The time has come, the walrus said, to reopen this blog. I promised a tribal post, but that will have to wait for final touches. Meanwhile, to go along with the current political frenzy (and yes, I am voting this time, in case you wondered), I offer you a timely post that emerged this afternoon from a discussion on the Small Farm Future blog, which itself was provoked by that blog’s response to JM Greer’s recent musings on liberalism.
First, I hastened to refresh my understanding of classical liberalism. I compiled this vignette from quickly perused sources.
Classical liberalism is a political philosophy and ideology in which primary emphasis is placed on securing the freedom of the individual by limiting the power of the government.
Main features: freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and markets; rule of law and equality before the law; government by consent (constitution, checks on power, robust autonomy of local governing bodies); property protection; and commercial and industrial activities of citizens not subject to “undue restraint” – which led many early classical liberals, but not all, to fight protectionism (e.g. tariffs) and collective organizations (guilds, unions, et al.)
Chris Smaje added something essential: “I think a more important point concerns what liberalism has had to say about the form of politics rather than its content. And in a nutshell, that form is – argue your point peacefully, using reason; if you lose, accept that you’ve lost peacefully, with grace; and don’t intrude on things politically that have nothing to do with public wellbeing, such as the private pursuits of the individual that affect no one else. In order to realise that political form, a lot of work was needed to create a public sphere where people met as citizens and equals, and could expect even-handed treatment by the state.”
Needless to say, I consider this old-fashioned liberalism, stripped of its way-out laisses-fairytales by the recognition of the need for “due restraint” regarding commercial and industrial activities of citizens, as a fine summary of what is so admirable — in a very practical sense — about the foundations of America. This liberalism is about the values and habits that undergird political discourse and indeed, everyday life.
Strangely, Mr. Greer calls liberalism a “movement” which is fading. As far as I can tell, he is speaking about a movement that married liberal attitudes to progressivism. I would agree that this uneasy marriage is ending — largely because progressives have jettisoned the liberal part. But what comes next is not likely to be the end of classical liberal mind & heartsets, but rather their infusion into more populist conceptions of politics; not a crusading progressivism setting its sights on the elusive purity of vaguely defined “social justice” toward favored victims, but rather a politics of specificity, place, loyalty, and responsibility.
Chris has himself identified as an agrarian left-wing populist. Having had my curiosity piqued for some time with promises of explaining what he means, I decided to wait no longer, at least for the populist part. Here is what I found, elsewhere and in myself.
At its root, populism is a belief in the power of regular people, and in their right to have control over their government, rather than accepting control by a small group of political insiders or a wealthy elite. Populists believe that the politicians are the people’s public servants, not just another, more modern, version of their masters.
Fareed Zacharia writes that “historically, populism has come in left- and right-wing variants, and both are flourishing today, from Bernie Sanders to Trump, and from Syriza, the leftist party currently in power in Greece, to the National Front, in France.” His article has very little to say about left-wing populism, which is perhaps not surprising since Syriza can only be regarded as an embarrassment, no better than faux populists and sellouts. On the other hand and predictably he has plenty of negative things to say about right-wing populism. After all, we all know that we can’t have “pandering to people’s worst instincts”, can we? And right-wing populism always seems to have that bugaboo hanging over it, that “rising support for a [demagogue] who would dispense with the checks and balances of liberal democracy.” As if left-wingers were immune!
I think it is more accurate to say that the French National Front, while regularly described as far right, is in fact, apart from their views on open borders and immigration, sticking to welfare state policies. Has it occurred to Mr. Zacharia that “we the people” do not want to dispense with the checks and balances of liberal democracy? Instead, we are angry to see these checks and balances routinely disrespected and eroded by the entrenched elites! What “we the people” want to dispense with are the corruption and special privileges that have saddled this country with unprincipled, cheating, lying, “living in a bubble” people with lots of money and high-level connections that enable them to lord it over us, and who end up making a lot of stupid, self-serving, counterproductive, even brutal and calamitous decisions without any accountability whatsoever, progressively “freer” from even the notion that they are subject to the same laws as the rest of us.
In truth, there are only two differences I have been able to discern between left and right-wing populism: lefties are more likely to dwell on the misdeeds of the banksters and Wall Street and demand substantial monetary and financial reforms, while righties are more likely to demand restrictive and well-regulated immigration policies. We are all for localism, for having our voices heard, for more accountable democracy, and against remote and contemptuous elites, ruinous trade treaties, and galloping globalism that disregards real people’s wellbeing.
I propose that there is only one populism: the commitment to heed the voice of the people, and to govern with the consent of the governed by servant leaders who are responsive to that voice. Which turns us right back to classical liberalism, integrating it with better mechanisms for ongoing public deliberation that includes ordinary voices, and for heeding the results of this public deliberation, having those then reflected in the policies subsequently crafted.
Both illiberal, authoritarian left and illiberal, authoritarian right slide into selectively-tolerant intolerance and thuggery. They are no populists, they are totalitarians. The major disagreement dividing us populists is not over reining in banksterism and crony capitalism, but over immigration policies, borders (both economic and geographical/cultural), and Islam. This is the current political edge and nobody has yet arrived at anything close to satisfying answers. Recognizing that fact and embracing the ongoing open-minded exploration of these confounding issues in the best “classical liberal” sense of the word would end the divisive and demeaning split of populism into the “virtuous” left and “far-right” bigots. This is a “divide and rule” lie and cannot be allowed to stand. I propose that all of us populists stand by each other and dispense with the name calling and with pushing people out of the conversation that ought to be held by us all.