Liberals should be standing up to the power of the City, not fawning over it

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You may recall that when I started regular blogging last year, the spur for that was writing about Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. The key to Russell’s liberalism is that it is a creed that always challenges and seeks to break down unaccountable forms of power. The other side to that coin – and a key difference of liberalism and libertarianism – is the recognition that power isn’t solely the preserve of the state, and can be exerted on us by a number of unaccountable forces.

One of the main sources of unaccountable power in Britain is the nexus of it that exists in the City of London, where the City’s own cloistered system of government reflects the corporate and banking power that is exerted from there over all of us. It’s the sort of unaccountable power that needs to be confronted and challenged to make it accountable to the people whose lives it dominates, and yet much of British politics exists in its thrall, scared to offend it in any way. Which leads to this:

Not a challenge to the power of the City, the ‘markets’ or big business, but a capitulation to them, using their fears as a motivation to get people to vote. It’d be a weak message for the Tories to use, but for liberals to just roll over and willingly spread the message of an unaccountable few is just wrong.

We’re supposed to be a party that challenges power, that breaks it down and takes it back to the people. Instead we’re dancing to someone else’s tune in the hopes of a few crumbs from their table. We need to do better than this.

A few new pages

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I’ve made a few slight layout and editing changes to the blog, just to make it easier to access some of my old posts, particularly those I wrote as part of a series of posts. So, if you’re looking for my writing on any of these, you can now find links for them all on their own page to help guide you through the archive:

My 2006 walk from John O’Groats to Land’s End
The 2010 General Election
The 2012 Tour de France
Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism

Russell and liberalism: Some thoughts in conclusion

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russellliberalism(If you’ve missed the previous posts in the series, they’re here: Index, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and the original post.)

After nine posts and a lot of words, we’ve come to the end of my odyssey through An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism, and I hope it’s been of some interest. It’s been an interesting exercise for me, as it’s a good framework for examining liberalism, and the way Russell frames his vision of it allowed me to take a step back from current discussions and conceptions of liberalism to take a wider view. Progressing through the different chapters, I’ve picked up on a few different ideas that run across the book and the conception of liberalism I’ve developed from it, which I’ll go through.

Liberalism as radicalism. By starting back in the 1600s, Russell’s historical account of liberalism doesn’t begin with it as an already accepted and prominent ideology. He points out that British liberalism arose from a turbulent and revolutionary century when all the old certainties had been turned upside down, and early liberal thinkers and writers were on the side of those seeking to overturn the older, not those who wanted to maintain it. This sense of radicalism and of seeking to do things differently is a thread Russell picks up again and again, with the implication that the aim of liberalism is not merely to reform power, but to change it utterly.

Liberalism is concerned with power. I found this one of the most refreshing and interesting ideas from the book. We can too often become obsessed with the idea of liberalism as being about freedom that we forget about the existence of power, or simply wish it away, assuming that it will simply wither away once we have solved the problems of freedom. The problem with this vision – especially when it slides into libertarianism – is that it can tend to assume that the state is the only power that we need concern ourselves with it. To reach its potential, liberalism has to recognise that power – and particularly unaccountable power – can exist outside the state, and indeed the pattern of the future may well be that we need to be more concerned with that form of unaccountable power than traditional state power.

Liberalism evolves. Again, this comes from Russell’s historical analysis, but it frames liberalism as an adaptive philosophy, centred around core principles. Starting from (and always keeping) that principle of controlling arbitrary power, liberalism has been shaped by circumstance, picking up new ideas along the way, but never letting them become its entire focus or overwrite the initial purpose. That’s why talk of ‘classical liberalism’ as though it’s something that can be held up as a yardstick for assessing the value of contemporary liberalism is meaningless. To claim there is some pure form of liberalism that others must be subservient to is to miss the point of it.

