Notes from the Underground

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I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it.

All of the ephemera that is far too trivial to be bothered with elsewhere on this site or, depending on your point of view, a meta-commentary on it. This ephemera includes, but is not limited to art, music and literature. Most of the content here will be discussed in terms that are as abstract as possible, reality being a singularly overrated concept.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Every so often I break my rule on avoiding political subjects and publish a political post. I regret to announce that this article has provoked one of them:

"It's very clear we're in the middle of a paradigm shift," he says. "We are witnessing the end of the neoliberal project - just as 30 years ago we saw the end of Keynesianism. We're in a shift of comparable proportions. The interesting question is what comes next." Blond argues that what ought to come next is something he calls communitarian civic conservatism - or "Red Toryism". "The current political consensus", he writes, is "left-liberal in culture and right-liberal in econo≠mics. And this is precisely the wrong place to be." However, Blond thinks that Cameron and the Tories are beginning to see their way beyond the impasse. They are right, he says: we do live in a broken society. But it wasn't only the dead hand of the welfare state that caused the bonds and attachments of civil association (the "old mutualism of the working class" and so on) to give way; late-modern capitalism's "perennial gale of creative destruction" (to use Joseph Schumpeter's phrase) has played its part, too....

A central feature of his Toryism is a critique of "liberalism", a term capacious enough in his hands to apply to the cultural libertarianism of the 1960s as well as to the great philosophers of the liberal tradition, such as Locke or Mill. According to Blond, what the post-1968 "politics of desire" shares with those liberal titans, and in fact also with the Thatcherite or neoliberal model of rational economic behaviour, is a certain idea of individual human beings.

In the liberal view, at least as Blond characterises it, the defence of individual freedom, in its most extreme form, demands of each man that "he refuse the dictates of any other". In other words, liberal autonomy entails the repudiation of society, and no vision of the common good can be derived from liberal principles. The atomised dystopia of 21st-century Britain, the "broken society" overseen by a highly centralised bureaucratic state, turns out to have been the historic bequest of Locke and Mill. This is contentious, to say the least. Several commentators, notably the Oxford political theorist Stuart White, have criticised the history of liberalism that underpins the Red Tory thesis. White points out that the fundamental principles of justice articulated in the work of a liberal philosopher such as John Rawls amount to a vision of the "common good", and that for Rawls those principles impose just the sort of civic obligations on citizens that Blond regards as desirable, but to which he thinks liberals are fatally indifferent."

While I suppose it's interesting that conservatives have finally noticed that free market economics tends to dissolve traditional social structures thirty years after the rest of us did, I did find myself chortling at the idea of the current political consensus being 'left liberal on culture.' It seems significantly more likely the precise opposite has been true; social authoritarianism and economic liberalism seems a good description of the current administration. Civil liberties have invariably been construed as stumbling blocks to other policy goals, as with recent news stories relating to the curtailing of freedom of speech in the interests of 'community cohesion.' More specifically, much social policy has been quite explicitly communitarian (Amitai Etzioni surely counts as one of the most prominent intellectuals of the last decade), which accounts for the increasingly Benthamite and coercive character it has taken on. Government policy has been used increasingly as an almost Pavlovian means of determining means of enforcing desired forms of behaviour. Even if economic policy now seems inevitable to swing sharply away from laissez faire economic and back to a planned model, on social policy it looks as if the prospects ahead are essentially for more of the same of what we've had for the last ten years. I'm not looking forward to it much.

Update: a related piece from Richard Posner:

"The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the surge of prosperity worldwide that marked the global triumph of capitalism, the essentially conservative policies, especially in economics, of the Clinton administration, and finally the election and early years of the Bush Administration, marked the apogee of the conservative movement... My theme is the intellectual decline of conservatism, and it is notable that the policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising... And then came the financial crash last September and the ensuing depression. These unanticipated and shocking events have exposed significant analytical weaknesses in core beliefs of conservative economists concerning the business cycle and the macroeconomy generally. Friedmanite monetarism and the efficient-market theory of finance have taken some sharp hits, and there is renewed respect for the macroeconomic thought of John Maynard Kenyes, a conservatives' bÍte noire."


posted by Richard 8:59 PM