Absolute vs relative understandings of ideology

One of the reasons Waleed Aly’s ‘Future of Conservatism’ essay goes wrong is that he thinks of political ideologies in absolute rather than relative terms.

To think of an ideology in absolute terms is to take a principle or idea its adherents support and make that its foundational principle or idea, from which all else must derive or be deemed philosophically inconsistent.

To think of an ideology in relative term, by contrast, considers these principles and ideas relative to the status quo and other political ideologies.

So relative to the status quo and social democracy, ‘neoliberalism’ could be considered the ideology of markets. ‘Absolute’ opposition to any other organising institution than markets is a non-existent political force in Australia. But compared to where we are, the ‘neoliberals’ are those most in favour of using markets more. Continue reading “Absolute vs relative understandings of ideology”

Paternalism vs liberalism

The Australia Institute‘s proposal in Something for Nothing to regulate working hours according to their version of a balanced good life highlights some differences between paternalism and liberalism.

Paternalists are confident that they know what way of living is best for each individual. Having found a few studies identifying harmful health or social effects of long hours at work, authors Richard Denniss and Josh Fear assume that all over-work must be bad and therefore should be regulated.

Liberals, by contrast, typically believe that there are many different ways of living a good life. Liberals are less likely to miss the other meanings and goals of work, and more likely to tolerate people making their own choices about life priorities. If somebody thinks that their job is more rewarding that going home at 5pm, there is no reason for the state to second-guess that judgment.

Paternalists tend to doubt the capacity of people to improve their own lives. Continue reading “Paternalism vs liberalism”

Prague, 17 November 1989

sovietkiss

Where’s homophobia when you need it? I bought this satirical take on communist comradeship going much too far (original photo here) at Prague’s small but very interesting Museum of Communism when I was there in August.

While there you can watch a video of the student demonstration that 20 years ago today was the beginning of the end of communist rule in Czechoslavakia. I’d forgotten about this event; the amazing scenes in Wenceslas Square a couple of days later with a huge crowd chanting ‘Dubcek! Dubcek!’ as Alexander Dubcek, leader of the crushed 1968 attempt to reform Czech communism, and future president Vaclav Havel appeared before them, had wiped lesser memories.

The video was a reminder that the fall of communism was not entirely peaceful, with police – uniformed and plain clothes – brutally attacking the demonstrators. While no students were killed, many were injured. But the time for accepting this kind of treatment was over, and the ‘Velvet Revolution’ began.

Hello Lenin?

The film Good Bye Lenin is a sweet tale of a son determined to protect his fragile socialist mother from the news that, as we are celebrating today, the GDR is no more. The emotional core of the film is the mother-son relationship, but we are led to a little sympathy for the mother who never lost her belief in a delusional socialist idea.

But what are we to make of people who late in life start making excuses for the dismally failed socialist experiment in central and eastern Europe?

In a bizarre letter published in Australian Book Review last May, Norman Abjorensen, once a Liberal staffer, blamed the collapse of the socialist experiment not on its dysfunctional economic system and cruel treatment of its captive peoples, but on a propaganda campaign and ‘permanent war footing’ by the ‘capitalist ruling class’ determined to ‘discredit and rid itself of a potential alternative’.

How anyone can talk about the ‘promising post-Stalin era’, as Abjorensen does, is beyond me. I very much doubt the Hungarians in 1956 or the Czechs in 1968 thought a brutal Soviet crushing of their attempts at creating a better society was ‘promising’. True, the end of mass extermination by the Soviet Union of its own citizens was an improvement, but the post-Stalin regimes were not ‘promising’ by any normal standard.

Anyone hoping that ABR readers would object to this nonsense would have been disappointed. Continue reading “Hello Lenin?”

My glimpse of life under communism

I was among the last generation of people whose politics were shaped by World War II and its aftermath, the long struggle between the USSR and its allies and the USA and its allies. Unsurprisingly given my youthful Friedmanite views, I was a strong anti-communist.

While I was on my student backpacking trip around Europe in late 1985 and early 1986 I decided that I had to see Berlin, the place that more than anywhere in Europe had cold war tensions built into – physically, politically, and emotionally – its daily life. So my apolitical travelling companion and I split for a few days; he went skiing and I went to check out communism first hand.

My first impression, from the East German border police, was surprisingly favourable. They boarded the train to check our travel documents, and (as I recorded in a letter back to my family in Melbourne) offered a greeting at the start and a grin at the end. By the standards of passport checkers around the world, they provided an above-average experience.