Liberalism rejects utopias. Or, liberalism does not believe the ends justify the means. This does not mean that liberalism joins conservatism in denying that things can improve or that people can’t make a utopia but more that we cannot know or predict what utopia will be like until we get there. Decreeing that there is only one way, and we must get there elevates the importance of the end above the means, and allows illiberal measures to slip in from the sides. This can happen for good intentions, but it’s easy for those intentions to be corrupted into a Platonic utopia, where everyone is happy and fulfilled because they’re told that this is the only way they can be happy. A liberal society is an open society, and any power within it must be open to question and be able to be shown to be wrong.

Liberalism needs diversity. If the key to liberalism is to reject that there’s any one central authority that can be correct for everyone, then it needs that plurality of voices within it to provide alternatives and to challenge ideas. To come up with a way that’s good for everyone, everyone’s voices must be heard and no one can assume they can speak for someone else with a different experience to them. A diversity of power at different levels is also important – it may be that one solution doesn’t fit everyone and we need to try different things to see which is the best.

Liberalism must persuade and convince. This sounds obvious – what ideology doesn’t want to persuade and convince? – but we must always remember that consent is a vital part of liberalism, and a vital part of making power accountable. This isn’t just about getting their passive support, but rather their active participation in creating a liberal society which has to be built by the people, not for the people by some elite who know what’s best for them. A truly liberal society can make power accountable by ensuring everyone can control it and participate it, but to build that we need to go out and convince people it’s a good idea, not just sit around and tell ourselves how good we are.

I’m sure I’ll talk about these and other issues more over the coming weeks and months, but it’s been an interesting and an enlightening experience. For me, the most interesting part is to frame liberalism as politics about power, and the implications that come from that. I think we are sometimes very simplistic about power and its implications and tend to assume that going in with good intentions is enough to overcome the strategies of embedded and unaccountable power, and on others we become so obsessed with one form of power that we forget that there are other sources and forms of power that we strengthen by pretending they’re not important.

I think modern liberalism is often comfortable talking about freedom, but uncomfortable when it comes to talking about power, especially in admitting that power exists outside the state. This is shown a lot in a belief that shrinking the state is automatically freeing people, ignoring that removing the protection of the state opens them up to the whims of far more unaccountable and arbitrary powers. It’s also seen in the belief that a free market is intrinsically a good thing, not something that has the potential to be good, but also the potential to be corrupted if power within it is allowed to centralise and dominate.

Beyond these, I think we also need to think much more deeply about how liberalism adopts to the threat posed by climate change (and ‘pretending it’s not happening’ is not a response). Is it possible to develop a fuller ecoliberalism in the light of an understanding of the power we can wield over the environment, or do we continue with an environmentalist liberalism that regards it as an issue of policy and management, rather than one of fundamental principle?

These are important issues that we need to address as we move forward, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers to them. What I do hope is that those of you who have read this have found it interesting, and that it’s helped to spark off your own thoughts. Liberalism is not something carved in tablets of stone that can never be changed or altered, it’s a living thing that we are free to debate, discuss and persuade others to adopt, and I hope I’ve done a bit to encourage some more debate.

Russell and liberalism 7: Green liberalism

20130527_112202(This is the sixth in a series of posts looking in depth at issues from Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. Previous posts in the series are here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and my original post on the book is here.)

Out of all the posts I’ve done on this book, this one is going to have the least of Russell and the most of me in it because while Russell does embrace the idea of green liberalism, he was writing at a time when awareness of environmental issues was a lot lower than it was today, and it was less of a political priority too. I have also been reading Andrew Dobson’s Green Political Thought recently, so it’s possible that ideas from that may creep in too.

One thing that struck me while looking around for some inspiration on this post is that there’s still very little out there that looks at ways to philosophically or theoretically include the environment within liberalism. One can find lots of assertions about how liberalism has a strong environmental record, and lots of talk of green policies implemented by liberals, but as the French philosopher is supposed to have said ‘that’s all very well in practice, but how does it work in theory?’

