Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Actual Conservatism in America, Concluded

One of the questions that comes up about Liberalism is how it survived the nineteenth-century assaults on the Enlightenment. And the answer to that question – or, more accurately, the current condition of the answer to that question – bodes ill for our world.

If Lockean Liberalism were just the political expression of the Enlightenment, it would have died in the nineteenth century.

Especially after 1794, when the French Revolution had conclusively proven that the Enlightenment, like everything else devised by human beings, could be taken too far, you began to see a backlash against it. This backlash took many forms.

Sometimes it came from people using the structures of the Enlightenment – reason and natural laws – to question the progress that was the purpose of the Enlightenment. Thus you got thinkers such as Thomas Malthus and, to some extent, Charles Darwin. Both of these men used their reason to uncover natural laws that seemed to deny the very possibility of progress and thus undercut the whole rationale for the Enlightenment – and, by implication, anything that came from it, such as Liberalism – in the first place.

Sometimes it came from people who disagreed with the structures of Enlightenment thought themselves, who felt that the world was not predictable in the way that natural laws said it was and that reason was not the way to truth. They favored intuition, emotion, faith and other irrational or anti-rational ways of looking at the world. Thus you get Romantics, Transcendentalists, Revivalists, and the like.

Given this, it would make sense that Liberalism would decline, that it would wither under the assault on its Enlightenment foundations and fade away in the face of other ideologies.

But it didn’t.

And the reason for this was the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution was more than just an economic development. It did more than create new products, new manufacturing methods, and new wealth. It was a social movement, and it created new kinds of people.

Specifically, it created winners and losers.

The losers were many and varied – the old elites of the pre-industrial ancien regime, the industrial working class (ironically enough) and so on – and each group has a separate tale to tell. This is not their story. Not until the end.

The winners were the industrial middle class.

The winners of the Industrial Revolution were the white collar workers who ran it – the managers, the executives and so on, who harnessed the power of workers and machinery, organized it into coherent enterprises, and were well paid in both money and time for doing so. They were the professionals that those managers required for their services – bankers and financiers, doctors, lawyers, accountants and so on, the people on whom the industrial middle class relied and who were also well paid in both money and time for their services. They were the shopkeepers and other buyers and traders who served as the middlemen between those managers and professionals and the goods and services they needed and wanted.

These are the people who had the disposable income to buy the mountains of consumer goods being produced in the factories and the nice housing in which to put them. If you ever look at an interior photograph of a middle-class Victorian home you will understand as if for the first time the true meaning of the terms “clutter” and “firetrap.”

These are the people who had the leisure time to go to the new amusement parks and spectator sports and dance halls that emerged out of the Industrial Revolution’s plenty.

These were the winners.

And good for them, I suppose.

This industrial middle class was new, though. Obviously it did not – could not – exist prior to the Industrial Revolution. This was an entirely new kind of person.

One of the charming features of human nature is that groups need ideologies to justify their world – to explain the world in terms of their own experience, to justify their position in that world, and to tell them that their experiences are good, just and right. And new groups, not having one, need to find one.

To this end the industrial middle class adopted Lockean Liberalism.

It spoke to them.

With its emphasis on individual rights, on private property, on liberal democracy, on progress, on freedom from restraints, it seemed to describe their world fairly well.

For the industrial middle class, things were getting better. They did have private property – lots of it. They were the individuals who were allowed to vote and be represented in the democracies of the west. Their restraints were being lifted. Their world was, in fact, a Liberal world. Of course they became Liberals. Liberalism spoke directly to them, explaining their experiences, justifying their positions and telling them that their experiences were in fact good, just and right.

It was because of this that Liberalism became the default ideology of the Western world. The winners of the most important and powerful movement in the history of modern Western Civilization adopted it as their own. It became what you believed if you were, or considered yourself to be, or had aspirations of being, middle class.

And as more and more people began to move into the middle class, they too adopted Lockean Liberalism as their ideology.

As the old elites merged into the industrial classes, they saw how this could speak to them as well. Over time they tended to abandon the Conservatism that they had codified in response to the Liberal threat and instead worked to make Liberalism work for them. Conservatism fades away as a coherent movement when the old elites join the middle class, in outlook if not in finances.

As industrial workers unionized and began to earn real wages, wages that could support their families and buy some of those consumer goods, they tended to abandon the Socialism that had spoken to them in the mid- to late-nineteenth century and see themselves – or at least their children – as part of that broad middle class that Liberalism justified and defended. Socialism never really gets anywhere in the United States because American workers get good at winning the Liberal game and adopt the outlook of the middle class.

