Russell and liberalism 2: Pluralism and power

baran_networks(This is the second in a series of posts looking in depth at issues from Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. The first post in the series is here and my original post on the book is here.

Russell uses his chapter on pluralism to discuss two issues for liberalism: the dispersal of power, and the celebration of diversity. While I understand how his historical view of the development of liberalism does link the two, tracing it from the challenge to the power of the Church and liberal support for Nonconformism, I’m going to give both issues separate posts to avoid confusion by conflating them too.

As a liberal principle, pluralism emerges quite naturally from the desire to control the power of the executive I discussed in the last post. If one wants to prevent a single source of power from coming to dominate all, then why not have a series of different powers at different levels? This idea of dispersing power may seem obvious to us now, but was a radical proposition in the time when monarchies were trying to make their power absolute.

The principle of consent is also important in developing a liberal pluralism, rather than a devolved feudalism. It is possible to separate power and still retain an absolutism, when that power is arranged by a strict territoriality and hierarchy. Each power could be absolute in it’s own small realm, but then subservient in the realm above it. The principle of consent required to create legitimate authority, however, means that all power in any realm relies on the participation of the people within it. The liberal vision of pluralism is not one single power dividing itself up and creating order on the way down, but a mass of power that begins with the people creating the power structures they wish from the ground up.

For me, this is a vital issue for British liberalism and one where we’ve dropped the ball and not paid it much attention. Our conception of power is that it belongs to the people and is consensually given to the state in order to achieve good things on behalf of everyone. However, the British state is still constructed on the basis that all power resides in the centre, and while it can be devolved to lesser bodies, they still remain under its control. If there’s one thing seven years in local government has taught me it’s that a local council is not regarded as a body created by the people of an area, but as an arm of the centralised state, expected to do what its told, with the only freedom being in areas where the Government can’t be bothered to act itself. ‘Localism’ is merely the ability to decided locally just how much you want to agree with the latest directive from DCLG, not the power to say no to diktats from the centre.

As Russell points out, this is directly contrary to the spirit in which local government developed in the UK. While it wasn’t democratised until the 19th century, British local corporations and boroughs were run by figures who came from the community they covered and were generally not imposed by the state upon those areas. A huge number of social reforms, especially in areas of sanitation and education were brought about by local governments acting on their own initiative in that golden era of municipal liberalism. This is still a pattern we see in countries with a federal structure, where local government takes the powers they feel they need, not sitting by and waiting for the government to give those powers to them. This creates a true pluralism of power based on consent, and one that I believe would provide a much more useful basis to review and reassert the powers and abilities of local government than a centrally-imposed localism.

Another important principle here, and one that’s not discussed as much as it was when Russell was writing, is that of subsidiarity: ‘a Russian egg model of political power, in which it is held in a series of containers, one inside another, ranging from the United Nations at one end down to the parish council or an individual family at the other.’ It’s an important part of pluralism, where we assert that it is not simply important that power is dispersed but that it is used at an appropriate level to perform the task required of it. This is again based on consent, where those over whom the power is exercised determine the level at which it should be exercised, not a mighty central power choosing where it hands its power down to. This does not have to symmetrical, either – and indeed, a true test of whether power is being dispersed in line with subsidiarity is the degree of asymmetry – for not all areas will want the exact same powers. One can see this in the original structures of local government in Britain, where different corporations and boroughs did different things, depending on what they saw as important, and still applies in the USA where can one see wildly different amounts of power available to different local governments within the same state, let alone across different states.

PLuralism and subsidiarity may not lead to an arrangement of power that appears ‘efficient’ to those wanting to see strict hierarchies of power, but by dispersing power based on individual consent, we create a much more liberal arrangement of power, based on consent and individual need, rather than the needs of the centralised state. This does not mean an end to governments, or a belief that everything can be done at one level, be it local or multinational, but that we need to be continually asking ourselves whether decisions are being made in the right place where they will be most effective. We control the power of the over-mighty executive by bringing power as close to the individual as necessary for it to be used efficiently, and in the next post I’ll look more at how pluralism promotes the power of the individual.

Russell and liberalism 1: Controlling executive power

leviathan_2_crop(This is the first in a series of posts looking in depth at issues from Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. My original post on the book is here.)

“Liberalism is and remains largely about power.”

It feels rather apt to be writing this post on a day when the Government – with the consent of the Opposition – has announced it will be rushing through new laws to get around the fact that what it was doing before was ruled to be illegal. However, I want to write about this issue in more general terms rather than focus on the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill.