Russell looks at the idea of sustainability, arguing that liberal attachment to the idea comes from the principle that power is a trust and trusteeship implies stewardship. This stems from the seventeenth century foundations of liberalism with Locke taking the idea from the critique of Charles I’s abuse of that trust. Trusteeship is not just about using power wisely in the present but ensuring that the environment is preserved for the future. This fits in with the principle of controlling power – if power is to exist, what is it’s proper role? We can also bring principles of internationalism and pluralism into this train of thought, perhaps embedded in the phrase ‘think globally, act locally’. It’s undeniable that protection of the environment is a global issue and needs at the very least co-ordination from a higher level, but effective action needs to be carried out at a lower level and with consent, not just something handed down from above.

One point to make here is that while there is much literature and debate on the concept of ecosocialism, there is little or none in developing comparable concepts of ecoliberalism. (Indeed, the term ‘ecoliberalism’ seems to be used as much, perhaps more, as shorthand for ‘economic liberalism’ as it is in an environmental context.) To borrow from Dobson’s formulation, liberalism appears to have no problem with environmentalism as ‘a managerial response to environmental problems, secure in the belief that they can be solved without fundamental changes’ but balks at any attempts to move on from that to a fuller ecologism, which ‘presupposes radical changes’. This difference comes from a different understanding of the scale of the response needed to respond to environmental crisis – in crude terms, green thought holds that the crisis is so severe it can only be thwarted by a fundamental change, while liberalism holds that the crisis is not severe enough to require that level of change.

However, I would question whether liberalism is necessarily as conservative about maintaining the status quo of society as it is sometimes depicted. As we’ve seen already, if we start from Russell’s conception of liberalism as primarily a philosophy of power and accept its radical roots, we can see that liberalism is capable of endorsing widespread change – indeed, Locke wrote to justify a change in power that had seemed completely unthinkable to many before it happened. The key, perhaps, is not the potential radicalism within liberalism but the rejection of utopias and the resistance to the idea of working towards some desired goal and elevating ends above means.

Conversely, there’s also the question of whether green ideology/ecologism is necessarily as authoritarian as it is sometimes depicted. Much of it is based on decentralisation and doing things locally, and there’s a compatibility with liberal ideas of pluralism, internationalism and the need for actions to be taken at the appropriate level. There is an authoritarian streak amongst some greens, and it is part of some strands of green political thought which hold that the necessity for ecological action takes precedence over any other concerns which perhaps eliminates the possibility of a complete synergy of liberalism and green thinking, but I don’t feel it’s entirely impossible.

What, then, might a more developed green liberalism – ecoliberalism – look like? I’m not going to attempt to define an entire new strand of ideology here, but we can look at how some of the principles and themes I’ve looked at already might drive it. I think it’s important for liberalism to be able to not just point to actions to show green credentials but to have a firm philosophical basis for those actions. As we see more and more information about the state of the environment, liberalism needs to be able to react and adapt to changing circumstances, and we do that best when we have firm principles to base that reaction on.

Any ecoliberalism has to address the joint issues of power and harm, and how they apply to the environment. The problem here is that we must confront existential threats, rather than ones that we can directly see. Someone being thrown out of their home as the result of an unjust law applied buy a corrupt government is clearly suffering harm from an unaccountable power, and we can see how that can be rectified and systems changed to ensure it does not happen again. What do we do, though, if that harm is at the end of a long causal chain? Who has exercised the power that forces someone out of their home because of rising sea levels or drought, and how do we make that power accountable? And what if the harm is dispersed more nebulously across a wider population – how do we account for the harm, restriction of freedom and reduction of opportunity caused by a lack of food and water because of climate change?

A potential ecoliberalism faces the same issues as liberalism in dealing with power being exerted globally while systems and structures to control that power and make it accountable haven’t kept up. Identifying the sources of power is not by itself sufficient, but merely a first step to finding the ways to make them accountable and disperse that power. This will likely mean coming up with new systems and new ideas, not just relying on the existing mechanisms we have. This is a radicalism that should not scare liberals, even if the task seems vast, because liberalism has done it before. From overthrowing monarchies to establishing the United Nations, things that would have seemed impossibly radical steps to take have become accepted and normal because people went out and made the case for them, so they could be built on consent.

