Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Putting the liberal in the liberal left

It’s all the rage at the moment. In an attempt to find some way to recover from the dire situation Labour finds itself in, the party is in search of a big idea. The latest fashionable route to salvation is the argument that Labour needs to explore its radical liberal origins. From Nick Cohen to David Marquand people are writing about it. I have touched on it before here and here. The chief protagonists are Philip Collins, close to the Work and Pensions secretary, James Purnell, and Richard Reeves.

19th Century radical liberalism and anti-statism as a way out of the current pickle eh? It could be promising. Here's a sketchy outline of the development of the perspective.

It emerged in the early 19th Century based around two interlinked concepts. The first was class and the second property. Early radical liberals saw society divided into the productive classes, those who did the work, and the unproductive classes, who did little or nothing. As for property, it was all in the hands of the unproductive classes whilst the ones who did all the work lived in grinding poverty. Their view of property was drawn from their reading of Locke that only labour confers ownership. Therefore, they concluded that the workers had a right to directly own the products of their labour and to be able to exchange them freely. That this didn’t happen was down to the distinction between just and unjust property, or the natural and artificial right of property depending on who you read.

If just property was ownership conferred through labour, unjust property was ownership through theft. How else could the unproductive classes live on the work of others if they didn’t steal it? This larceny was committed through monopoly and aided and abetted by the state. The source of radical liberals’ anti-statism was their view that the state used law to protect these proceeds of crime, and then indulged in a bit of pocket picking itself. It was an institution devoted to maintaining and forcibly defending injustice.

Later in the century, radical liberalism added a gender analysis to its arsenal. And so, for example, its opposition to state regulation and social control was not purely based on the utilitarian arguments of Mill, but on the view that such regulation was the forcible imposition of the public values (their private ones were often very different) of a male, middle class elite on the lives of the working class and women.

Radical liberals were more than theorists, they were into practical direct action as well. By the end of the century, a non-statist response to class oppression was being constructed through autonomous working class organisations, from autodidact educational associations, friendly societies, co-operatives, trade unions and the like.

This is all worth revisiting, I agree. Not a bad basis for a left party, with all that emphasis on class exploitation, gender inequality, workers' ownership and the like. However, is this what today's writers really mean? Er, no. Here Collins and Reeves spell it out.
As healthcare becomes increasingly about chronic care, control over funding and treatment has to pass from the profession to the individual. This will make the care people receive more appropriate and more cost-efficient, while institutions will join up, finally, around the patient. Passing control to individuals means they can spend their NHS entitlement on double glazing if they think it a better treatment for their asthma. Such a service is designed to produce good outcomes, because individuals are granted as much control as possible.
A novel approach indeed. What if these empowered asthmatics happened to be wrong? Suppose that double glazing did nothing for their asthma and it turned out that they needed steroids after all. What would happen after they had spent their entitlement on tasteful home improvements? Do we leave them to choke to death? The weasel word here is “entitlement”. Yep, they are talking about bloody vouchers. This particular suggestion seems to me to be a recipe for gullible people pouring NHS money into the pockets of charlatans selling quackery.

19th Century anti-statist radical liberalism was against corporate capitalism; it was in favour of direct workers’ ownership and working class autonomy. It opposed exploitation and social control through the state. It spoke up for the liberty of the individual and allied it to a political economy based on extensive property rights. It advocated autonomous individuals and communities in control of their own lives. Often it was concerned with ensuring working class access to the expertise of professionals, such as doctors and teachers, rather than giving the inexpert the right to spend public money overruling them.

Is it relevant today? Certainly, but no one appears to be advocating it. Instead they are conjuring up a fictitious view of the Liberal Party of 1906 and amalgamating it with the worst of contemporary right libertarianism, thereby neatly relegating the successes of post-war social democracy, with those awkward egalitarian sentiments and universal welfare state, to a footnote of failure. This is not radical liberalism, it is not giving individuals and communities control over their lives, it is an incoherent mess guaranteed to lose an election.


Anonymous said...

"In an attempt to find some way to recover from the dire situation Labour finds itself in, etc.,"

What dire situation is this? I have recently been touring in the UK. Everywhere (almost) signs of wealth, borrowed or otherwise and improvements. Places where a stale sandwich and everything shut at five o'clock were the norm twenty years ago have developed café society and haut cusine!

At one stop in a cupboard I came across a memory of long ago: Used as a storage container now stood a large tin with a faded label "National Dried Milk". I remember walking (we had no money for the buses) with my Mother to collect this luxury item, through dingy streets of abandoned premises and boarded up bomb damaged buildings where, in a draughty dark office, people dressed in long black clothes and looking down at me through half moon glasses handed over our share of the Second Labour Government's largesse. This was London in 1949-51. I expect the 'dire situation' existing then was much tougher elsewhere.

People who do not have to worry about where their next meal is coming from – I am myself overweight – do not relapse into pleasant reverie today, but bilious discontent. It is this phenomenon aided by a reckless media which is dire.

I remember David Marquand giving interviews around the time of the Gang of Four. Not a pleasant memory. Even with the active encouragement and support of broadcast interviewers anxious to prove their own Thatcherite credentials his was a mediocre performance. But he served his purpose.

Alex said...

The whole spectrum from Nick Cohen to David Marquand? That's like the whole Atlantic, from Dover to Calais!

John B said...

"I expect the 'dire situation' existing then was much tougher elsewhere."

Hence why our host says "Labour finds itself" not "the UK finds itself". Things indeed aren't at all bad for the country - but the party's 20 points behind in the polls, which is pretty damn disastrous...

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