Thursday, January 17, 2013

Liberalism, Conservatism, and Radicalism

One perennially vexing problem with political discourse today—mainly because of the way the political center has drifted rightward—is the failure to distinguish between the “radical” position and the “liberal” position, a distinction best understood in relationship to a tripartite divide of political ideologies between the conservative, the liberal, and the radical.

The Conservative favors the status quo, be that out of self-interest or out of an aversion to change. S/he wants to stand still; the system is fine. Any problems that the system might have—if s/he acknowledges them—are far outweighed by the benefits. The Conservative also holds a rather a-historicist view although s/he would argue that s/he is in, fact, honoring history. S/he says, “The institutions that exist now have always existed and should always exist. World without end. Amen.”

The Liberal, however, takes a more historical position in that the Liberal looks at the past and sees that it has been changing and looks to the future and hopes to see change—in the direction of the better, that is. The Liberal thinks that there is a measure of good in the institutions as they exist now, but as they are not rigid—but, in fact, malleable—they can be and should be changed for the better. If the Conservative sees the system as beautiful (even if he thinks a bit of make-up would make it better), the Liberal sees the system and thinks, “With a better diet, more exercise, and more attention to mental and physical health, the system could be so much more beautiful.”

The Radical, also, engages in the historical attitude of the Liberal. The Radical sees that the ways of the present have not always been the same as the past; however, the Radical believes that the current system is corrupt at the core—it is diseased, it is syphilitic. However, seeing that things have not always been this way and, thus, need not always be this way, the Radical believes in making a better system, but rather than working within the current system as the Liberal prefers, the Radical, viewing the system as corrupt, seeks either to (a) abolish the current system or (b) work outside of it. If the Conservative sees the system and admires its beauty and the Liberal sees the system and recommends a new health regimen of diet, exercise, and emotional health, then the Radical sees the system and recommends major reconstructive surgery.

When the Conservative sees the Liberal, s/he sees nothing but a Radical in disguise (a wolf in sheep’s clothing, so to speak). When the Liberal says “evolution,” the Conservative hears “revolution” and resists any form of collaborative work. The Liberal, says the Conservative, is at heart a Radical and is just trying to sugarcoat Radical ideas with deceptively harmless language.

When the Radical sees the Liberal, s/he sees nothing but a Conservative in disguise (a wolf in sheep’s clothing, again, so to speak). When the Liberal says “evolution,” the Radical hears a plea for the status quo. To the Radical, the Liberal is weak-willed, unprincipled, opportunistic, or slow. To the Radical, any change that the Liberal suggests is only a way to prolong the system.

When the Liberal looks to the Radical, s/he says, “We’re working on it. See, we’ve moved really far already, right? We’re working on it. It’ll happen. Be patient.”

Now, the only way that constructive change occurs is when the Radical tempers his/her skepticism toward the Liberal and the Liberal becomes willing to collaborate with the Radical. Effectively, when the Radical spurs the Liberal into action, we get a “quickening” of the evolution that the Liberal professes to want. In other words, we start moving.

“Corruptio optimi pessima” is useful in explaining the attitude of the Liberal to the Radical. The Radical willing to cooperate is the best friend of the Liberal; such a Radical provides the Liberal with the force and motivation needed to make change. However, the hostile Radical is the Liberal’s worst enemy, even more so than the Conservative. The Liberal fears that the hostile Radical will delegitimize any efforts at change, providing the Conservatives with added energy and weakening the support within the Liberal’s own ranks.

Now, these three categories are not rigid dichotomies and often overlap.
• The fusion or union between the Radical and the Liberal produces the “social democrat”
• The fusion or union between the Liberal and the Conservative produces the “Christian democrat”
• The fusion or union between the Conservative and the Radical produces the “proto-fascist”

(In other words, the conservative fused with radicalism sees the current system as so corrupt, so degraded, so decadent, so enervated by liberalism and democracy, so far from a past of glory, of power, of greatness, that the only way to regain the romanticized past is to break the system itself.)

