Is Liberalism Centrist?

July 29, 2015 § 3 Comments

The question of direction – or indeed of direction versus cleaving to the status quo – is one that is proving troublesome for almost all the UK’s political parties at the moment, with the exception of the Conservatives who rather specialise in avoiding having a direction and avoiding telling anyone when they do. Particularly after our recent electoral defeat, and the heavily “centrist” tone of our election campaign, the relationship between liberalism and the centre is something worth considering – indeed, it is worth at least a healthy scepticism about whether it inherently exists at all.

Liberalism – the belief that it is the freedom of the individual that should be the guiding factor in political decision making – is a creed that is just as favourable to radicalism as socialism or Thatcherite anti-statism, if not occasionally more so. This party’s constitution, stating that in a liberal society nobody shall be enslaved by ignorance, poverty, or conformity, is a powerful reminder of this. Radical liberalism demands attention to problems that centrism by its very nature has difficulty focussing on. It is clear that our current economic paradigm, for example, is one in which wealth gaps are tending to increase over time. Reversing that will not in any sense be a matter of tweaking some numbers and shifting some tax rates, but a society where the badly off are in a state of economic dependency on the wealthy – one where private wealth dominates over the public interest – cannot consider itself liberated any more than one where a controlling state is inevitably corrupted by an excess of power. A society that lives up to the ideals in our constitution is not going to be one that is unchanged in its economic structures.

I should clarify what I am not trying to say here – I am certainly not saying that one cannot be a liberal-leaning centrist, or indeed that our party does not have a high percentage of people who do lean towards centrism. What I am saying is that nothing about liberalism is inherently focussed towards the political centre. Indeed the centre – by definition, the consensus space between the current political parties – is only a liberal space in so far as that consensus is liberal, and it is a fairly clear fact that it is not, either in its social relations or its economic situation. The oxymoronic “radical centre” is a confused attempt to square this circle, and one which (I think because of that confusion) has little traction with much of the public. Perhaps we would be better admitting a circle is a circle, that liberal ideas may come in radical or centrist forms but not both simultaneously.

This is an important thing to realise. In some discussions I have had with people since the election there has been a sense that the Liberal Democrats need to “focus on what we’re good at” – aka, social issues that unite the party more – rather than risk pulling ourselves apart over questions of economic strategy. There are two major flaws with this. Firstly, we cannot become the “no economics, please” party, or even the “we’re economically sort of balanced between the others” party. It is economic vision –encompassing the basic facts of production and distribution in a society – that ties political narratives together, that welds disparate policy into a picture of a better future. If we avoid hammering out a picture of a liberal economy we will be torn apart from all sides on the subject, as indeed we were this year.

Not only that, though; we will deserve it. We cannot succeed in giving strength to the weak, safety to the vulnerable, if we ignore or downplay the economic aspect of their circumstances. For LGBT people in the UK, legal civil rights are of course a huge issue, but as important are frankly terrifying rates of homelessness, especially amongst the LGBT young. If we believe people should have the freedom to direct their own labour then we should be deeply concerned about the attack on the self-employed represented by the recent budget, too, as people suffer badly from the loss of working tax credits but do not even get the small consolation of a higher minimum wage available to those in employment. Opposing excessive concentrations of power in all their forms, fighting for people’s ability to stand on their own feet – these are political aspirations that demand an economic foundation to be workable.

Getting these ideas across, and forging a narrative from them, requires an appreciation of liberalism as a radical tradition that has its own driving goals for the socio-economic state of the country (the division of “economy” and “society” is rarely clear and certainly does more harm than good here). Regardless of the speed at which people are advocating we move in that direction, an appreciation of what that direction of travel looks like and aims for is going to be crucial to get across the people if we are to recover and build ourselves up in the medium term. This direction, the political pursuit of freedom, contains no inherent leanings towards the centre; it is a vision, an ideal and a goal that demands change on its own, liberal, terms.

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§ 3 Responses to Is Liberalism Centrist?

  • nolanp01 says:

    Nolan from Ars Tali here, I’m a sucker for these kind of articles!

    Granted my politics are largely focused on the US and Australia, I do tend to study a little bit of British politics from time-to-time. Thus, you may find a few oddities in my response, please correct me if necessary.

    The issue I am finding is something of definitions themselves, which is something you are approaching – however this stems from what is a larger overlapping linguistic matter. When using the word, “center” in reference to a “centrist”, there becomes a colloquial element – to which the question is not whether or not you are a centrist, but a centrist to whom.