Putting power at the centre of his vision of liberalism is an interesting step for Russell to take, but one that fits entirely with the view of a historian, rather than a philosopher. Principle is important, but those principles cannot be divorced from the historical context in which they emerged and the circumstances that have kept them relevant since. In recent years, I’ve seen much debate by liberals on what the size of the state should be, but not a connected debate on how powerful it should be. There is an assumption amongst some that if one makes a state smaller in economic terms, it will automatically be less powerful, as though economics is the only thing that matters.

This view is countered by the the ideas that came from the New Right, captured perfectly in Andrew Gamble’s description of Thatcherism as being concerned with ‘the free economy and the strong state‘. The power of the state is not measured solely in what it can do for the economy, but in the myriad other ways it can effect people lives. For instance, one can see many on the right who advocate both for a small state and the return of the death penalty and for me, giving the state the power to determine who lives and dies is a much more fundamental ability to control than the percentage of GDP it uses.

The corollary to this is that liberalism is not anarchism or libertarianism, in that it recognises that that there are situations in which power needs to exist. This links in with Russell’s historical approach and an acceptance that power already exists, that we’re not in a tabula rasa where we can create whatever we wish to see from scratch. It’s a pragmatic position rather than an idealistic one, but it’s also about the application of principles to the situation at hand. Russell sets out the history of British liberalism as a series of small triumphs that have taken us far from the original starting point in service of the central principle of controlling power:

I do not believe that my ancestors intended (excluding hereditary peers from the Lords) when they set the Exclusion Bill in motion in 1679, yet it follows logically from the challenge they then launched to the principle of power based on birth. This is only one example of among many of the way an apparently simple general principle, if held firmly and as a central conviction, turns out to have all sorts of implications of which its founders were unaware.

The rationale for the control of power is that all power must rest on consent, and thus it flows upwards, given from the people to the state, rather than freedom being granted to the people by the state. This again goes back to the seventeenth century and the events and arguments there that motivated Locke to set out his treatises on government. Again, a simple principle leads to lots of unexpected ramifications over the centuries.

Russell (and liberalism generally) does not dispute the right of the state to exist, but does question the legitimacy of its actions if the executive power is concentrated in such a way to enable it to be abused. Democracy is a tool for creating a state that can be constrained, but democracy has to be seen as a continual process, rather than an occasional event – one cannot claim consent purely on having an election every four or five years if that state is free to do whatever it wishes between those votes. The question that is to be answered here is that if we agree that some power is necessary, how do we make it acceptable and controllable? Russell’s answer to this – in common with many other analyses over the years – is that Britain, at least, has not yet found an answer to this question, if indeed a permanent answer can be found. What may be acceptable limits for the state in one generation, may be seen as far too lax (or even too strict) to a future one.

The implications of this are more than simply asking what is the role of the state and how it can best carry out that role. To go back to the quote I began this post with, liberalism is not about the state, it is about power. When the building blocks of liberalism were first being laid down, the main powers were the state and the church, but we have seen lots of other sources of power emerge in the time since then. For liberalism, all power should be controllable and accountable, and this is where it diverts from the minimal state vision, for while it’s own power must be controlled, the state can and should have a role in making other forms of power accountable and controllable. Power in this sense does not necessarily have a tangible form either. Social and economic pressures beyond those of the state, the church or the corporation can oppress the individual and limit their freedom, and it is perhaps to fight those amorphous powers that we need to create some power greater than ourselves.

But a lot of that detail is for another time, as I plunge into more depths and examine the implications that flow from seeking to control power, but please feel free to continue the debate in the comments.

More thoughts on Conrad Russell and liberalism

_275126_conrad_russell300Writing about Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism the other day prompted me to think more about the version of liberalism he describes. One of the things I appreciated in his book was the way he placed liberalism, and particularly British liberalism, in a historical context. This isn’t surprising as he was a historian rather than a philosopher or political scientist, but it does feel sometimes that people present liberalism as something that only emerged in the nineteenth century, ignoring the important of Locke and the debates of the seventeenth century in its emergence. There are important liberal thinkers before and after John Stuart Mill, and Russell’s historical account reflects that.

