such behaviours have to be agonisingly justified in reference to an abstract ideology: they have to be declared "politically correct".

What alternative do conservatives offer to liberal rationalism? Firstly, conservatives don't have such an abstract starting point as liberals. Conservatives are unlikely to want to "wipe the slate clean" in order to build up knowledge on wholly abstract (and inevitably arbitrary) principles.

Instead, conservatives are likely to start out with what we are able to perceive about ourselves, society and the larger nature of things, and apply to this our critical intelligence, in order to arrive at a consistency and reasonableness of belief, as well as to draw the lessons of experience, i.e. the testing of our beliefs in practice over time.

Also, in contrast to liberal rationalists, who have often wanted to start from "year zero", conservatives are likely to consider (but not blindly accept) the guidance of tradition. This is because successful traditions are often built on the collective insight and experience of generations; it seems more sensible to conservatives to try to learn from such traditions, rather than to force each and every individual to learn from scratch.

Linear Progress

Liberals used to have a strong belief in linear progress: in the idea that the world was steadily advancing towards a higher level of civilisation. This idea was clearly expressed, for instance, by the English writer Matthew Arnold in the mid-nineteenth century, when he proclaimed his "faith in the progress of humanity toward perfection."

Liberals today are usually not so optimistic. Nonetheless, the idea of linear progress still exists more subtly in liberal beliefs about the "progressive" nature of social reforms and change, and fears of "stagnation" or "going back".

Conservatives have a different reading of history. For conservatives, history is more about the rise and fall of societies according to their inner strengths and weaknesses, rather than a constant progress. Nor would conservatives ever talk of human perfection, given the flaws embedded into human nature.

Given these different starting points, it isn't hard to see why liberals and conservatives have a different attitude to social change.

It's not that conservatives are against change; in fact, there is a great deal in modern societies that conservatives would like to reform.

However, conservatives believe that social change has to take account of human nature - in particular, that the social framework that is put in place must intelligently complement the real motivations and desires that are part of human nature. Liberal reforms, based as they often are on abstract ideas, often fail to do this and so misfire.

Furthermore, conservatives believe that real reform, i.e. the shifting from worse forms of human behaviour to better, is a difficult cultural achievement that takes place over generations. Such achievements, therefore, are not to be lightly discarded.

For this reason, conservatives are critical when liberals make reforms merely in a spirit of social experimentation, or when liberals want change just for the sake of change.

Conservatives and liberals have usually also wanted a different direction to change. Liberals, over several centuries, have sought to deconstruct the traditional social framework, in order to achieve a greater level of individualism; conservatives have attempted, in contrast, to conserve the more valued elements of this framework (hence of course the name conservative).

Over time liberals have succeeded in their aim; since the 1970s very little in Western societies has escaped the influence of liberal individualism.

This means that conservatives today are not the defenders of an established order, but instead are challengers of what has become a liberal orthodoxy.

Chapter 2. Conservative Belief

The differences between conservatism and liberalism should become clearer if we look at several key areas of conservative belief.


Throughout history there have existed groups of people united in a special way by kinship. Such peoples have shared a common ancestry, language, history, culture, religion and so on, which combine together to form a distinct ethnic identity.

Often such ethnic groups have existed at a tribal or regional level. However, it sometimes also happens that an ethnic group lives together in a large territory with its own political state. When this occurs, the people involved become something more than an ethnic group - they become a nation, with a distinct national identity.

For conservatives, membership of an ethnic group, and especially of a nation, is a positive feature of life. It is part of a real, historical collective identity existing between a group of people, which often becomes an inseparable part of our individual identity - of our sense of who we are.

Furthermore, a national or ethnic identity gives us a sense of connection to both past and future generations; it also encourages the idea that each individual has a respected place in society, in terms of having a role and responsibility within the collective effort; and finally, a national or ethnic tradition also strengthens the connection felt by individuals to their environment - it strengthens the attachment felt by individuals to the urban heritage or to the countryside of their native land.

