Conspiratorial Thoughts

I may be a tad late joining the ‘why I’ve joined the Liberal Conspiracy‘ party but sometimes its worth hanging back for a couple of days to check out some of the initial reaction to the project.

Which, perhaps unsurprising, seems to be something of a mix of assumptions that may not, or may not, hold valid:

But, you see, I have a problem with this whole “liberal-Left” issue: to me, the terms are near incompatible. Many of us have long argued that the terms Left and Right are effectively meaningless, and that the actual fight is between those who are statist—believing in redistribution of wealth, state economic controls, heavy regulation of both business terms and personal habits—and those who are free-market libertarians—those who believe that markets, and minimal interference by the state in business and personal concerns, provide the answers to the problems that we face.

With a fair measure of perplexity:

I’m not sure what interaction Liberal Conspiracy wants with right-wingers. At first I thought it must want to be a showcase for the best talent the left-wing blogosphere has to offer. Sort of like Comment is Free was originally intended to be. That intention is suggested by the ConservativeHome-like online magazine format and the fact that it has clearly been “marketed” pretty widely. If that is the intention then it could become a great place to go and find all my favourite left-wing bloggers to debate with. The site would want to attract right-wing comment so that the new ideas it purports to promote can be battle-hardened before heading out into the real world.

And a sweeping generalisation or two:

Unfortunately, one of its very first posts manages a combination of superficiality and self-righteousness that has utterly put me off the whole project. Apparently what Zohra really wants is to escape the real world with all those unpleasant and self-evidently wrong people who disagree – who she never discusses in any tone but utter disdainful incomprehension. She might get what she wants. Ideas and arguments there aren’t going to get scrutiny from the Right if we have to wade through such empty-headed sanctimony to get to them.

It goes without saying, I would have thought, that just as one swallow does not make a summer so one blog post by one author will be far from representative of the output of a group blog project such as this. Its in the nature of such projects that different bloggers will bring different things to the table and take different views as to what they hope, and expect, to get out of the project.

Zohra’s chosen position is one in which she holds certain views and values to be ‘givens’ that she doesn’t feel she needs to continually justify to all-comers. She has a defined ideological position on certain matters from which she derives her sense of which values matter and her interests, therefore, rest in discussing and debating how best to translate those views in practical actions and outcomes. That’s not how I necessarily see things myself, but its far from being an invalid position. It’s just something that you take for what it is and either you choose to engage with it because its interests you or you leave it alone and move on to something you find rather more interesting, of which, looking at the line-up of bloggers already involved in the project, I suspect there will be little shortage.

Matthew points out that he’s ‘not sure what interaction Liberal Conspiracy wants with right-wingers’. Neither am I, largely because I suspect it will vary considerably from blogger to blogger and, also, from ‘right-winger to right-winger’. But for a clear and fairly strict comments policy that aims to keep the amount of trolling to a minimum there’s no defined editorial policy and only a few general principles as the kind of content that the project is looking to promote. I can only speak for myself on this but the kind of interaction I envisage having with ‘right-wingers’ is pretty much the kind I have here – if you’re intelligent enough to advance a reasonably well constructed and cogent argument and make a decent point then let’s talk by all means but if all you can manage is to idiotically run off at the mouth, green ink-style, then you can fuck off and expect to be roundly ignored, unless I’m a particularly snarky mood and decide to pick you apart for the fun of it.

Liberal Conspiracy’s comments policy may take that principle further than I do here by removing egregious examples of wingnuttery and managing out the trolls and the green-inkers rather than leaving them on display where everyone can see just what a complete arse they’re making of themselves but that’s hardly an issue so far as I’m concerned. A fair comments policy is no more than one that is clear about the expectations of those running blog and consistent in its application, which is the part that one or two notable right-wing bloggers (who shall remain nameless on this occasion because you all know who they are anyway) seem not to get. If you expect the absolutely free and unfettered right to express yourself when you want and how you want without any comebacks then get your own blog – its hardly the most difficult of tasks – otherwise, when you comment on someone else’s blog its up to you to be mindful of any rules and standards they may have set for commenters and you have cause for complaint only where those rules are applied arbitrarily and inconsistently.