It’s also interesting to note how Russell’s account downplays the role of economics in liberalism. Again, this contrasts with the current vogue for claiming the existence of ‘classical liberalism’ based around Millian ideas of liberty and laissez-faire economics. Russell’s vision of liberalism is one that has the control of power and the promotion of the individual at its heart, with economics a tool to be used to achieve those ends, not an end in itself. For me, that’s a much more interesting vision of liberalism than one which places economics at the heart of everything and embraces the fetishisation of work (especially ‘hard work’) that’s such a feature of modern political discourse.

Russell’s exploration of liberalism takes works through a few distinct areas:

  • Challenging power
  • Pluralism: Multiple locations of power
  • Pluralism: the ‘cult of diversity’
  • The underdog and the economy
  • Internationalism
  • Individual liberty
  • Green liberalism
  • Rather than writing another post that tries to cover all of those issues in one, what I’m planning is to do a series of posts over the next week or two that looks at each of these in turn. The idea will be to use Russell’s thoughts on the subject as a springboard for some more thoughts of my own, to look at where this kind of vision of liberalism can take us. Hopefully, they’ll be interesting enough to spark off a bit of debate in the comments and elsewhere, and even if they don’t, it’ll be an interesting process for me to think and write about those ideas.

    Thoughts on Liberal Democrat values

    I was challenged a while ago by Linda Jack as part of Alex Wilcock’s Lib Dem Values series. Never being one to respond to a prompt quickly, it’s stewed in my mind for a while, but now I think I’m ready to take a stab at it. In a truly liberal way, I’m going to ignore the rules and write about what I think the key areas and overall themes for the party should be, then see at the end if I can hone them into a coherent message.

    Liberty – freedom and justice: This is the freedom to do what you want, as long as it harms no other, and the freedom from oppression and aggression by the state. We oppose authoritarianism, be it the security state or the nanny state. Liberty is the cornerstone of justice, and the law exists to protect freedom and liberty from those who would infringe upon it.
    Democracy – power and equality: We believe the best way to control power is to divide it and share it around. That’s why Liberal Democrats support devolution and real localism, seeking to create a system where power flows from the bottom up, not the top down. We seek to give real and meaningful power to individuals, regardless of circumstance, giving them the power to control their own lives and a say in decisions by the wider community that affect them. We want to remove barriers that prevent people using that power.
    Liberty and democracy are inextricably linked within our values, for they mean nothing without each other – no matter how much power might look like it has been devolved, proper democracy can’t exist if people don’t have real freedom to live lives of their choosing, and liberty needs the safeguards of democracy to prevent it from being corrupted and abused.

    These two are the core values, from which others flow, but other important principles need to be stated to explain some practical implications.

    Environment: This could, perhaps, be up with liberty and democracy as a core value, as a healthy environment is necessary for liberty and democracy to flourish. One can harm others indirectly by polluting the environment, and the threat of climate change is a massive external threat to liberty that will need individuals to work together to combat and adapt to.
    Internationalism: We believe that liberty, democracy and the rights that go with them are universal, applying to everyone. A free world is a safer world, and we seek to encourage the spread of liberal values. Decisions need to be taken at the level where they’re most appropriate, which can range from the individual to the global and to enable this to happen in a liberal and democratic fashion we will engage with multi-national and super-national bodies to encourage transparency, openness and democracy.
    Society and economy: We seek to create a society where everyone can fulfill their potential, removing barriers to participation and encouraging access to education and training for all throughout their lives. We want to see a diverse economy that supports a diverse, tolerant and open society.
    Science and education: We believe politics should be evidence-based and would seek to make policy based on fact and evidence, not belief and prejudice. Education and understanding is vital for a thriving democracy, but that education has to be about developing the individual, not forcing them into moulds to fit the world. To protect the environment and create a developed economy that’s vital for protecting liberty and democracy, we will invest heavily in scientific research and development.

    Not sure how much of that is values, and how much comes across more as the introduction to a manifesto, but that’s my initial thoughts which, as ever, are subject to change, clarification and expansion as and when I have egregious errors and omissions in them pointed out. They key test, though, is whether I can get the important information from that into Alex’s target of 150 words that explains what the Liberal Democrats are for. Here’s my attempt:

    We believe in a society that works to maximise the happiness and potential of every individual, one that works to give everyone the opportunity to live their life as they want, providing they do not harm others. We seek to create an open, liberal and democratic world, where power is spread around, people have a real say in decisions that affect them and fair and impartial justice is available to all. A liberal society should protect the environment, promote education, create opportunity, reward enterprise and encourage innovation. Everyone should be free to participate in society and we seek to both tear down the barriers that restrict them and help people to overcome circumstances that limit them. In a liberal society everyone should be free to live their lives, free of restraint by poverty, ignorance or conformity.