Consent and persuasion is a key issue for any ecoliberalism to address. I’ve already discussed the importance of consent and the rejection of arbitrarily imposed utopias, and it’s an important issue to address as we look towards the future. Ecoliberalism cannot lay down a certain way of doing things as a goal and insist everyone comes along on the journey to that point. Instead it has to make sure that it goes out and involves everyone in building a future that we can’t know the shape of until we get there. The message of ecoliberalism should be that we can and should protect the planet for the benefit of all life upon it, but there are many ways of doing it and we need to work together to find out which is best, not arbitrarily decide that only one way should be followed.

Yes, I’m being vague, but this is an issue that needs a lot more thought from a lot more people than just one blogger. However, I do believe that we can move beyond a simple liberal environmentalism to a fuller ecoliberalism, and that it’s vital we do so to keep liberalism moving forward, adapting to circumstance and developing as it has done for hundreds of years.

Russell and liberalism 6: Individual liberty

Freedom_of_Thought_Ben_Franklin(This is the sixth in a series of posts looking in depth at issues from Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. Previous posts in the series are here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and my original post on the book is here.)

“It is only if people’s answers are their own that they will hold them with enough conviction to have any reasonable chance of acting on them.”

Given how central issues of individual liberty are to modern liberalism, it can seem curious that Russell only introduces it as a key component quite late in the book. As I’ve noted before, though, Russell’s primary focus on liberalism as an ideology is historical, and individual liberty – as represented by Mill’s On Liberty – arrived quite late in the history of liberalism. It’s worth recalling that On Liberty is closer in time to the present day (and twentieth century evocations of liberal ideas like Popper, Rawls and others) than it is to Locke’s Two Treatises On Government. That’s not to say that liberalism didn’t care about individual rights and liberty before Mill but more that, as Russell’s general thesis suggests, liberals hadn’t worked through the full implications of their principles in such depth until Mill wrote. Numerous radicals – John Wilkes, for instance – had called for greater civil liberty for the individual, and that empowerment of the individual had been part of the Radical tradition, but it perhaps took Mill to bring it more tightly into the Liberal fold. (And as Russell points out, it took some time before his ideas were widely accepted, even within liberalism)

It’s interesting to note how much an invocation of Mill is sometimes taken as Holy Writ (as I parodied here) and purely by chance, this link appeared on Twitter as I was writing this post. Note the key question is not ‘Do the principles espoused by Mill favour regulating pornography?’ but ‘would Mill regulate pornography?’ to which the answer should only be ‘he’s long dead, so what does it matter?’. The key point for liberalism is the principle Mill espoused, notably the harm principle:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

Like all good political principles, it’s simple enough to state but closer examination reveals its very wide implications, and it could well be argued that we are still working through the full implications of it, not least the question of what limits apply to the ‘prevent harm to others’ clause.

As Russell discusses, one of the important changes in liberalism that Mill introduced – and the implications of which have unfolded over the century since – has been the decoupling of politics and morality. That is not to claim that Mill render all politics immoral, but that following the harm principle includes the recognition that it is not the place of politics to legislate morality. This is perhaps one of the important victories – in British politics, at least – of the harm principle in the recognition that merely offending someone does not harm them. That’s not to say that battle is fully won, but the principle moves forward through a number of small victories and it’s interesting that Russell mentions equal marriage as a potential future battle, anticipating what would come over the next decade or more.