    Left, centre, right – these should never be capitalised either, for they are merely references to what is socially accepted by a group. For instance, left refers to what is often new and changing, thus not what is the right – traditionalism. The centrist view therefore is between both the new and old and this changes from region to region, it is not the same nor is it particularly ideologically linked.

    Suffice to say this is a linguistic problem connected to English speakers, I’m not sure how conditioned this issue is with others; Could be an interesting discovery though!

    Aside from linguistic thoughts, the idea of liberalism is interesting as we often get it confused with social liberalism. The implication of free-will and the pursuit of individual rights are a subject which runs into a crossroads of other individuals, it’s very much a part of linear societies (tribes and family) and the core trouble with operating unbalanced hierarchical institutions. In a totally linear society, Anarchism, we run into the process of a democratic voice for the common good – however this represents a scientific problem of relationships. You can’t know everyone and the world’s population is out of control, linear works for small groups and the implications of groups has a larger impact of society as a whole.

    In a total hierarchical society we have the trouble of misrepresentation – this isn’t to say a dictator would be bad, just unable to be held accountable for any misgivings. You could state that the current view on these two positions is centrist! Creating representation on a linear level to have a say in a hierarchical institutions – very centrist indeed.

    Thus how do we determine what is the extent of free-will and the pursuit of ones individuality? Without much discussion, it is largely accepted that the person has ownership over their own ‘personhood’. This mind you, is a very American approach as it stems from the Roman concept of property, whereas the British view is actually anglo-saxon, considering the person to not be property in any aspect, rather they are defined as a freeman, therefore not conditioned to what the rules of ‘property’ is.

    It is my understanding that the relationship between the person cannot at this point, be disconnected from the society as a whole (we are social animals). Thus the idea of the absolute individual is refuted as there will always be some form of cause and effect ala society. This relationship is key to understanding the underlying form of liberty – what is, once again, the extent of free-will.

    For instance, if I produce all local food and I make it either difficult or unobtainable to the community, am I not denying the free-will of others? Or am I exerting my labour? Keep in mind I’m not arguing the ethics of this but it’s an interesting concept of what is considered yours by labour and what is determined yours by society.

    To close this up, you might be interested in reading Wealth of Nations after reading the Communist Manifesto – there’s a lot of common ground often disregarded. Especially with direction towards what is labour and what is the collective will.

    • jubalbarca says:

      Liberalism is a particularly thorny one when seen across different countries – in the US it refers to the generic left, in Australia to the right, and in the UK to the specifically liberal centre or centre-left. I suppose I just run with “liberalism is a philosophy based on seeking to maximise individual liberty” – for me, that emphatically means protection from dominance by non-state as well as state entities, which is something that I feel is less “liberating” about more rightist liberal forms that only see the state as a threat to liberty.

      There’s certainly a lot of issues with definitions here though – my arguments here really do require a general acceptance of the definitions I’ve given, and if one doesn’t define terms before making an argument it can end up a heck of a mess! I’m very explicitly using centre to mean “the status quo in British political life” – of course that’s not a universal definition, which is part of my point, whether being a liberal fits comfortably with being a centrist depends on how close to their views the current centre is (and it’s a long way from mine). I’m not sure I agree with your left/right definitions, on the other hand – in a state that has been socialist for a long time, the left can easily be traditionalists (the UK’s Trade Union movement was at times on a fairly traditionalist left platform in the 20th century), and often the right can be radicals (see for example Thatcher or Reagan). Trying to pin down what left and right “really mean” is probably several lifetimes’ work for the philosophers though – I prefer to pin down a temporary definition to write an article to avoid having to write a large book before writing a short opinion piece!

  • nolanp01 says:

    Actually that’s sort of the whole point of left, centre, right – meant to dictate the linear element of what’s “new” and what’s “old”. Traditionalism doesn’t mean it is specifically from a social-conservative standpoint, it can be quite liberal – all depends on the overlapping ideas.

    The UK is very much a socialist democratic state (Not socialist) and Trade Union movements are more aligned with Syndicalist-Anarchism rather than socialism as well, but if they’re in power for a long time they could be considered traditionalist and totally are.

    Example, your Torries which are very conservative in many regards to ‘old ways’ however many of them consider the NHS as part of their system, despite its socialist democratic origins – it has become part of what is the British tradition. What is new doesn’t necessarily have to be “liberal” – technically one could argue that Hitler came from both left and right concepts with regard to bringing back traditionalist tropes while appoint ‘new/left’ ideas.

    I do feel that there is simply a misunderstanding of what left, centre, and right actually infer – people tend to talk about them as if they have political points or ethical footprints; They are merely vertices on a line.

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