Unlike conservatives, liberals have not given a very stable level of support to national or ethnic traditions. It's not hard to understand why this should be the case. As we saw in the first chapter, liberals support a philosophy of individualism, in which individuals start out as "blank slates", and are self-created through their own reason and will.

A national or ethnic identity, however, is not something we choose for ourselves through our reason or will, but is something we are born into. Liberals, therefore, have either tended to reject inherited national traditions altogether in favour of internationalism, or else have sought to redefine the idea of nationalism, so that it is based solely on citizenship.

When membership of a nation is based only on citizenship, then a national identity is something that can be chosen by the individual: the individual can seek to alter the definition of citizenship, or to choose to hold citizenship rights in whatever country they prefer.

Conservatives would argue, though, that in making membership of a nation malleable in this way, the inherited, and deeper, forms of national identity are lost, leaving the individual to a far greater degree "free-floating" or "rootless" - without the same strength of attachment to a particular national culture and tradition.

Finally, conservatives are also critical of those liberals who, curiously enough, are happy to support and enjoy foreign national or ethnic cultures, whilst denigrating their own.

In Australia, this denigration of the "home" culture has led to a distorted view of Australian history. There is a tendency to underplay the sacrifices and achievements of the early settlers, and to emphasise their faults. The historian John Hirst has criticised this trend towards "a history of Australia that characterises British Australia - Australia before the great postwar migration - as a long dark age." For conservatives, this "black armband" view of Australian history is of special concern, since conservatives wish to build on the best of a tradition, rather than to selectively emphasise the worst.


Conservatives support gender difference. They believe that men and women are different by nature, and that this is a positive aspect of life.

Conservatives support gender difference for several reasons. Firstly, for conservatives the feminine qualities of women and the masculine qualities of men have a value in themselves - they are something to be admired. Secondly, gender difference is the basis of heterosexuality; by definition, heterosexuality means the attraction of men to the feminine qualities of women and vice versa. Finally, gender difference is important in making men and women complementary to each other, so that together men and women provide the different qualities needed by individuals, families and communities.

The conservative attitude to gender is well-summarised, if a little overstated, by the nineteenth century writer John Ruskin, who wrote,

We are foolish, and without excuse foolish, in speaking of the "superiority" of one sex to another, as if they could be compared in similar things. Each has what the other has not; each completes the other, and is completed by the other; they are in nothing alike, and the happiness and perfection of both depends on each asking and receiving from the other what the other only can give.

Unlike conservatives, liberals have not proven to be reliable supporters of gender difference. Again, this can be traced back to liberal individualism. Liberal individualists want to be "self-created" - they don't want to be born into a particular gender with well-defined gender qualities.

When confronted with the reality that men and women do tend to act in certain typically masculine or feminine ways, liberals claim that this is merely a product of "socialisation": of the oppressive influence of traditional culture. Accordingly, liberals have attempted to "re-engineer" gender, with the purpose of creating more similar patterns of behaviour between men and women.

The results have been predictable. There has been some blurring of gender, as the normal process of encouraging the stronger masculine qualities of men, and the stronger feminine qualities of women, has been put into reverse.

However, the basic gender differences have inevitably remained, since these are "hard-wired" into us, as scientists have demonstrated ever more conclusively.

Again, for conservatives, this is not a cause of regret, since gender difference, while occasionally frustrating, is generally an appealing aspect of life.


Many people in their teenage years react against the idea of family. It is often a time when people wish to be independent and free of of the personal frictions which go along with family life.

Nonetheless most people eventually choose to establish their own families. Why? Partly because the family, for all its imperfections, is usually the most stable source of support for individuals. It is also due to the strong instinct most people eventually feel to find a life partner and to have children.

Conservatives are supportive of family life. In particular, conservatives believe in the ideal of a stable family life, in which the different qualities of men and women are made complementary to each other.

Liberals take a different view of the family. Firstly, liberals find it more difficult to accept stable family commitments, since for liberals the idea of individual autonomy, of being independent and "free to choose" is paramount. Liberals, therefore, have acted to "loosen up" family commitments, by redefining the family so that it describes any arrangement of people living together, and by supporting easier divorce laws, culminating in the "no fault" divorce laws of the 1970s.

