Friday, 8 September 2017

Does Modern "Liberalism" have the right to be Known by the Name?

Against a background of the perceived oppression of absolutist monarchy and high church (often suspected to be Catholic) religion Oliver Cromwell and his supporters rebelled. They were religious free-thinkers who struck out for political freedom and religious freedom and, thus, began a tradition. It was at this moment that the term “Whig” was coined. The battle against absolutism and religious obscurantism was taken up later in France with the aid of the new born scientific rationalism of the Encyclopedistes and Voltaire. This culminated in the freeing itself from the Imperial shackles of the mother country in the United States and the ultimate collision between anciens régimes and the new appetite for freedom encapsulated in the French Revolution whose watchwords became Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. The following century saw the continuation of the battle in the casting off of the absolutist chains of the conservative Austro-Hungarian Empire by the newly emerging Swiss and Italian Nations. These were great “liberal” victories and expressions of freedom by certain brotherhoods of man.

The tradition contained much room for disillusion though. Cromwell’s Commonwealth was short-lived and was replaced by a restored (though curtailed and less powerful) monarchy. In France the rule by the people was soon replaced (not just by a King though these followed too) but by an Emperor. The trajectory of great supporters of the new-found freedom like Beethoven and Wordsworth was often one of disappointment. Necessary political compromises had been made possible such as the Reform Laws in the UK but the much vaunted and awaited Golden Age had not come about. In the heady days before he crowned himself emperor when Napoleon was routing the conservative rulers across Europe, it had seemed as if that Golden Age was possible and as if mankind would finally fulfill itself. This speaks to another idea strongly associated with liberalism – that of progressivism; the idea that mankind is headed somewhere and that somewhere is always better. That idea is now known as meliorism – things can only get better (not worse). It is well encapsulated in what is known as “The Whig Version of History.”

Most of these ideas seem worthy, if a little starry-eyed, so how did they transform themselves into the much reviled (by the right) Liberal mindset of today? Some would say that old-fashioned liberalism and what we call liberalism today are entirely unrelated and that it is unfortunate that the term is used so frequently and pejoratively today. I’m not so sure about this as I sense that a clear path from one form of liberalism to the other can be made out.

The modern liberal mindset certainly maintains the sense of progressivism and meliorism which it shares with other creeds such as socialism and communism. Much of this derives from an outlook heavily based on the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment, which was the chief plank of the opposition to religious obscurantism. Science was seen to be on a course to gradually conquering all areas of darkness. What is interesting about this ‘creed’ is precisely that it has become a creed. Instead of displacing religion for good with sense it has become a kind of replacing religion in its own right such that it is now felt that Gospel “truth” is available in libraries of scientific studies even in unscientific areas like social “sciences” and human psychology. God has been dethroned not in order to demolish the throne but, instead, to place human reason and science on that same throne. We now feel that we can look with a God-like perspective.

Liberalism naturally, given its origins, sets great store by education. The unfortunate thing is that, in recent half-century or so, education itself has been hijacked by Post-Modernist thinking (with all its gobbledygook and sophistry - rather than sophistication), which derived from post-war French existentialism. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote and spoke a great deal about “Freedom” and oppression (in spite of, or perhaps because of, having not performed that well himself in the French Resistance to the Nazis) and was a full-on Marxist apologist for the Soviet Union. Thus existentialist ideas displaced essentialist ones and the whole raft of identity politics and political correctness was born. Society was seen, in very Marxist terms, as a series of oppressive constructions imposed upon their victims and the idea of a new age sweeping all of this away and bringing about perfect social justice was engendered. Liberalism, unblinkingly and, perhaps, unthinkingly seeing this as the fruits of progressive education, has adopted its products wholesale. And thus we are where we are today. A new progressive narrative has sprung up based on victimhood and grievance and a new promised land is perceived to be just over the horizon to be reached by the judicious application of science and righteous rebellion.

One further interesting idea is that, given that the first liberals rebelled against an oppressive authority and religion and defined themselves by such actions the mistake is often made by some immature modern liberals that all authority and religion are oppressive and need to be swept away. There is no distinction made between good and bad authority and religion or the sense that all societies need some form of authority or that religion is just something that humans always do left to their own devices (as is well demonstrated in William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” where the boys begin to propitiate Gods in very short order).

Old-fashioned liberalism is certainly different from the modern version but one should not be surprised that such a transformation into the new version has taken place given the ingredients that made up that older dispensation and events in the world of ideas that have taken place in the interim. The two creeds have much in common as well as much which differentiates them. Many paths run from one to the other. The chief link-road is the idea of moral progress contained in the Whig Version of History.

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