Personally, I make it easy for myself by having a policy that amounts to ‘no spam’, other bloggers take a different view but as its their blog it’s for them to make their own rules and decide how to apply them and its the latter on which I’ll (mostly) base my opinion of them.

So far as interacting with right-wingers are concerned, its pretty simple from my point of view. I’ll happily interact with the ones – like Matthew, Matt Wardman, Freeborn John, DK, Mr Eugenides, Tim (and Tim) and the others who’re worth interacting with on the basis that you can have an intelligent debate with them. As for the rest, fuck ’em. If you can’t articulate an opinion other than by way of pathetically using words like ‘lefty’, ‘socialist’ or the hopeless outdated ‘commie’ as a term of low-rent, low-forehead abuse then you’re just not worth the time and effort of a reply, let alone a debate.

Getting around to DK’s comments, the underlying assumption seems to be that ‘left’ equals some variety of state socialism, with all the authoritarian overtones that carries with it. Now its possible that some of the contributors to Liberal Conspiracy may see things in those terms; others, especially Chris Dillow, don’t and in many important respects nor do I.

I doubt anyone involved in the project will mind me revealing that when the project was floated the ‘liberal-left’ designation was the subject of a fair bit of discussion and generally thought be a rather imperfect way of describing the project albeit that it has the advantage of brevity. That said it was still the ‘best’ umbrella terms anyone could come up with without resorting to the long string of multisyllabic adjectives.

One of the key failings of many on the right, when its comes to engaging with the ‘left’ (liberal or otherwise) is often a lack of appreciation of just how diverse a body of views, opinions and philosophical viewpoint ‘the left’ encompasses in much the same way that one finds a multiplicity of views if one looks beyond some of the crude right-wing rhetoric that frequently masquerades as libertarianism, most commonly from amongst the less intellectually gifted Thatcherite Tories who seem to think the alpha and omega of libertarianism amounts to paying much less tax.

From some of the discussions that have taken place behind the scenes I think its fair to say that one of the main drivers behind a number of bloggers who’ve chosen to get involved in the project is a general dissatisfaction with the abject lack of imagination routinely displayed by the current ‘political elite’. There’s rather more to this than simply dissatisfaction with ‘New’ Labour much as amongst the genuinely libertarian wing of the political right there is more going on under the surface than mere dissatisfaction with the state of the Tory party and the direction its taking (or maybe isn’t taking – its still hard to be sure) under David Cameron. On both sides there is a will to try an challenge the current status quo by raising and exploring new ideas – or, as is often the case, reviving old ideas that have been unduly discarded in the past – and particularly to try and develop a new political narrative on the left of a kind that is largely unencumbered by the failures of the past.

One area where I would agree strongly with DK is that the complex question of the relationship between the individual and the state is one of the central issues that needs to be addressed on all sides of the current debate, but then it says much about the current state of political culture, in its broadest sense, that so little of the current public discourse (outside the blogosphere and the broadsheets) explicitly recognises that the central theme of politics, itself, is that of seeking a ‘balance’ of some sort between individual freedom and the powers of political ‘authority’ necessary for a productive, civilised and generally peaceful society. To be ‘liberal’, in whatever sense one chooses to use that particular term, is to seek to address that very question and much of what divides ‘left’ and ‘right’ within that framework is, in reality, a difference of opinion as to the extent to which individual freedom is contingent on one’s economic circumstances and, therefore, the extent to which outright poverty and severe economic disadvantage constitutes an infringement of personal liberty sufficient to justify the use of coercive mechanisms (taxation) as a means of obviating the harm arising from such inequalities.

In that there is, of course, plenty of scope for disagreement between ‘left’ and ‘right’, but equally there is just as much scope for disagreement between different viewpoints that operate purely on the left. It certainly doesn’t follow automatically that the dividing line between ‘left’ and ‘right’ is exclusively predicated on a division between an ‘anti-statist’ right and a ‘statist left’. If anything ‘statism’ is a function of those who determinedly operate within the prevailing cultural mores of the ruling political classes and the established party system, what, if not a prime example of state control and the workings a centralised ‘command’ economy, is the Tory’s plan for immigration quotas, for example? Or Labour’s preferred ‘points’ system for that matter?