Secondly, liberals, being hostile to the idea of gender difference, have attempted to create a genderless family, in which men and women are expected to behave exactly the same.

This is one of those liberal "reforms" which was never thought through very clearly. It was heavily promoted in the 1970s when motherhood was unpopular amongst political women; this allowed the assumption to take hold that women could easily follow the same career pattern as men.

However, most women did eventually choose to have children, and were then left with the role of "supermums" - of trying to juggle motherhood responsibilities and traditionally masculine career demands at the same time. This was unrealistic, especially as most men proved less committed to taking over motherhood tasks, not least because their working hours were already steadily rising.

As a result, men and women have been left to muddle their way through the expectations of the genderless family as best they can. Conservatives believe that it would be better to scrap the emphasis on gender sameness within the family altogether, and try instead to achieve a balance between men and women in family life.

The Economy & Society

Historically there have been two basic kinds of liberalism.

The first kind, classical liberalism, had its heyday in the mid-nineteenth century. Classical liberals believed that the free market was self-regulating, so that governments should remain small and interfere as little as possible in the economy.

This kind of liberalism has made a comeback in recent years, under the name of "economic rationalism" or "neo-liberalism." Such liberals want to privatise and deregulate the economy.

The second kind of liberalism, "new liberalism", emerged in the late nineteenth century. New liberals wanted to make social reforms through intervention by a strong central government. Eventually, new liberalism was to lead to high levels of state ownership of the economy, and the building of the welfare state.

Conservatives are similar to classical liberals, and opposed to new liberals, in wanting a small central state. Why? When a large bureaucratic state takes over it tends to erode the institutions of civil society. People deal with a central state passively as separate individuals, rather than as mutually supporting members of a community.

Furthermore, too much power in the hands of the central state allows it, temporarily at least, to engage in social engineering - to overthrow the more natural forms of social organisation in favour of a ruling ideology.

There are some free market liberals who have a similar attitude to conservatives in this respect. Such liberals recognise that to have a small government you need to look after society by encouraging an ethos of personal responsibility and by having a well-functioning civil society.

However, unlike such classical liberals conservatives do believe in the need to regulate the market. Conservatives don't believe that the profit motive, if left to itself, necessarily creates the best outcomes for society. An example of this is that without sensible regulation a capitalist economy would quickly exploit and degrade the environment.

The Environment

Conservatives are strongly environmentalist. In part, this is because of the importance of heritage to conservatives, which means that conservatives wish to preserve the better historic areas of towns, as well as attractive areas of the countryside. Conservatives also believe that a natural environment has a positive influence on people, so that it is better for people to grow up and live in leafy surrounds, rather than in a concrete jungle.

Conservatives, however, would differ from some radical greens in recognising the need to use and develop natural resources. The point for conservatives is to attempt to do this intelligently and sustainably, with the least long-term damage to the environment.

Chapter 3. Politics in Australia

It is time now to look at the way in which conservatism and liberalism are actually represented in Australia. The starting point is to distinguish between two different kinds of liberalism: left liberalism (the modern version of "new liberalism") and right liberalism (the modern version of classical liberalism).

Left Liberalism

Left liberals believe in a relatively high level of government intervention in the economy and society.

They tend to support state ownership of sections of the economy, as well as high levels of government spending. Not surprisingly, many left liberals are white collar state employees, such as teachers and public servants.

Left liberals are (like all liberals) individualists, who believe in breaking down restrictions on the self-created, autonomous individual. They are more willing than right liberals to achieve change in this direction through government social engineering and collective social movements.

Left liberals have considerable influence in society. First of all, they are represented politically by the Labor Party, the Democrats and the Greens. They also dominate the education system, the arts and much of the media, particularly where social issues are concerned. (The Age in Melbourne for instance is almost exclusively left liberal on social issues.)

There is also a more radical version of left liberalism, found in sections of the socialist, feminist and gay movements. Such radical left liberals are often more ideological than other left liberals, more inclined to work outside the system through campaigns and demonstrations, and more likely to believe in using violent or authoritarian means to achieve their aims.