    It’s still rough, and no doubt needs editing and tweaking, but what I’ve tried to do is make it a statement about liberal values and principles, rather than specifics. I’ve also tried to emphasise the importance of creating a liberal society as a key value, and so haven’t made much reference to economics. I think we often get too bogged down in talking about economic issues (though it’s not too surprising, given the moment of history we’re in) as though they’re an end in themselves rather than as a means to create a liberal society. I joined the party because I wanted to work for a liberal society, and I think we often underestimate the potential power there is in the vision of that society. Our values and principles shouldn’t echo the ‘we’ll tweak the current system better than them’ managerialism of the other parties, but should emphasise how and why we’re different. There is a strong radical strand running through the history of the party that we shouldn’t be afraid to embrace and promote.

    So that’s my statement of Liberal Democrat values, what’s yours? I’m not going to tag anyone, but if this piques your interest, then feel free to chip in with your vision.

    A shining example of the system we set out to destroy

    David Steel should have been the warning. His conversion from young liberal firebrand to eager defender of the status quo in the House of Lords ought to have shown us that it’s very easy to go into power with grand intentions of reforming it, and then end up defending all the things you used to complain about. You can call it going native, being captured by the establishment or whatever you want, but there’s no denying that it happens. The rebel gets co-opted by the system, and then works to defend it isn’t much of an original plot, anyway.

    That’s a long-winded way of saying that I shouldn’t be surprised that a huge chunk of the parliamentary Liberal Democrat party appears to have been captured by the establishment and now happily repeats their propaganda. I’m waiting for the week when we get the message from someone high up that we have to support ID cards now, because if we don’t the terrorist paedophiles will have won and anyway, we shouldn’t complain, because they’re entirely in line with liberal principles. If you squint a bit. OK, a lot, and don’t notice that the book of liberal principles you thought you were reading from has been replaced with the Big Book of Security Theatre Justifications.

    I shouldn’t be surprised by this, as we all know that power seduces and corrupts, but it still hurts to watch. I used to have a very rough analogy/theory of British party politics which held that Tories were bullies who were happy to keep the system they same so they could carry on bullying; Labour were people who had been bullied, who now wanted to turn the system upside down so they could bully their old bullies; and Liberal Democrats wanted to create a system where no was doing any bullying. Unfortunately, it seems that the party’s current leadership see their role as being the kid who’s so pleased to not be bullied for once that they’ll hold the bully’s coat for them while someone else gets abused. To borrow from Orwell “Who wields power is not important, providing that the hierarchical structure always remains the same.” The party in government has become (to borrow a phrase from Michael Franti) a shining example of the system it set out to destroy.

    In the midst of writing this, I’ve just read Mark Steel’s account of the current problems in the SWP which has this great line “cults aren’t circles of people who took too much acid and dance naked in the woods, they’re people who took one small decision to forego independence of thought for the defence of their group, and once they started couldn’t stop.” Going back to my post from earlier in the week, it does feel sometimes – especially in the comments and the forum at LDV – that there are some people who want the party to behave in that cult-like way, to cheer on every capitulation and herald it as a victory and above all, to stop being so damned liberal about things.

    I wrote last year, that it’s time to end the coalition and I stand by that. Indeed, I suspect if I was to repost that now, I’d not only have plenty more reasons for doing it, but would get even more positive reaction. However, on top of the fact that it’s been bad for the country and bad for the economy, a more selfish reason is that I want us to begin rebuilding the party, learning the lessons from government to make the party less susceptible to the system if there’s a next time.

    I’ll be honest and say that there are times over the last year or so when I’ve considered quitting the party, but I’ve always stayed because no matter what problems the party has at the moment, and even though we’re being led down a dangerous track by the current leadership, I think the party remains the only one in Britain that can make the case for liberalism and the liberal values that other parties just don’t place as too high a priority. Even if the leadership has let us down on those values, the reaction of the membership recently has shown me that they are still important to the bulk of the party.

    That’s not to say that taking back the party and moving it forward would be an easy process, or a quick one, but it’s something I think is possible and worthwhile. I can understand why people have left the party – especially those who’ve quite over secret courts in the last week – but I think the aim should be to create a party that they, and others like them, would be willing to come back and rejoin, to take up the fight again. Because if we don’t fight for liberalism, who will?