Sunday 5 April 2009

A Short Note on Liberties, Liberalism and Socialism

2009 marks 150 years since the appearance of On Liberty, John Stuart Mill's classical meditation on individual freedom and its limits. But there's more than just an arbitrary anniversary marker that makes another look at On Liberty timely. It's fair to say liberties and freedoms have been progressively eroded by Conservatives and Labour alike these past 30 years. CCTV, sprawling databases, detention without trial, snooping councils, ID cards - there is no end to the government's appetite for surveillance. And this is peace time in a liberal democracy, remember.

Historically the labour movement has a proud record of defending liberty and fighting for democratic rights in and out of the workplace. But its Marxist wing - despite conceptualising socialism as the democratic self-organisation of the working class - has bequeathed a more ambiguous legacy to the present generation of revolutionary socialists. Too often the revolutionary left has been seen to apologise for anti-democratic movements in the name of anti-imperialism, downplay the importance of "bourgeois" democracy, and erect petty tyrannies in its own organisations. Why would anyone outside our movement take what it has to say about liberty and freedom seriously?

Coupled with the far left's difficulties we shouldn't be too surprised not many have. In civil liberties discourse, "humanitarian" imperialists duke it out with mainstream liberals and right wing libertarians. Independent working class politics don't get a look in, though it is our class and especially the more oppressed and marginalised elements of it that disproportionately suffer the sharp end of the surveillance state. It's about time our voice was heard. But to win hegemony over this contested terrain not only must we constantly check our own political practice, we have to investigate and critique the ideas our opponents draw upon.

Socialism is, among other things, the ideological heir to liberalism. Both are products of class struggles against tyranny and grew to maturity in the fertile climate of Enlightenment thinking. But classical liberalism has settled into being an ideology of the status quo. Like all establishment ideas it has (in its own terms) principled objections and criticisms of the management of capitalist societies. But it shies away from fundamental critique. It is in basic agreement with the conservatives and libertarians to its right; that market economies and market relationships tend to best express individual liberty and freedom better than anything else. But liberalism is guilty of a one-dimensional view of these relationships. Here the freedom to buy and sell is set up as an exchange between equals. In a legal sense, this is true - all are equal before the law. But substantively this is not the case. For socialists the compulsion of propertyless labourers to sell their labour power in return for a wage is no freedom at all. Likewise liberalism may oppose state tyranny, but it has little to say about the tyranny of the workplace. Therefore socialism is, in one sense, consistent liberalism. Whereas the latter limits its attention to politics and the public sphere and regards what happens in the workplace as a "private" matter between employer and employee, socialism stands for extending the political rights and liberties citizens enjoy into economics. In short, where liberty conflicts with private ownership in the means of production, socialism says liberty should win every time.

It's with this in mind I'll be writing about
On Liberty over the next few weeks. By no means I'm pretending to a comprehensive study of the essay or delivering a socialist "final verdict" on Mill's arguments. I do believe he did have some things of value to say, even if it was fundamentally compromised by the political tradition to which he belonged, and these are ideas socialists will find of use today.

Edit: All the posts on On Liberty are listed below:

Liberty and Individual Sovereignty
John Stuart Mill's Debating Ethics
John Stuart Mill's Elitism
The Limits of the Individual and Authority
Mill's Applications of On Liberty
Moving Beyond Liberalism


Frank Partisan said...

That was a really good post.

In Minneapolis I deal with the "anti-imperialists," who have zero positive vision. The only good thing is the Trotskyist forces, are attending events, sponsored by other Trotskyist groups (IMT, CWI, and 4th Int'l). Our big fights are with Maoists.

Paul said...

Be interesting to read what you have to say Phil, having attempted something vaguely similar at, though using immigration policy as the example of the way 'civil liberties' are the liberties of those who have power in the status quo already.

Bent Society said...

I AGREE ABOUT THE EROSION OF LIBERTIES. But I fear that the anti-Marxist polemic - while making academic sense - misses the reality of what we might call "budgetitis" - namely once you put these things in place (such as CCTV with community safety partnerships) funded by an annual budget then unless they put more cameras in new places (i.e. spend their entire annual budget) then the budget gets cut and little fiefdoms in local government shrink rather than expand. Understanding the political and administrative dynamics at the local level is a major part of the puzzle of how it came to this in the UK.