Right Liberalism

Right liberals have a much stronger focus on economic issues than left liberals. Their major concern is for economic activity to be unfettered by the state; they want, in other words, to remove impediments to the operation of the free market.

As might be expected, right liberals are often drawn from the business or commercial classes. Politically, right liberals are represented by the Liberal Party, the National Party (and by the Republican Party in America and the "Conservative" Party in Britain).

Right liberals have much less cultural influence than left liberals, though they do have considerable clout through their economic power and their ownership of the media.

On social issues, there are some differences between right liberals. Some right liberals are not so much social individualists as "economic individualists": they tend to see people in terms of being individual economic units, and they want an "open" society, not for the triumph of individual reason and will, but to have the least restriction on business choices and economic activity.

There are however more "conservative" right liberals, who still want to defend some parts of the social framework. As mentioned earlier, some right liberals recognise that if you want to reduce the role of central government, you need individuals to be supported by civil society and by an ethos of personal responsibility.

The existence of these "conservative" right liberals has often drawn conservatives toward parties like the Liberal Party. However, conservatives have usually ended up disappointed; such parties have never defended conservative values or institutions effectively as their underlying philosophy remains individualist, and as their belief in an unregulated free market often clashes with a defence of conservative values.


It should be clear from the above that the major political parties in Australia, as well as the media and education system, are dominated by different forms of liberalism. Conservatism, therefore, is not well represented in Australian politics.

Conservatism, though, is not entirely without influence. This is because the beliefs of the average person still remain closer to conservatism than to liberalism. Liberalism really only has a stronghold amongst the inner-city, middle class "chattering classes" (and some of the middle-suburban commercial classes). The rest of the population has been surprisingly resistant to liberal ideas, despite the heavy dose of liberalism they receive from the education system and the media.

It is possible to speak, therefore, of a division between a liberal "elite" and a "popular" conservatism. This popular conservatism, though, has not been well-enough organised, or clearly enough defined, to take a leading role in politics. Instead, its major influence has been more indirect: the commercial media, and the main political parties, do have to take some notice of it if they wish to succeed.

One example of this was the defeat of the Keating government in 1996. This is usually explained by the excessive attention Keating gave to "trendy" liberal policies, which alienated the more conservative blue collar vote.


Liberals may only be a minority of the population, but they have dominated Australian politics for many years now. They have been able to do so because they have been much better organised than conservatives.

The challenge for conservatives, therefore, is to begin to bridge the gap by becoming better organised. As part of this, conservatives need to argue their beliefs more clearly and to a wider audience.

This pamphlet has been a small step in that direction. Hopefully it has opened up for the reader the significance of the debate between conservatives and liberals. It is this debate, after all, which is the crucial dividing line of politics, and which will determine the future direction of Australian society.

(First published as a pamphlet 1997)

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Letting liberals explain II

Do liberals think that identity matters? In my last post, I looked at one liberal's attempt to claim that they do. He argued, following the autonomy strand of liberalism, that liberals only differed from conservatives in believing that identity was a social construct, rather than natural, and that as a human construct it could (and should) be remade.

Another Larvatus Prodeo reader, Cliff, also defended the liberal attitude to identity. He, though, followed the "neutrality" strand of liberalism. The neutrality strand is the idea that you will have social conflict unless people adopt a neutral stance toward important truths, beliefs and values in the way society is organised.

Cliff, in response to my claim that those without identity are "empty men fit only to observe and admire the "colourful" life they witness in the non-liberal subject", wrote:

To argue that someone is “empty” simply because they believe that their religious, ethnic, gender, national, class, or cultural, identity, should not be used as a basis for coercion of, or discrimination against, “the other” is a pretty “empty” argument, if you ask me.

The basis for liberal reasoning on these factors is not that they should be “erased”, but that they should not serve as a basis for political action, inclusion or exclusion, because of, not despite, the fact that they are such powerful and basic determinants of an individual’s identity.

Religion, for example, is so strongly based in the conscience and identity of citizens, that to make religion a substantial factor in politics could only result in conflict.

