Tuesday, August 10, 2004

liberalism and social democracy

If my specification of modern liberalism is correct, in principle and practice (see post 8/9/04), why do bombastic ninnies like Robert Bork, Ann Coulter, and Sean Hannity--this guy is the only possible lead in the film biography of Oliver North because he has those beautiful wet eyelashes that blink so sincerely when the empty head just above is derailed by an unscripted and unanswerable question--believe that it is a traitorous doctrine designed to undermine American values? What's so objectionable? Bork of course believes that "liberalism" has already scuttled American culture (see Slouching Toward Gomorrah [1996], just reissued); the other two are optimists of the will even though they both concede that they're NOT winning the culture wars. But why are they so agitated? And why doesn't someone--how about John Edwards?--embrace the label on the grounds that the Right is right? That is, on the grounds that liberals are winning the fight for the hearts and minds of America because the majority of Americans is, in fact, liberal. Newt Gingrich understood this fact because he read the NORC polls of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, which indicated that a MAJORITY of those Americans who identified themselves AS CONSERVATIVES wanted more public spending on health and education. Shoot, so did Al Gore, and he won the last presidential election. Why don't liberals get it?
A good answer, dear reader--yes, so far, I can count you on one finger--is to be found in Irving Kristol's book of 1978, Two Cheers for Capitalism. I'm a big fan of reading the opposition (A. Lincoln pioneered this procedure with his scrapbook of pro-slavery writings), partly because I've learned over the years that if you can incorporate your opponents' arguments, you're more likely to shake their faith and convince innocent bystanders. That said, I'm not so sure that the senior Kristol is the opposition. Even though it's a collection of occasional essays written for The Wall Street Journal and The Public Interest betwen 1970 and 1977, Two Cheers is still worth reading for three reasons.
First, Kristol understands that CORPORATE capitalism is a social formation still in need of both explanation and justification. His periodization of capitalism is much more sophisticated and insightful than that of most historians, economists, sociologists, et al., including the Marxoids among them (and I count myself among them), because he has been able to learn from the findings of his socialist friend Daniel Bell, in The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973) and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976). Kristol's worries about the moral legitimacy of corporate capitalism are deeply informed by this historical periodization. And these worries are not cancelled by "the end of history" apparently transacted in the fall of the Soviet Union and its satellites.
Second, Kristol is able to trace the mindless worship of "free markets" and "economic liberty," which now passes for intellectual rigor in debates about tax codes and rates, to the philosophical idiocies and deformities of Friedrich von Hayek. In doing so, he also makes passing fun of Milton Friedman, another icon of the so-called neo-conservatives. Kristol, writing in the mid-to-late 1970s, wondered if there were a retort to the New Left's indictment of capitalism--he assumed the Left had already won the ideological struggle--which was both theoretically sound and practically actionable. When he turned to Hayek, he was more than a little dismayed to find no solace, no help, no nothing. For Hayek argued that a free society was not necessarily a just society, indeed that any attempt to make the former into the latter was destined to failure because there are no criteria by which the "rules of 'social justice' can be assessed." Kristol bravely and honestly notes that Hayek "is opposing a free society to a just society," and goes on to ask, "But can men live in a free society if they have no reason to believe that it is also a just society?" His answer places him in what I would call a liberal position: "I do not think so." Here is his peroration: "So I conclude, despite Professor Hayek's ingenious analysis, that men cannot accept the historical accidents of the marketplace--seen merely as accidents--as the basis for an enduring and legitimate entitlement to power, privilege, and property."
Third, and most germane to the topic at hand, Kristol explains that liberalism did change its address in the 1960s, becoming something more akin to European socialism and/or social democracy than the liberalism he still admires as the source of liberty in the modern western world. He says this throughout the book, but nowhere more pointedly than in the preface and in the chapter entitled "On Conservatism and Capitalism." Here is a sample from that chapter: "The institutions which conservatives wish to preserve are, and for two centuries were called, liberal institutions, i.e., institutions which maximize personal liberty vis-a-vis a state, a church, or an offical ideology. On the other hand, the severest critics of these institutions--those who wish to enlarge the scope of governmental authority indefinitely, so as to achieve even greater equality at the expense of liberty--are today commonly called 'liberals.' It would certainly help to clarify matters if they were called, with greater propriety and accuracy, 'socialist' or 'neo-socialists.' And yet we are oddly relectant to be so candid."
Yes we are. Nail on the head, I'd say. In the United States, today's liberals are yesterday's socialists, or, OK, social democrats. They're not revolutionaries, but so what? The ferocity of the culture wars, and the enchanting idiocy of someone as demented as Ann Coulter, can be explained by Kristol's nomenclatural puzzlement: We're still fighting about socialism and capitalism, only we have a new vocabulary, and the so-called conservatives are really liberals fighting a rear-guard action against the forces of darkness who mean "socialist" when they say--or don't say--"liberal."
Which is also a way of saying that socialism is still very much with us. But it's only the Right that seems to have noticed. The Left still believes it wanders in the political wilderness. Hmm.