Sunday, April 08, 2018

Why did Deakin go left?

I'm reading a biography of Alfred Deakin, who served as Australian Prime Minister in the very early 1900s, written by Judith Brett.

Chapter 5 is especially interesting as it provides some of the details of how a young Deakin became a liberal. In part, he came to identify as a liberal because of the influence of the leading liberal intellectuals of the time. He described himself (in 1878) as being "saturated with the doctrines of Spencer, Mill, Buckle".

But what did it mean to be a liberal in the colony of Victoria in the 1870s? The distinction between right liberals and left liberals had already emerged. The right side of politics championed free trade and laissez-faire liberalism and found support in the professional classes, the squatters (large landholders), the Argus newspaper, and the large merchants. The left side of politics denounced their opponents as "Conservatives and obstructionists, no matter how much the free-traders might protest that they were the true Liberals" (p.55).

The left saw itself as the progressive liberal movement and gained its support from the working-classes and the Age newspaper. It supported popular democracy, land reform, economic protection and "an active state to develop the colony's potential".

The story of the Age newspaper is highly relevant here. It was founded in 1856 and by the 1870s, under David Syme, had become the most widely read Australian newspaper. Syme played a key role in challenging the dominance of classical liberalism:
Syme also rejected classical-liberal economics' methodological assumption of an economic man motivated only by self-interest. Showing the influence of German idealism on his thinking, Syme argued that this was an untenable abstraction which excluded morality and the sense of duty. Nor, he argued, can it be assumed that the operations of self-interest are generally beneficial as postulated in Adam Smith's ideal market. Self-interest and individualism have their place, but need to be balanced by the interests of society as a whole, for which the state is the appropriate agent. Syme was happy to accept the description of his position as "in the direction of State Socialism" (p. 57).

We learn further that:
Deakin was already predisposed to such arguments from Carlyle's rejection of the dismal science of economics, with its mechanical operations of supply and demand leaving no room for the operations of the spirit...For Syme the arguments over trade were about far more than economics, and his arguments for protection connected it to other aspects of Deakin's emerging political outlook: his optimistic faith in the state as an agent of a harmonised and progressive common interest and his confident identification with the colonial point of view.

The political divide was therefore the dreary one that we are familiar with today. The right was made up of classical liberals who believed in the free market but who were called conservatives. The left saw themselves as progressive liberals and thought that the state could represent a "progressive common interest".

It's easy to sympathise with Syme's criticism of classical liberalism. The view that we are economic men motivated by individualistic self-interest is not exactly an elevated or inspiring ideal. It has to be said, too, that liberals like Deakin did try to use the state to promote a "common interest" at the time of Australia becoming a federated nation in the early 1900s. For instance, there was a policy to keep working-class living standards high through economic protection and immigration restrictions, and an arbitration system was devised to avoid the class conflicts of earlier decades.

But it fell apart. Neither the Australian state, nor the Age newspaper has promoted a genuine national interest for many decades. The focus on the state as "an agent of a harmonised and progressive common interest" didn't work in the longer term.

What went wrong with the new liberalism (the left-liberalism) that Deakin was converted to? I can't discuss this in detail but the following points are worth considering:

1. Syme was correct to want the interests of society as a whole to be considered rather than just individual self-interest. But there are problems in seeing the state as the agency responsible for regulating society. Patrick Deneen has a whole chapter in his book Why Liberalism failed outlining the ways in which individualism and statism are mutually reinforcing rather than alternatives.

2. The general liberal understanding of liberty and equality (and progress and reason), held by both sides of politics, has an inner logic that came to disallow the forms of identity, the loyalties and the social commitments which hold together a common life within society. Therefore, over time left-liberalism was just as dissolving of society as was classical liberalism.


  1. "Self-interest and individualism have their place, but need to be balanced by the interests of society as a whole, for which the state is the appropriate agent."

    I think a lot of people would agree with this statement without seeing right away that it omits the "baffles" in between. I find this often in other venues: this broad polarity is acknowledged while other states and conditions, such as the loyalties and social commitments you note, hardly get any notice.

    The conceptualizing of liberals tends to go in a straight line from the individual to the universal or universal state. Ignored or rejected is the importance of family, church, ethnic heritage, local and national sense of place, even professional and sporting organizations. I think many would agree that these "intermediate" realms are quite real and important and yet they have no explanation as to why they are excluded from current narratives. Those who determine the rules of the fight have marginalized these considerations to their advantage.

    The reason may be simple: it is relatively easy to exert control on individuals, by other individuals or groups, and also relatively easy to exercise the power of the state once it is in place. It is far more difficult to push back on smaller, regional, private groups whose members know one another. Progressives know this and have been on the attack accordingly; those who are right-of-center are slow to see their beliefs as a political cause as opposed to a default way of life.

    1. The conceptualizing of liberals tends to go in a straight line from the individual to the universal or universal state.

      Well, that fits with Deakin, who in drawing distinctions between liberals and conservatives, said of liberal policies that "All such provisions point to larger and more effective Unions within the realm and then beyond it."

      Judith Brett comments on this that Deakin saw "liberalism as the agent of humanity's evolution toward higher unities".

      At the same time, Deakin was encouraging people to be "actuated by proudly loyal devotion to the State".

      It is a vision in which loyalty is vertical - upwards to the state - and the state itself is to move ever further away from the local toward the universal.

      I have to say that I struggle at times to understand this mindset - my own mind just doesn't work this way. Judith Brett seems to think that the German idealists, via Carlyle, might have had some influence on Deakin. But I wonder too if it isn't connected to Deakin's loss of orthodox faith. Deakin was a spiritualist. He thought there was a spiritual plane of existence and not just a materialistic one, and that it was possible to commune with individual spirits. But he doesn't seem to have had a sense of a relationship with a personal God. And, once God is removed, there seems to be a temptation for some intellectuals to put Humanity in God's place. Meaning is centered on the movement of Humanity toward its perfect ultimate ends, and the intellectual gets to dedicate his life toward making reforms in this direction. People with this mindset seem to think it right to shift from "parochial" loyalties and identities toward a singular one based on Humanity.

  2. Damnit Mark I had a rather idealised view of Deakin before I read this.

    Way to rip off my rose tinted glasses.

    1. Sorry James. Deakin did have qualities that I admire. He was still influenced by the older aristocratic code (of being a "gentleman"); he loved poetry, literature and nature; and he lived at a time when it was still thought right to be manly (as evidenced by the photo of him on the cover of Brett's book:

      He also contributed to the Australian "settlement" - in which Australia was to remain an Anglo-Celtic nation; cheap labour was to be excluded; class warfare was to be held in check; and working-class living standards were to be protected.

      I have to say, though, that the settlement was partly a matter of luck. Britain was still the world economic and military power that Australia wanted to be allied to, so there were reasons for the Australian elite to foster the traditional connections to the UK.

      There was a manufacturing class in Melbourne that had rising influence that supported protection.

      And the labour movement was young and still expressed the patriotic values of rank and file workers, rather than that of a professional class of union leaders. Also, it was thought progressive at the time to support protection as a labour right.

      When conditions changed, so too did the policies and so the settlement didn't last.

    2. Deakin was a giant of his day, but as you say he was of his day.

      His role in organising and radicalising the "Australian Natives Association" in regards to federation deserves to be better known.

      I flipped through Brett's book and from what I saw it looked like the work of a woman trying to make Deakin look as palatable as possible to modern middle class lefties such as herself.

      Judith did after all write an entire Monthly essay arguing that free speech needed to be properly "controlled" in the case of climate change.