Liberalism is not about erasing the non-negotiable factors in one’s identity, but about basing politics upon the negotiable factors, because only by doing so, can peace in a pluralist society be assured. If a liberal wanted to erase religion, ethnic and national identities etc in society, he would be defeating his own logic because he would be making these factors a basis for coercion.

Whilst it is true that Liberalism has a “neutralizing” tendency, its neutrality is based on intersubjectivity, not subjectivity. If a liberal argues that, in our political and social relationships, religion should not be a basis for our inclusion or exclusion of others, this does not mean that a Liberal is themselves devoid of religion.

It's true, as Cliff asserts, that the neutrality principle doesn't directly disallow the holding of a personal identity. It doesn't stop someone, for instance, from identifying themselves as a Catholic or a Canadian.

In practice, though, the principle doesn't allow a significant place for identity. There are a number of reasons for this, but the primary reason is that identity is often sustained in a communal, rather than a purely private, setting.

For instance, an ethnic culture can't be sustained over time "subjectively" by private individuals. If there are only a few members of an ethny in each suburb, their culture won't survive to the next generation, no matter how important this culture is to them subjectively.

An ethnic culture requires a communal setting in order to be absorbed, expressed, developed and reproduced. To maintain a communal setting does require at least a limited form of discrimination in its own favour, particularly in terms of immigration.

Also, if identity is thought of as a danger to social harmony and therefore is excluded from the organisation of political or social life, it won't be associated positively with the higher, ordering values of society. Some individuals, at least, will then treat identity negatively as a less important sphere to be ruled over and controlled:

Cultures and religions are either about weddings and music and fancy clothes or they're about to get their asses kicked. I think Nietzsche called it "The Will to Power," and it is that which we Americans possess and which we cannot allow in the cultures and religions we take in. If all religions and cultures are equal then none is superior, and that is how we keep them in line.

There are also problems with the coherence of the neutrality principle itself. For instance, Cliff wrote that:

Liberalism is not about erasing the non-negotiable factors in one’s identity, but about basing politics upon the negotiable factors, because only by doing so, can peace in a pluralist society be assured.

There are several things which strike me as false about this statement. First, it makes it sound as if liberalism only excludes things which are locked in a dangerous, non-negotiable impasse.

Identity is excluded, though, even when there is no such dangerous impasse. There was a recent case in America in which cheerleaders were told they had to cheer for female sports teams, despite the fact that neither the cheerleaders nor the female sports teams wanted this to happen. There was no dangerous impasse, but simply an insistence on following the principle of excluding gender as a basis of social organisation.

Second, liberalism insists on excluding identity even where there is no pluralism to be negotiated. In fact, it is often the liberal principle itself which creates the pluralism, which then sets up the potential for conflict.

Sweden, for instance, was until recently an ethnically homogeneous nation, and yet the political class there still adopted the idea that the Swedish state should be neutral in terms of ethnicity, which then led to large-scale foreign immmigration, which has now created a degree of ethnic conflict which previously hadn't existed.

In fact, liberalism seems to work best, and to be taken furthest, in the least pluralistic of communities. Holland and Sweden, for instance, were relatively homogeneous countries, well-known for stability and orderliness. At least some aspects of liberalism were taken further in those countries than elsewhere.

They have now become less stable and orderly. Holland, for instance, has witnessed in recent times the assassinations of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, ethnic riots in Utrecht and a spate of school stabbings. So the effect of liberal neutrality has not been to take a violent, pluralistic society and to render it peaceful, but to make a relatively orderly and homogeneous society more pluralistic and more violent and disorderly.

There is another reason to be sceptical that the neutrality principle orders societies peacefully. The principle itself can become an article of faith, thought to be universally valid, and therefore to be imposed everywhere. It can, in other words, itself become the justification for coercion and force.

So does identity suffer under the terms of liberalism? It suffers more, it seems, than some liberals are willing to recognise. It is subjected to a one-two punch, the first blow coming from autonomy liberals who treat identity as an unnatural and oppressive social construct, the second from neutrality liberals who won't allow society to be organised in ways which recognise identity.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Letting liberals explain

How do rank and file liberals explain their beliefs? Last month I wrote two articles which eventually drew out some serious comments by Larvatus Prodeo readers.