We all think we’re middle class today in the United States. If you don’t believe me, go out into the streets and start asking. See if you can find ten people today in America who don’t think they’re middle class.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

The guy working third shift at the gas station thinks he’s middle class. The local mechanic thinks he’s middle class. Your doctor thinks he’s middle class. You think you’re middle class. I’d be surprised if professional athletes, US Senators, corporate CEOs and other millionaires also claimed to be anything other than middle class.

In a world defined by the middle class, Liberalism wins. It really is that simple.

But the middle class has been under assault in this country for decades now.

At this point I could drown you in statistics. Real wages haven’t increased in the US since 1973. The gap between rich and poor is now worse than it has been since the late 1920s, and getting bigger. And so on. Finding such statistics is not hard. Following where they lead, that’s the trick.

Because the sad fact is that the United States is on track to become an ancien regime society of wealth and poverty, with little to buffer the one from the other. It is working toward becoming a society without a middle class.

This is one of the many reasons why Governor Teabagger’s frontal assault on Wisconsin’s unions is so worrying. The net result of this will be to shrink wages, lower working standards and remove large numbers of people from the economic world of the middle class that has made this country strong - and not just in Wisconsin, but, as other states follow this lead, across the US as well.

And eventually, after a while, even Americans will figure out that most of us are not middle class anymore.  We will go back to the social world of the ancien regime, of nobles and peasants, with a thin band of others between them.

We will be separated into a society of elites and the poor.

Where the poor will go for their ideology, I do not know. In a post-industrial world, I’m not convinced that Socialism will reappear among them. It might. I can’t say.

But I can say from simple observation that we are seeing a resurgence of Conservative thought among American elites. That authoritarian, hierarchical, anti-Enlightenment thought that says, “Obey your betters and stop trying to reach above your station,” that group-oriented, anti-rational appeal to tradition and obligation that does not seek to free the individual but bind him in chains of responsibility – that’s what you get when the middle class succumbs to attack.

In a world where the middle class disappears, Liberalism goes with it.

And what happens next does not look promising.


Janiece said...

::gnashes teeth and wails inconsolably::


Janiece said...

And why haven't you written a book? WHY?

David said...

Janiece, if I ever develop a fully online course, I will let you know. :) It would be fun to have you as a student.

I did write a book. It was my dissertation. Someday I'll see about getting it published for a broader audience.

In the meantime, I find that I am most comfortable as an essayist. So here I am. Maybe I'll gather up some of these into a book one day. Doesn't every blogger say that? ;)

Ewan said...

It's not clear to me why Socialism (as I think of it, namely "to each according to their needs") isn't encompassed by Lockean Liberalism as you describe it. Most specifically, the concepts of a state-provided safety net and equality of opportunity are at the core of my own socialism, and would seem to be directly under your third Liberal tenet.

My confusion then comes from your suggesting socialism as an opposing, revolutionary response to declining liberalism - what did I miss?

David said...

Hi Ewan –

There are two reasons why I argued that 19th-century Socialism (which is the variant under discussion in this post) was not encompassed by Lockean Liberalism but was instead opposed to it. One was ideological, and the other was more historical in the “that’s how it worked out even if it didn’t have to” sense.

Ideologically, the fundamental difference between Lockean Liberalism and 19th-century Socialism is not in the third tenant of Liberalism (Equality of Opportunity) but the first (The Individual is the Building Block of Society). Like almost every other major political ideology in the world other than Liberalism, 19th-century Socialism was built around groups – in this case, the social class. It was the class that was the building block of society. It was the class that needed to be freed from restraints. And it was the class whose equality of opportunity mattered. Individuals counted only to the extent that they were part of that class.

This is why, for example, Karl Marx – whose variant of Socialism was perhaps the most influential if not necessarily the most well understood – could argue that private property was theft. It was theft from the class – Marx argued that eventually everyone would be part of the working class, which meant that there would be effectively no classes since everyone was the same class (“the classless society”) and that anything subtracted from that was theft. Lockean Liberalism, on the other hand, was built on a foundation of private property – Locke’s Second Treatise spells out what is essentially an economic philosophy grounded on the definition of private property (that which an individual mixes with his own labor, more or less) and spins that out into a political philosophy.

On a historical level, the fact that Lockean Liberalism was adopted by the Industrial Middle Class meant that it was the ideology of the factory owners and managers rather than the factory workers who were the main audience for Socialism in the 19th century. By definition those groups were opposed to each other, which meant that Socialists rejected Liberalism and vice verse, if for no other reason than they were on the opposite sides of a common struggle. Yes, Socialism derives from Liberalism, and yes that ought to have meant that there would be some common ground. But not in practice.

Islam, Christianity, and Judaism all spring from a common source if you go back far enough, but that didn’t stop the Crusades either.