Indeed, Russell reveals here views that were perhaps not as mainstream then as they are now, even though it was only fifteen years ago. It’s a reflection of how fast we have moved in some areas but also how he was able to work through the consequences of the principles of liberalism to understand that certain issues needn’t be contentious, for instance the simple belief that it’s not for the state to proscribe what a family is or isn’t but just to accept that those who believe they are a family, are a family. That simple principle that individuals who are harming no one else should be free to live their lives how they see fit is at the core of liberalism because it builds from the earliest principles of it. It says that there is a definite limit to all power, that it should not affect the individual without their consent, and that our strength lies in our pluralism and diversity, where the individual’s voice isn’t silenced.

It strikes me that there is one area Russell left out of the book that might reflect the times he wrote it in. Issues of privacy, surveillance and civil liberty were on the political agenda in the 1990s, particularly with the increased prevalence of CCTV as the cost of implementing it fell, but they hadn’t reached the levels they did over the next decade, particularly after September 11th, and that probably explains why he left them out of his account. New Labour had yet to fully reveal its full authoritarian streak in 1999, and the world was still in the last flush of optimism after the end of the Cold War, and the era of the surveillance state appeared to be waning.

Sorry, was just indulging in a spot of nostalgia for an easier time there, but it’s easy to see how an optimist like Russell might have regarded that as a battle that had been won and did not need to be fought again in the pages of his book. This, though, is another battle where authoritarian urges of the state come up against fundamental principles – and perhaps explain why it’s when they’re thought to have given way on issues like this in Government, the Liberal Democrat leadership have faced some of the biggest backlash from the membership, as he may have anticipated when he wrote

Liberalism is what liberal members believe, and that part of their task is to remind Liberal governments of it when they become unduly tempted by power.

Liberal principles say that the state shouldn’t have arbitrary powers over the individual and the individual has the right to live their life free of interference. Again, this is where we see liberal principles intertwining – liberalism wants to limit the power of the state and protect the individual, both of which are threatened by the desires of an over-mighty state to see everything and use that as a basis for control. It becomes a question of where you draw the line on the harm principle and if one can justify actions of restricting liberty because you feel that is the only way to prevent some possible future harm. It’s an ongoing debate, and one I’m not going to pretend to have a definitive answer for, though one liberal principle in any of this would be to question whether these are powers to be used in relation to individuals, groups or entire populations? One can legitimately believe an individual is going to cause harm given the right evidence, but can it ever be justified to monitor a large group or an entire population on a fishing expedition to find that evidence and justification? The liberal principle would say that no it isn’t, that it is giving the state arbitrary powers and establishing the machinery of repression.

This is how liberalism comes to assert the importance of individual liberty. Liberalism recognises that power needs to be controlled and limited, and the ability to do that lies within individuals, which brings us to the quote I started this post with. Liberalism cannot force liberty on to people in the name of creating a free utopia, it can only inform and persuade in the hope they accept it. All power rests on consent, but that must be truly informed consent that can only come with an understanding and acceptance of liberty, not an assumption of it.

Russell and liberalism 4: The economy

single-tax-liberator(This is the fourth in a series of posts looking in depth at issues from Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. Previous posts in the series are here: 1, 2, 3 and my original post on the book is here.)

As I mentioned in my original post on this, the one thing I found most refreshing about Russell’s of examination of liberalism was that it put power at the centre of his vision and not economics. A liberalism that’s focused on how to liberate people from unjust power is one that looks upon economics and economic policy as a means to achieve those liberal aims, not one that sees a certain arrangement of the economy as an end in itself. Russell argues that there’s been a general misunderstanding of the position of nineteenth century liberals, one that regards their ‘classical liberalism’ as one that centred around free trade and free markets, when instead these were merely tools to achieve a higher aim. He argues that liberalism does not have an enduring economic policy, but rather that whatever economic policy is favoured by liberals at any given time is one that’s determined by the principles of controlling power, ensuring pluralism and championing the underdog.