What most seemed to stir the LPers was my argument that liberals don't want such things as religious, ethnic, gender, national, class or cultural identity to matter.

Two LPers denied the claim. One of them, Mick Strummer, wrote that both liberals and conservatives believe that such identities matter but that:

It is their origin that is the main area of disagreement, with “Liberals” believing that much of the social, political and cultural significance of these factors is arbitrary and historically determined. As such, “Liberals” are suspicious of anyone who claims that they may be natural in the sense that they have always existed, and thus will always exist.

These factors - religious, ethnic, gender, national, class, or cultural identity - are not the same thing as many other things that ARE natural. They are not phenomena like rainfall, the dispersal of species, or the seasons. It seems to me that these factors - religious, ethnic, gender, national, class, or cultural identity - are the result of human decisions and actions throughout history, and that thus we can decide and act to make them different from the way they are currently defined and perceived.

Anyway. There is more that we could say about things, but as a “Liberal”, I will always believe that the social, political, cultural and economic world is the way it is because it has been made that way as a result of human belief and action. Thus, (it would seem to me) that it is entirely possible and feasible (indeed, necessary) to remake and reform the social, political, cultural and economic world that we inhabit…

Mick Strummer is here following the "autonomy" or "self-creation" strand within liberalism. This is the idea that it is the human capacity to "self-determine", according to our reason and will, which dignifies human life.

If you accept this idea you won't like to think of identities being natural. A natural identity is relatively fixed, and has a justification outside of human will. It isn't something that is self-determined.

You might well prefer to insist, as Mick Strummer does, that identities are social constructs, which can be remade according to our own purposes:

It seems to me that these factors - religious, ethnic, gender, national, class, or cultural identity - are the result of human decisions and actions throughout history, and that thus we can decide and act to make them different from the way they are currently defined and perceived.

But if identity is to be thought of, in the liberal way, as a social construct, can it still be considered to matter in a positive sense?

I think at the very least its significance has been degraded. Mick himself tells us that identity is arbitrary and unnatural, which surely undermines the importance we accord it.

Note too that the social constructionist viewpoint places stress on a negative aspect of identity, namely the need to keep forms of society open against concepts of enduring human identity, rather than a more positve aspect, of recognising and defending the forms of identity we value within society.

Anyway, it's common in practice for those following the autonomy strand of liberalism to hold negative views toward traditional forms of identity. Typically, such liberals will see these forms of identity as being a constraint on the individual, from which individuals need to be liberated or emancipated. There's often an insistence that any replacement forms of identity be multiple, shifting and negotiated, so that it's possible to think of them as being self-determined.

The second LPer to take aim at my position followed an entirely different strand of thought within liberalism, but I'll leave a consideration of his comment for my next post.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Cheap labour a ripoff?

An American study has come up with some startling facts about "cheap" labour. It seems that households headed by someone without a high school degree pay on average $9,689 in taxes, but receive between $32,138 and $43,084 in government benefits (the figure varies according to which benefits are included). Therefore, there is an overall cost to the government of at least $22,449 per annum (that's $27,212 in Australian dollars) for each of these households.

There are 17.7 million such households in the US. Half of these are made up of illegal immigrants. Whereas only 10% of the native-born population have no high school degree, about two thirds of illegal immigrants fit into this category.

Therefore, the willingness of illegal immigrants to work for cheap rates isn't really as economically beneficial as it might seem to be. Although the immigrant earns on average only $20,564 per year, the taxpayer then kicks in at least an extra $22,449. It is a labour scheme which is massively subsidised by other Americans. Each year American taxpayers will spend almost US$200 billion subsidising illegal immigrant labour.

Nor is it only America which is facing the financial burden of low-skilled immigration. According to a British newspaper (revealing details of an OECD report):

International migration is eroding Britain's skills base with an exodus of professionals matching the arrival of low-skilled foreign migrants, the Government is to be warned.