Now we have all these cameras how can we get to a position where we start to take some away? If crime were to go up (as happens at random and for a wide variety of reasons ...crime goes up and down) when cameras were removed then there would be an outcry. This is not purely abut politics it is about childish shortcuts by local and national government and about technology creep facilitated by amateur quacks in local government who know nothing about crime reduction - the police are clearly all at sea with their reliance on crapmongery such as childish uninformed anti-crime/crime reduction signs and posters, cardboard police officers useless Smartwater and god knows what other nonsense. We need a cadre of professional criminologists to push for change.

Phil said...

I don't know how we begin to roll back the prevalence of CCTV, especially as they are genuinely popular. Push the invasion of privacy angle? Emphasise the lack of accountability?

ad said...

Personally, I tend to agree with David Brin (in The Transparent Society), that there is a lot to be said for having a lot of cameras everywhere – as long as they are NOT all in the control of the same people. Which is just as well, because we are certainly going to get them.

And to be honest, if you are happy with the government writing and enforcing rules and regulations to control people to end “the tyranny of the workplace”, what is wrong with the government writing and enforcing rules and regulations to control people to end “the tyranny of the criminal”?

Alternatively, if you do not trust the state when it is fighting thieves and terrorists, why should you trust it when it is fighting employers?

Phil said...

Whatever makes you think socialists trust the state? The clue to what socialists - Marxist socialists that is - stand for is outlined in the post. You don't have to look hard.

Phil said...

On reflection, I shouldn't have been so facetious. Thing is socialists do not trust the state at all. Experience tells us that when a progressive reform is won, whether with regard to industrial relations or not, those it checks will seek to undermine it anyway they can. For this the labour movement has to be ever-vigilant and prepared to go into action to defend what has been won in the past.

Journeyman said...

The reclamation of 'Liberalism' by socialists is maybe overdue. Especially since the coining (and misappropriation) of the phrase 'neo-liberalism'.

Marx himself came firmly from a liberal tradition.

The dismissing of 'bourgeois liberalism' by subsequent Marxists can be a mask for some lazy thinking.

Sadly his has been facilitated by the Stalinists' suppression of the Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. These writings shows Marx thinking out loud as he moves from liberalism to a class position.


ad said...

Thing is socialists do not trust the state at all.

That may be true in theory; in practice no one expects a left of centre government to reduce the reach and power of the state if it can possibly avoid it. In the face of almost any problem, the solutions preferred by the left will almost always be more prescriptive, and require more detailed supervision of others, than the solutions preferred by the right*.

And it is the state that is to do the prescribing and supervising.

The attitude seems to be that there is nothing wrong with power, as long as it is in the hands of the right people. And who are the right people, if not themselves and their allies?

*e.g. if the problem is how to deal with acid rain, socialists will be a lot more enthusiastic than liberals/ libertarians to prefer emission limits, legal requirements to fit scrubbers to power stations etc, rather than emissions trading.

Phil said...

Sorry Ad, I meant to reply earlier but have been waylaid by other things.

First things first, I am not left of centre, centre left of however you want to describe it. I'm a member of the Socialist Party, who back in 89-90 as Militant helped lead the movement against the poll tax in Britain, which contributed to the fall down of Margaret Thatcher. Even though there are clearly differences between the centre left and centre right, from my standpoint they essentially have an identity of interests. Therefore I'm not inclined to defend New Labour - it is no more my government than a Tory one.

And this essential identity of interests unites much of the centre left and right. Just as New Labour represents a continuity rather than a break with what wen before in economic policy terms, so it is with civil liberties issues. The Blairites and Brownites have trambled all over democracy and liberty, but so did the Tories before them. Thatcher's rhetoric spoke about the small state, but she lavished the police, the military and the secret state with resources. It was the Tories that brought in the dogs dinner that was the Prevention of Terrorism Act. It was the Tories who clamped down on the liberty to organise a trade union. It was the Tories who green lighted increased surveillance of political "undesirables". It was the Tories who tried to social engineer benefits claimants. It was the Tories that nodded through Section 28 of the Local Government Act. And it was the Tories who brought in the Criminal Justice Act that criminalised the burgeoning rave scene.

There is nothing intrinsic in the political DNA of the centre right that favourably disposes them toward civil liberties, as we will see sooner or later when the Tories get back in.