It is only when factory workers begin to organize and claim for themselves some of the benefits of the Industrial Revolution that the individual tenants of Liberalism begin to make sense to them in a way that they did for the Industrial Middle Class, and at that point they began to identify aspirationally rather than situationally – they saw themselves as potential factory owners and managers rather than simply as factory workers, and they adopted the Liberalism that went with that.

Let me know if that makes any sense!

David said...

One other point -

Eventually Socialism and Liberalism would find that common ground. Socialists would come to accept the Liberal individual, would come to accept the general outlines of industrial capitalism, and would simply argue that those things needed to be tempered and softened with such things as a social safety net. We call those people Progressives, and many of them were members of the Industrial Middle Class. They liked Liberalism and capitalism, but understood that those things needed to be regulated in order for them not to destroy themselves as they were doing during the unfettered Gilded Age.

Ewan said...

If I am going to prompt this level of response, I am going to make more comments :).

[In the 'unplanned compliment' file, the fact that your spellchecker - I assume - changed 'tenet' to 'tenant' in your reply made me just nervous enough that I went and checked. There are very few sources for which that would be the case!]

A mindset that subsumes one's sense of self to a class is very foreign to me. (Yes, I am willing to see that as my having been a product of Locke et al!) I should go re-read Marx. But yes, that first reply makes perfect sense. It raises the further question of how the definition of socialism has changed, and why. The arrival of communism as a distinct system, or at least as a terminology? That seems to be the direct descendant - unsurprisingly - of the Marxist variant, but surely it can't have been as late as the Bolsheviks that completely communal ownership was no longer a widespread aim?*

OK, fine. I need to take advantage of my ability to audit classes on campus, and go learn more directly, I know. In my copious free time. Right.

{*I grew up in the UK, with family and friends often on what was the left-wing of a more left-wing Labour party and movement than has been the case for at least the party recently; I don't think that even they would have ever argued for class-based ownership. I guess I need to join Bernie in calling myself a 'democratic socialist' for US consumption, maybe. It's been a while since a new acquaintance has been much shocked by my self-description as an atheist communist anyway.}

Thanks, David. I have a few academic friends in the UW system; maybe I can get one of them to deliver Scotch your way?

David said...

Well, I enjoy talking about this stuff! Be careful – I might rattle on forever…

Hah – yes, my spellchecker strikes again. I always want to spell the word as “tenent" and I guess given the choice between removing the “n” to say what I want it to say or changing the “e” to an “a” to say what it wants me to say, it goes with the vowel. I don’t know about artificial intelligence, but I do think we have achieved artificial stupidity, and that I suppose is more fitting to the way the world really works.

I don’t think the definition of Socialism has changed all that much – it’s still more of a group-based ideology than an individual one as far as I can tell, and it still is uncomfortable with the notion of private property, especially when concentrated into few hands. I’ve spent a lot of the last year or so reading mid-20th-century British history (David Kynaston’s New Jerusalem series, Andrew Marr’s “A History of Modern Britain,” the collected memoirs of Ralph Glasser) and I suspect that the Labour Party and movement were far more comfortable arguing for class-based ownership of property (at least of industrial property) between 1920 and 1970 than they are now. Eventually Lockean Liberalism seeps in.

I think the Bolsheviks continued to aim for communal ownership, at least in theory, and Soviet Communism continued that as an ideological point right up to the end (though given the prevalence of dachas and the like one could argue about how valued it was in practice, though the kulaks might have had something to say about that too).

Regulating the market is perfectly compatible with Lockean Liberalism – it’s what happens when you slant it politically rather than economically and it’s what gives the US its liberal vs conservative divide, respectively. But the American left has long been open to adopting useful Socialist ideas like the social safety net, if for no other reason than because a demand-side economy only flourishes if it has sufficient consumers and having an ancien regime society of nobles and peasants won’t do.

You could call yourself a Democratic Socialist, but most Americans still won’t know what you mean. In the 2016 election I saw more than a few right-wing memes equating Democratic Socialism with National Socialism. It was enough to make an educated person scream. And to be honest Bernie Sanders isn’t really much of a Socialist at all – he’s a perfectly mainstream 1960s Great Society liberal, except that the US has shifted so dramatically to the radical right in the last 35 years that anything the left of Dwight Eisenhower looks like Communism to people.

Again, I think you should explore the roots and policies of the Progressives, as it seems to me that this is the closest thing the US has come to what you’re talking about. They had their own flaws (notably Nativism and, not coincidentally, a disturbing faith in eugenics) that are best left in the past, but they were right about a lot of things, I think.

I will never turn down a good Scotch. :) Try me at the email address on the left of this page and we’ll talk!