The number of Britons emigrating has jumped in recent years, with a growing proportion leaving professional or managerial jobs to work overseas. By contrast, the number of immigrant workers - many of them manual workers - has risen sharply.

British employers are responding faster than the Government:

a report last month by the British Chambers of Commerce revealed that seven out of 10 of its members are now opposed to unchecked immmigration.

David Frost, the organisation's director general, said: "Outside London, we are increasingly seeing large numbers of white, unemployed males wandering the streets. This is not pointing to a bright and positive future. We need to engage with these people once more and get them trained up. Immigration is not solving today's problems but actually postpones them."

David Frost is on the right track. First, it does make sense, as he suggests, to focus on training the existing population of unskilled workers rather than bringing in more from overseas. Second, I think he's to be admired for showing some loyalty to his co-nationals. Perhaps if others take his lead there might be more of a culture of belonging in Britain which might then persuade some of those highly skilled emigrants to think of staying in Britain rather than seeking their fortunes elsewhere.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Keeping culture in line

John Derbyshire wasn't happy with the compliant behaviour of the British sailors captured by Iran:

How on earth can Britons behave like that? A previous generation would not have done so ... What on earth has happened to the British?

His answer is that the British were once animated by a sense of superiority toward other nations but that this has been effectively suppressed by multiculturalism. It is Derbyshire's view that multiculturalism fails to draw on the deeper human instincts and that George Orwell was right to claim that:

The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions - racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war.

My intention is not to critique Derbyshire's (or Orwell's) views in all this. What interests me more is the response Derbyshire drew in the comments section from someone calling himself (herself?) "Laika's Last Woof" (whom I'll refer to as LLW).

LLW is strongly committed in his politics to the "neutrality strand" within liberalism. This is the aspect of liberalism which arose following the wars of religion in the 1600s. The idea was to secure social harmony by having the state treat the competing religious views neutrally.

The problem with the neutrality strand has been explained by Lawrence Auster in these terms:

As Jim Kalb has pointed out, whatever is the highest public principle of a society tends over time to make the rest of the society conform to it.

Since neutrality with respect to religious truth was now the highest ordering principle of society, men progressively adopted a stance of neutrality with respect to other substantive truths and values - natural, social, and spiritual - on which society had historically been based.

LLW is an interesting example of what happens to someone who adopts the neutrality strand. In theory, it's possible for someone holding to the neutrality ideal to still give allegiance to his own tradition. All that's really required (in theory) is that the state not give preference to one tradition over another.

However, in practice having neutrality as "the highest ordering principle of society" does generally lead to a loss of particular cultural, religious and national allegiances.

In the case of LLW, the important "transcendent" allegiance is now to neutrality itself: to "the Constitution" or to "liberty" conceived in terms of an absence of any significant claims of culture or religion or nation.

LLW begins his reply to Derbyshire by insisting that Americans, as good neutralists, have something worth fighting for:

I think perhaps we Americans have retained our fighting spirit because we've never fought for such empty-headed "virtues" as "racial pride", "leader-worship", or "religious belief" ... Our soldiers aren't serving a race or a President or even a God. They swear their oath to the Constitution. Perhaps if Britain had fought for some kind of principles she would not have lost her fighting spirit. "For King and Country" means little in the age of Democracy. Liberty, though, is transcendent.

For LLW acting "for Country" means "little" in a modern age. He goes on to argue that neutrality does not allow multiculturalism to be as significant an agent as Derbyshire believes it to be:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" ... Multiculturalism is a dead letter so long as our Constitution's Bill of Rights stands unamended, not because we believe our culture is superior but because we believe that NO culture is superior.

He then adds the following:

Any culture that threatens our freedom we will remorselessly, relentlessly, and if necessary violently transform. "Death to Sharia!", and may it burn like Tokyo under the Stratofortress, because it is the enemy of liberty, not because we have some better God to pray to, some superior Mecca to pray towards.

We bow to no one, we apologize to no one, and we pray to no one. The Constitution is the only true authority in all the Universe, and only because it declares we are free.

What does freedom mean for a neutralist like LLW? It means a freedom from any claim of culture or any claim of religion ("we pray to no one").