As Russell notes, this lack of an overarching economic philosophy within liberalism can be a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength because it allows liberalism to be defined as something that’s not just about the economy and the dull managerialism that characterises so much of modern politics. Political ideologies should be about more than just ‘how do we manage the economy?’ and instead about much wider issues of how people are enabled to live the life they choose. By centring political debate about the economy, and making it of prime importance above everything, we end up seeing everything else through the prism of work and money. We can see this most clearly in education, where we focus on giving people skills and fretting over whether school leavers or graduates are ready for the workplace, rather than how equipped they are to lead a fulfilling life. It’s this depressing ideology of workism that gives us ideas like the ‘global race’ where countries are seen as little more than economic teams competing to see who can work the hardest and consume the most things. Liberalism can define itself as so much more than the economy, and we weaken the appeal of it when we limit it to that realm.

However, it’s also a weakness, as best seen in the old phrase ‘if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.’ As Russell notes, liberals have been caught up in the prevailing economic orthodoxy of the times on several occasions, and have begun treating the economics as an end in themselves when they forget that they are meant to be a means. While this might be solvable by having a defined liberal economic philosophy, that would introduce new risks of ossification and irrelevance when the facts change and discredit that philosophy. It should be noted, however, that there is a difference between an economic policy and an economic philosophy – the first is to answer questions of what we should do, while the second is more about the principles of why we are doing what we do. Perhaps the answer here is that liberalism does not need an economic philosophy, as long as the other principles of liberalism are remembered and applied, so that economics is applied as a tool?

What we can construct from this is a message of liberalism as radicalism and doing things differently. It does seem to me that in the time since Russell wrote, there has been a change in British politics, where alternative visions have been gradually shut out of political conversation in favour of everyone accepting the current model, and merely tinkering around the edges of it. Twenty years ago, the Liberal Democrat manifesto was talking about things like land value taxation and citizens’ incomes, but radicalism now appears to mean nothing more than tweaking housing benefit rules or slight shifts in income tax thresholds.

There’s probably an interesting case study to be written in the history of political ideology about how land value taxation has waxed and waned in British liberal politics. As Russell notes, the idea of taxing land was entirely natural for liberals from the nineteenth century on, as they saw one of the fundamental roles of state power as breaking up monopolies to ensure fair competition, and land was the powerful distorting monopoly force of all. This was not just about the economic effect of monopolies, but about their power, and part of an overarching liberal vision of society, where unjust and unaccountable power in all spheres of life were confronted and tackled. Again, this was about economic policy not being an end in itself, but a means to bring about a liberal society.

This belief in economics as a means, not an end, is also why liberalism has been relaxed about the mixed economy, seeing no objection to the state having certain responsibilities, and indeed believing that the state is the better guardian of the public interest in certain areas. This is a use of both sides of power – breaking up monopolies and ensuring competition ensures people’s freedom from unaccountable power, while providing public services such as sewers, schools and libraries ensures that people have the freedom to live their lives in their way and not be ‘enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity’.

For me, this is a much more attractive vision of liberalism than merely trying to brand it as a split-the-difference form of managerialism. Too much of our current political discourse is centred on the idea that the economy has some sort of independent existence, that it’s become some vast creature with it’s own appetites, that our desires have to be sacrificed to in order to keep it fed. A liberal vision should promote a different view of the economy, as something we need to control and use in order to provide everyone with a good life, not leave it to the vagaries of the market (again, something that only exists because we deem it to).

That’s why we need to be remembering those old radical liberal proposals, not forgetting them and pretending they don’t exist because they’re not compatible with the current paradigm. Taxing wealth, especially land, to ensure that we can provide everyone with a basic income that gives them the freedom to live their life is something we should be championing as a truly liberal vision – we should be arguing for the system to change to suit the needs of the people, not for the people to have to change to meet the needs of the system.

Russell and Liberalism 3: Diversity

Contributor(This is the third in a series of posts looking in depth at issues from Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. Previous posts in the series are here: 1, 2 and my original post on the book is here.)