Now, the problem in American politics is the tendency to lump the categories of “radical” and “liberal” into one, to ignore differences between them, and to demonize or delegitimize the liberal argument by calling it radical. An excellent example of this is the issue of same-sex marriage.

The Conservative says that marriage has always been one man and one woman—it always has been and it always will be—God (or God working through natural law) wills it so. The Conservative claims the forces of history and tradition yet ignores the past existence of polygamy (especially in Biblical times); his history is of his own making. The Conservative sees marriage as it exists and calls it a wonderful institution—it is flawless (or, maybe, it was flawless before those damn Liberals got at it). The Conservative sees same-sex marriage as a threat to the institution although, for whatever reason, rarely now broaches the issue of divorce. If he does, he attributes the divorce rate to “bad character” even if, ironically, he himself is on his third wife.

The Liberal says that marriage is a valuable social institution; however, like all institutions, it is far from perfect. The institution of marriage, the Liberal says, needs to be made equitable and more inclusive; institutions need to be adapted to better align with the dignity and liberty of all individuals. The Liberal wants the legalization of same-sex marriage because, by making it more inclusive and helping to make it a more equal partnership, the good of the institution can be preserved and made better.

The Radical looks at marriage and sees a bourgeois convention—an archaic, medieval, misogynistic arrangement that serves no valuable purpose anymore except to reactionary forces. The Radical believes that marriage, as an institution, should no longer exist. “Man and woman were not made for monogamy,” the Radical says. If the Radical supports the legalization of same-sex marriage, it is because s/he is willing to lean toward the Liberal, for, ideally, to the Radical, the institution would not exist at all—gaining inclusiveness through dissolution.

We can see the same dynamic in economic views, namely around the institution of private property.

The Conservative view on private property can often be reduced to the statement “God wills it.”  In this view, private property is all moral right because the existing distribution of wealth is ordained by God.  Divine forces have chosen some to be rich and some to be poor, and government intervention against this would thus be immoral.  The “chosen” rich can, by their good graces, decide to treat the poor beneficently, but any effort at social reconstruction will be resisted tooth and nail.

The view “God wills it” underlies secularized economic views as well.  Take, for instance, Social Darwinism.  This view, which claims that the poor and sick must be abandoned because they threaten the integrity of human advancement and that those who succeed have succeeded because of their own natural superiority, is little more than “God wills it” without the explicitness of the divine sanction.  “Nature” or “Natural law” wills it, we might say instead.  

Furthermore, a variant of the “Natural law says so” argument is the claim that “The God of the market wills it”—the conservative libertarian argument, such as that found in the writings of Friedrich Hayek.  Here, the market takes on the form of a deity, distributing goods as it sees fit—however with no necessary intrinsic moral logic.  We humble beings cannot know ourselves what the omniscient market does.  We must not question it.  We must bow our heads to it and not question its judgment in how it distributes the goods and resources of the earth.

Whereas the conservative sees private property and thinks, “MORAL RIGHT,” the liberal sees private property and seems a muddied amalgamation of “right” and “force.”  The liberal, then, believes that the government must work to rectify this situation, to eliminate the force but preserve the moral right to property.  Obviously, this distinction may often not be clear, and the varying attempts at redistribution will prove contentious—whether they are too limited or too far-reaching.  However, the liberal is the innovator and continued apostle of the welfare state---the system designed to enable more individuals to have access to the moral right of property financed by attempts to eliminate some of the component of “force” from excessive wealth.

The Radical, however, sees private property as force and force alone.  The ills of inequality that have plagued civilization for ages stem from the time that someone took a stake to the ground and said, “Mine.”  As the division between moral right and force will always be unclear, the Radical seeks to solve the problem by abolishing the institution of private property. The moral right to property can only exist in its collective capacity—in public goods or the redistributed ownership of that which is owned collectively.  Universal inclusion can only be achieved through dissolution.

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