Ironically, this development of the ideal of neutrality overrides the original concern to secure harmony and peace. Neutrality itself has become, in LLW's mind, a superior allegiance which may rightly maintain its supremacy through violent conflict.

Later, when LLW is asked whether he believes American culture to be superior to that of the head-hunting tribes of New Guinea, he replies:

The litmus test for any culture transplanted to America is whether it is compatible with liberty. Liberty is what we use to keep the world's religions and cultures in line when they come here. This supreme authority in a sense makes liberty transcendent, a value beyond culture, a belief beyond God.

Again, consider how far "neutrality" has distanced LLW from any cultural allegiance. What interests him is the restraint to be placed on any claims of culture, rather than what any culture positively represents.

Note too the seriousness with which neutrality as an organising principle of society is taken: it has become so authoritative that it is thought to be "transcendent" and beyond even "a belief in God".

There's more. Here's LLW again illustrating the aggressive claims of the neutrality strand:

Any culture that threatens our liberty we'll transform or destroy; cultures which believe in their own superiority will inevitably run afoul of us and have to be dealt with. As we are the strongest force on the planet, any culture that cannot accept the supremacy of the Constitution is inferior ...

And then there's this:

Cultures and religions are either about weddings and music and fancy clothes or they're about to get their asses kicked. I think Nietzche called it "The Will to Power," and it is that which we Americans possess and which we cannot allow in the cultures and religions we take in. If all religions and cultures are equal then none is superior, and that is how we keep them in line.

Neutrality means, in practice for LLW, that the claims of culture and religion are not to be considered seriously: they are to be relegated to the realm of "weddings and music and fancy clothes" or else they face getting "their asses kicked". Again, the adoption of a neutral stance toward culture and religion, in which we don't consider any to be superior, has come to be associated with the idea of culture and religion as a negative, oppressive, dangerous threat to be kept in line, rather than something we might personally give a positive allegiance to. A particular culture and religion, even our own mainstream culture and religion, are not to be ceded any authority within society.

Finally, LLW explains that his allegiance is to a concept of freedom rather than to a particular culture or nation, and therefore he welcomes the rise to power of any "free" nation, even if this entails the loss of pre-eminence of his own:

Our power as we conceive it expands with the rise of free democratic nations such as India, even if India ultimately surpasses us in military capability. If India had the will and power to intervene in Darfur or sign a credible mutual defense pact with Taiwan we Americans would be tickled pink. We're worried about the rise of China not because they threaten American hegemony but American ideals ... If Britain is to find the enduring will to fight you must find it within yourselves to love America, India, Poland, Israel, and Australia as you love yourselves.

I'll finish with two brief points of my own. First, the neutrality strand explains why liberals so often believe conservative allegiance to be based on a belief in supremacism or superiority.

For instance, people who want to maintain the mainstream ethnicity of Australia are often accused of being "white supremacists". To conservatives this can be surprising, as we often simply want to conserve a tradition we love and have a natural allegiance to, rather than wishing to assert supremacy over others.

A liberal neutralist, however, is used to a theoretical framework in which any assertion of preference is tied to a denial of equality and to a claim of superior right. Liberal neutralists seem to find it difficult to step outside of this intellectual framework to understand the conservative mindset.

Second, conservatives should not be falling into line with liberal neutrality. Rather than consenting to an ideal which distances us, in practice, from particular allegiances, we should admire those who are most connected in their lives to natural loves, affinities and identities, including a sense of connectedness to our ancestry, our national tradition, our culture, our sex, our church, and our ethny.

To remain close to these allegiances doesn't necessarily mean asserting their superiority over others (though some may do this). Nor does it necessarily mean wanting to impose them on others.

The alternative, of accepting neutrality as the highest organising principle of society, will often mean replacing natural allegiances with a single artificial one, one which has no less potential for social conflict.

Hat tip: an excellent post on the same theme by Vanishing American titled Is our civilization a 'goner'?

Further reading: Tackling neutrality

Why don't we have an elite?

Can it only be politics or rugger?