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A Restatement Of Economic Liberalism

Prologue: Capitalism and the permissive society

Introduction :: The Historical Context :: Reasons For Suspicion :: The Rise Of The Word Man :: The Dilemma Of The Economic Liberal :: The New Left Attack :: Poverty And Equality :: 'Alienation' :: Student Dissent :: Contemporary Radicalism :: A turn of the tide?

The reasons why people hold certain beliefs have no bearing on their validity; to suppose otherwise would be to fall into the same intellectual trap as the worst Marxist or Freudian camp followers (it is not a trap that Marx, and above all Freud would have been guilty of themselves). Examination of the roots of widely held views can, all the same, be useful in explaining why people persist in holding them, despite rational arguments to the contrary, and why the latter fail to make a sufficient impression.

In the discussion that follows I shall begin with a reference to the historical background, go on to the features of the contemporary behaviour of businessmen and others in authority, which seem to confirm the worst suspicions of their critics, and then describe some of the other causes of the rise of anti-capitalist sentiment. With these matters out of the way, the path will be clear for a discussion of the New Left critique of capitalism and of the prospects of dealing with evils such as poverty and 'alienation' under alternative systems. This may seem a reversal of the logical order; but the treatment adopted may be more illuminating for the non-specialist reader who wants to put the economic arguments into a broader context.

Modern ideals of personal freedom, and the accompanying political, economic and legal beliefs, emerged from the religious writers of the seventeenth century and the political and economic philosophers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yet, during the period when these ideals formed part of the public philosophy of the country, they were both less important to human welfare and more hedged around with stultifying qualifications than they are today when their credentials are so widely challenged. The period of English history when the capitalist ideal of freedom was most widely acknowledged was the mid-nineteenth century - the age of Peel and Gladstone. Yet, in many ways and for many people, it must have been a very unattractive time in which to live; and economic liberals would do well to acknowledge this fact.

The point most frequently made is, of course, that although living standards were rapidly improving, the mass of people were too poor to enjoy their freedom. This stricture needs to be more carefully stated than it often is. Freedom is not the same as absence of poverty; and to say that a labourer in the 1870s, or an Egyptian peasant today is 'not really free' is a confusion of thought. If freedom is defined so that the absence of poverty is a necessary condition of its existence, two different values become confused, distinctions which exist in real life are obliterated, and language is impoverished. It is better to stick to the negative concept of freedom, but say that where the majority of the people hardly earn enough to cover their bare physical requirements, freedom may be less important as a goal than an increase of wealth.

The above, however, is well-trodden ground. What is less often pointed out is the limited number of people to whom even the legal freedoms of the nineteenth century applied. Personal liberty was effectively limited to male heads of households over 21. Women and children had as few rights as the subjects of the Eastern despots so much condemned in the Liberal literature of the period; and the same applied to anyone who had once volunteered for the Army or Navy. If freedom is defined as the absence of coercion, there was precious little for a schoolboy or soldier of the period, both of whom were also victims of the passion for flagellation which was (and to some extent still is) the real English sickness. Even for adult heads of households, freedom was carefully circumscribed. There was freedom to start up a business enterprise, freedom to emigrate and freedom to move money over frontiers (all freedoms which we despise at our peril). But in view of the very great powers still in the hands of local JPs, and the ferocious maximum penalties on the statute book, there was far more discretionary power of one individual over another than nostalgic admirers of the Victorian era would admit.

Apart from this, the prohibitions in the law and custom of the land were numerous and oppressive. Whether E. M. Forster's novel Maurice is good or bad as a work of literature, one can only recoil with horror at the revelations of the weight of the legal and the social penalties - and above all the burden of guilt - imposed on those whose impulses were not in keeping with the official sexual mores. Among those with 'normal' tastes promiscuity abounded, and was tolerated provided that it was not publicly admitted and the pretences were maintained.

The important point, however, is that both the political and economic philosophy and the capitalist practices of a century ago set in motion a train of events and ideas which eventually undermined the status-ridden conventional society of the time and brought into being the more tolerant England of today. Indeed, the basic arguments for the so-called 'permissive' morality were developed by thinkers in the nineteenth-century liberal tradition from John Stuart Mill onwards (one has only to think of his lifelong campaign against the subjection of women - the genuine article before which 'Women's Lib' groups pall). Many of the classical ideas of nineteenth-century liberalism did not come on the statute book until the 1960s. The battle is still far from won, as can be seen from the sentences still passed on 'obscene publications' or the hysterical and vindictive attitude adopted by so many authority figures towards the problem of drugs.

Growing prosperity and leisure have meanwhile increased the importance and desirability of individual freedom for the mass of the population. The paradox is that just when personal liberty is beginning to govern the life-style of a generation, the economic system which makes it possible has become intensely antipathetic to a great many of that generation's most articulate members. The old opposition to competitive capitalism from the puritan Left that instinctively felt (even when it denied this) that the Fabian state did know better, has been succeeded - just when it seemed about to fade away - by fresh opposition from the 'New Left', * which is rightly suspicious of all authority, has no lingering affection forJoseph Stalin (and is Marxist only because that seems a far-out thing to be), but which identifies 'capitalism' with 'the system' and, in its headier movements, has brought back semi-serious talks of 'the revolution'. (To take 'the revolution' seriously is acceptable at many expense account lunches. It is equally 'trendy' to discuss it semi-facetiously; the one thing that is out-and-out 'square' is to be seriously opposed to it.)

{<<< Introduction :: Reasons For Suspicion >>>}


* Like most such expressions, 'New Left' is used by different people in different ways. The term is sometimes used for those radicals who glorify violence, support movements such as Black Power and identify with the 'Third World' as the main hope of revolution now that the Western proletariat has failed them. The prophets or 'modern masters' of such goals are analysed in a highly critical survey entitled The New Left edited by Maurice Cranston (Bodley Head, 1970), which deals with figures such as Che Guevara, the latter-day Sartre, Marcuse, Fanon and Laing.
The term 'New Left' is used in this and subsequent essays in a wider sense for the much larger body of people who are against the 'system' which they believe to be capitalist, but have lost the faith of the Old Left in state socialism, and insist on the individual's right to his own life-style. Their positive ideas for reform are varied and often vague, ranging from a watered-down version of the slogans of the 'modern masters' to the very different ideas of pacifism, universal love, mysticism and 'dropping Out from society' and schemes for workers' control, 'participation' and opposition to technological advance. To call this very diverse group of people 'hippies' would give a misleading impression of the life-styles of many of those involved. The term that best describes the highest common factor among their beliefs is probably that of 'The Alternative Society', but this is too cumbersome as a shorthand descriptive term; and in both this and in subsequent essays the term New Left is used instead - but always in the very wide sense explained.
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