Liberalism and Conservatism–Roots in Our Modern World History- Part Two

We pick up where we left off, with the world revolution of 1848. I promise to make this history quick as I understand people seem to hold little interest in such histories, but if we are to redefine the terms used to define us, we need to understand their roots. Like all things, being a conservative or a liberal or a socialist or whatever is not a naturalized, absolute category. We construct these ideas and decide to make them naturalized—ignoring the long history of creation. But I digress.

As I said before, after the revolution of 1848, the conservatives and liberals fought for different visions, but the liberals ended up winning out. From the end of the revolution to World War I, many “liberal” states were developed throughout the world. Contrary to the conservative vision, liberals championed ideas such as citizenship and protection from unreasonable actions taken by states or “arbitrary authority” (Wallerstein 65), the rights of the individual as an autonomous person, more of an ability for the average, educated, man to have a place in pubic life, expansion of education to the citizenry, protection in the work place, the work of creating states into nations and finally an economic philosophy which championed free markets, privatization and as little interference into the market by the state-Laissez-faire.

This last aspect of the Liberal agenda is of vital importance. Economic liberalism in our early history, cannot be separated from the other liberal concepts of citizenship, individualism, and the Liberal slogan “liberty, equality and fraternity” (ibid). One fundamental element of this type of economic concept is that if you work hard enough, and really compete, you, as an individual, will financially succeed as an autonomous being. This concept is deeply embedded in the other liberal, Enlightenment concepts of liberty, equality and freedom. Before World War I, both the economic and the social aspects of liberalism were not separate agendas, but a cohesive whole.

After the devastating effects of World War I and World War II, the world saw a series of overwhelming events including crisis in our economic systems and the fall of the gold standard (See Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation).

Between the World Wars and after, Liberal philosophy started to separate itself away from the laissez-faire economic logic of free markets that were not interfered with by the state and they adopted Keynesian economics that suggested a degree of state protection and regulation of markets. Of course, it was not as cut and dry and I am writing here, but because of the need to be brief, this will have to do. When Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was instituted, many people called him a communist, but many scholars suggest that he helped saved capitalism itself (another discussion for later). Nevertheless, these new policies had a resounding effect not only in the US but around the world. This change in economic policy belief created a larger divide between the conservatives and the liberals. While many liberals were abandoning the philosophy of laissez-faire, many conservatives were still clinging to the philosophy. The concept of small state was championed by these folks who saw the new economic and social policies being instituted as making the state bigger, more powerful, and more harmful to economic logic and society.

However, the new economic policies seemed to work for a long time and the world economy got back on its feet. In a sense, the liberals and the conservative’s ideology did not change from its inception until the liberals walked away from their original belief in free markets and disentangled their original social and economic philosophies. Because of this change, when we think of liberals today, we do not normally associate them with an economics based on free markets but with social liberty, freedom and so on. Liberals became, in a sense, seen as the champions of social diversity and certain economic and political protections guaranteed by the state to its citizens. Again this is generalized, but the liberal and conservative ideas are often generalized by politicians to the citizens who start to think in these terms. On the other side of the coin, conservatives wanted a “small state” that did not interfere so much in economics or create rules and laws ruling the private sphere. Small government became their motto and part of small government was to try and make sure that the state stayed out of the way, mostly, of economic workings which were considered a “private” affair, not a public affair which could be legislated.

By the world revolution of 1968, our social system broke down. This was not a new occurrence but one building for centuries and one that exploded with many groups demanding liberty and freedom: African Americans, women, homosexuals and so on. The funny thing about liberty, freedom and equality—if they are promoted as universal ideas, but are not practiced as universal ideas, people start to get really pissed off. Of course, these ideas were promoted as universals but they were not universally practiced. Exclusion has always been an aspect of citizenship – again a discussion for later.

From the 1970s on there was a return to conservative values and economic policies that challenged the liberal agenda. By the time of the Reagan and Thatcher years, the US and the United Kingdom (the two leading powers) returned to a “neo-liberal” idea of economic working that reduced the states involvement of taxation and interference in the business sector of economic trade. Market “protectionist” methods were removed, meaning that there was a process of deregulation and an increase of privatization of goods and services. This new conservative agenda was moved along by what is often called the “Washington consensus” where US controlled institutions (not controlled on paper but in practice) such as the WTO (World Trade Organization) and the IMF (The International Monetary Fund) worked to implement these neo-liberal policies with so-called developing nations and formal colonies. Today, many sociologists and others believe that the social unrest we see today in the Latin Americas, Middle East and elsewhere is a direct reaction against these neo-liberal policies enforced worldwide.

Neo-liberalism then is not a total return to liberal social values, but original liberal economic philosophy. Because of this, I will be suggesting that the term “liberal” is no longer suitable for those of us who wish to define ourselves away from liberal economic philosophies. I hope I did not put too many of you to sleep with this brief and incomplete history, but at least we have a basis in which to start our real inquiry into how we wish to redefine ourselves as democrats. In my next installment, I will explore some of the current thinking and also some of my thinking as well as contributions I received from others. If you would like to contribute to this endeavor, please let me know.

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