To start, a disclaimer. I’m a heterosexual white cis middle class man living in an advanced industrial economy, and as such I’m the beneficiary of more unearned privilege than perhaps 99% of the people who have ever lived, so it’s entirely possible that this post will include lots of inadvertent errors and omissions. There are things that, because of my position and experience, I do not and probably cannot understand, so please feel free to point out where I get things wrong so I can do better in the future.

In keeping with his previous chapters, Russell’s account of liberalism’s support for diversity takes a historical approach. For him, it begins with opposition to the power of the Church and its desire to force all to conform to doing things in one way only. He sees liberalism as defending ‘the rights of the under-privileged, whoever they may happen at that time to be.’ There is a subtle critique of this historical process running through the chapter, however, as he notes that there were many times when people were too busy congratulating themselves over one victory to note that there were many more battles left to fight. He notes, for instance, some of the sexism (both overt and subtle) that prevented the struggle for women’s suffrage being taken seriously for years, but then turns the issue around to note that there may well be subtle and unconscious biases that we hold and may be mocked for in the future.

This element of self-criticism is important, because I think it relates to a trend in contemporary liberalism. We can be very good at identifying oppression or discrimination, but we sometimes act as though merely identifying it is enough in itself to solve the problems it has caused. We’re eager to point out that we’ve spotted and apologised for the overt discrimination of the past, but we’re often reluctant to accept that the legacy of that discrimination still has effects, both overt and subtle, in the present. There is a tendency to think that because we are so much more enlightened than our predecessors that we must therefore have solved all the problems, ignoring the fact that our predecessors felt similarly, and our successors will no doubt think the same of us.

For Russell, diversity exists as a key liberal value because of liberalism’s commitment to pluralism. Diversity is about celebrating the difference between individuals, and recognising that is important to allow people to be different, and that society does not seek to limit them because of that difference. Russell points out that liberalism is concerned about equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome, but it’s important for us to acknowledge that merely saying that everyone has an equal opportunity does not make it so.

Liberalism wants to see everyone fulfil their potential, but their potential as they see it, not as what society defines for them. Diversity in liberalism is important because it recognises that no one has the right answer for how everyone should live, and it’s a mistake to try and force a way of life on people. It comes back to Russell’s initial point of how liberalism is about power, and freeing people from the use of power to oppress them. However, it’s also about recognising that their are many ways in which individuals can be oppressed and restricted by many different forms of power. It’s entirely appropriate for liberalism to want to use the power of the state to liberate individuals from those other powers, and not to just limit our championing of diversity to saying the state won’t oppress you, but you’re on your own if something else does.

There’s an important point to be made here about the importance of linking the theoretical and the practical, of making our commitment to diversity mean something in practice instead of just being good works. Russell points out that this is a long-standing issue – Liberals in the late nineteenth century were great champions of the working class, but in many cases were notably reluctant to promote and advance working-class candidates, which eventually led to the creation of the Labour Party. As I said earlier, there’s a tendency within liberalism to assume a rational process and that once we’ve identified a problem, everyone will accept that diagnosis and fix it. If that doesn’t happen, we can then get quite defensive and assert that it’s obviously not our fault that something’s going wrong because we’ve identified our problems and fixed them.

As I said at the beginning of the post, I’m aware that I’m striding into the issue carrying tons of privilege with me, and I don’t want to start using that position to decree solutions to other people’s problems. Indeed, deciding that we know how to solve other people’s problems – rather than listening to what they want, then helping them achieve it – may be one of the reasons those problems still exist. There can be a sense of noblesse oblige in the way we can haughtily lay down solutions and expect others to be grateful we’ve noticed their problems and are now going to solve them for them, no matter how much they might be capable of solving them for themselves if we let them.

I’m going to finish this post with one of my favourite quotes from Russell in this chapter about pluralism, which manages to perfectly capture a liberal principle about the freedom of individuals (which we’ll look at in a later post) and make me wonder about the circumstances in which he wrote the book:

What two young men of seventeen do in bed in private is nothing to do with me, but if they then play their stereo so loud that I cannot continue to write this book, that is something to do with me.

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.