Technologically I was less impressed. While I was still on the same train, the ride became much worse due to the ‘rotten track’ (as I called it). I was bouncing from side to side. The Mercedes and BMWs I’d seen on West German roads were replaced with Trabants. But I enjoyed the countryside and eventually we made it to West Berlin. Continue reading “My glimpse of life under communism”

Hamilton for Higgins?

It’s not often that Pollytics, Andrew Bolt and Catallaxy blogs all reach the same conclusion: that Clive Hamilton is not a good candidate for Higgins.

I’ve written a couple of long critiques of Hamilton’s books (here and here). Essentially what Hamilton has been doing over a series of books and papers is to try to give his mystical worldview (he wrote a book in 1994 called The Mystical Economist), which rejects the materialism of the modern world, a respectable basis in both natural and social science. The natural science aspect argues that the environment cannot sustain this way of life, while the social science aspect argues that it is not good for our emotional or spiritual well-being.

While in my two articles on his social science I argued that he was unsuccessful, I do have a kind of admiration for the intellectual ambition behind it. Very few intellectuals try to cover so many fields in advocacy of their one core idea. Continue reading “Hamilton for Higgins?”

Social democratic consensus

In my Quadrant Online piece on the left sensibility, I argued that the Australian left sensibility had accommodated contradictory ideas over time, including:

protection and free trade, nationalisation and privatisation, empire and republicanism, White Australia Policy and anti-discrimination law.

But I should also have noted that if my political identity survey is a guide, current-day social democrats show a high degree of policy consensus. In the latest issue of Policy, I have an article that collates the survey responses of the three varieties of economic liberal (classical liberal, libertarian, and social conservative and economic liberal) and compares their views with those of social democrats: Continue reading “Social democratic consensus”

The right on the left

Quadrant Online is running a forum on The Australian‘s ‘What’s left?’ series.

From the classical liberal side there is Jason Soon on social justice and me re-working my left sensibility material from last week.

Angela Shanahan and Bill Muehlenberg represent family-values conservatism.

John Dawson argues with Dennis Glover about equality.

And Mervyn Bendle provides the Quadrant grumpy old man perspective: ‘the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia is a shallow, condescending narcissist.. a labored, cliché-ridden, self-serving piece of propaganda, without even a hint of an interesting idea or original vision … the Left is about are simplistic ideas and slogans, jealousy, resentment, opportunism, and a lust for power and personal advancement. ‘

Is the market the ‘greatest dissolver of the bonds of family’?

Unhappily, the democratic Left also now embraced the other dimension of the 60s revolution, the abandonment of social responsibility and the pursuit of self-interest at whatever cost. This eventually provided the opportunity for the neo-liberals, in association with another force on the Right, the neo-conservatives, to make further great headway among the Western working class by supporting the values of social conservatism. By doing this, the neo-liberals managed to disguise from both others and themselves an obvious truth, namely that the untrammelled market was the greatest dissolver of the bonds of family and community.

Robert Manne yesterday, in another of The Australian‘s What’s Left series.

But how obvious is Professor Manne’s truth about the market and families? There is certainly no direct relationship in our current society – those with most market experience, people with jobs and money to spend, are more likely to be in couple or family housesholds. And the period of ‘neoliberal’ policy has coincided with a fall in the divorce rate. In 2008, it was at its lowest point since the liberalisation of divorce law in 1975.

It is nevertheless true that the unmarried or separated proportion of the adult population is high by historical standards. There are a number of proximate causes for this, which are interconnected in a complex web of cause and effect. Continue reading “Is the market the ‘greatest dissolver of the bonds of family’?”

Why no great social democratic thinkers?

One interesting point that Tim Soutphommasane made in his Weekend Australian article is that social democracy has

never had a political philosopher who has succeeded in offering a comprehensive articulation of [its] principles.

There is nobody with the status of Marx in socialism, Burke in conservatism, or a range of thinkers in the liberal tradition: Locke, Smith, Mill, Hayek. In my political identity survey, more than half of the classical liberal respondents said they had read each of the major liberal thinkers (though I did not ask about Locke).

Tim ends up suggesting John Rawls as the closest social democrats get, but notes that he was an American left-liberal rather than an identifying social democrat. And while Rawls may achieve great thinker status within academia, he is not widely read outside academia by social democrats or anyone else. I found his The Theory of Justice heavygoing; much less accessible than the other liberal books. Continue reading “Why no great social democratic thinkers?”