There is, certainly amongst bloggers, evidence of what might – for want of a better term – be called ‘anti-statist’ sentiment amongst the dissident voices on both ‘left’ and ‘right’. The concept of citizen’s basic income is an idea that is, for example, increasingly gaining traction on both ‘sides’ of the left/right divide precisely because it – in principle – functions to satisfy core values on both sides. It’s administrative simplicity appeals to many on the political right as this would make a significant portion of the huge bureaucracy that has developed to service the current welfare system largely, if not entirely, redundant while its central premise, that of guaranteeing a basic level of income to all citizens free of means-testing satisfies the left’s desire for an efficient redistributive mechanism that would free individuals from enslavement by poverty and gross economic disadvantage and give those with a will to do so the scope to develop and explore their own potential.

(Admittedly the latter is recognised by many of the more intelligent and nuanced right-wing libertarians – it just a shame that such voices are too often drowned out by the ‘kill the welfare state entirely’ crowd when the liberating value of CBI is by far the better and infinitely more positive argument to advance).

Either way you come it, a citizen’s basic income is viewed as a liberating measure.

By contrast, if one looks at the policies and proposals of both the main parties, not only is each failing to challenge the current welfare system in any meaningful (and especially structural) fashion but whether through Labour’s existing tax credits system or the Tory’s proposals for token transferable tax allowances for married couples and additional tax credit premiums for cohabitees, each sees the present welfare system as a social ‘lever’, a means of seducing, if not bending, individuals to the will of the political classes (and the state, of course) by means of fiscal incentives and penalties; the politics of ‘carrot and stick’.

On that level, its seems possible that we’re moving into the realms of yet another political antipathy, a conflict between liberalism is its multiplicity of forms (classical, economic, social) and utilitarianism, which – reinforced by crude populism – underpins everything from the current trend towards crowding the political ‘centre ground’ to the overweening culture of managerialism that infests some much of both the state and – if you’ve ever dealt with a large corporation – big business.

One of the questions I’ve wrestled with, having decided to throw my lot in with this project – is that of how what I write there might differ in tone, style and/or content from what I write here and, thinking about it, its really these kinds of themes and ideas that I’m hoping to explore more fully through Liberal Conspiracy, largely because they present a challenge to the status quo on both the political right and, especially, the political left. Its early days yet, of course, but already there are one or two narrative themes I can think of that I’m inclined to explore and, however my ‘co-conspirators’ see the project, for me if it has, or needs, and underlying purpose that that has to do with exploring and developing a contemporary liberal (or liberal-left) narrative as a general framework for the development of more substantive ideas on policy and practice, a common general thread of ideas that, for me, has been lacking in British political culture for too long.

I’ve said enough for now, and really should get down to writing something for the site, itself. but as a final word for now I think it only fair that I tackle this observation by Jonathan Calder:

It seems that the site is using the word “Liberal” in the sloppy way it is used by American right-wingers. Essentially it covers anyone who opposes them from Stalinists to moderate republicans. I cannot see anything to be gained by adopting that usage in Britain.

There would certainly be nothing to gain from adopting the usage of liberal that’s, sadly, too often prevalent amongst American right-wingers (and creeping into some elements of the British right-wing as well) and which is indicative of little more than a kind of trenchant anti-intellectualism that’s less the product of conservatism than it is the product of trailer parks. That said, much the only connection between this project as that usage is the name, which is intentionally ironic.

While I can’t speak for others, I am clear in my own understanding of the meaning I attach to “Liberal’ in the context of my own involvement in this project, and that’s much the same context as it exists in the writings of J S Mill and Isaiah Berlin, to drop but two of the more notable ‘names’ that come to mind whenever the question of what ‘liberal’ might mean is raised.

Whether and to what extent such a meaning is reflected within the term ‘Liberal Democrat’ is entirely another question, and one I may well explore at a later date as is the question of the extent to which ‘liberal’ and ‘left’ may or may not be fully compatible.

  • Nail. On. Head.

  • Tim

    Interesting stuff. I’ll have to add it to the roll…

  • Guano

    Indeed, this is all interesting stuff and the question of the relationship between the individual and the State is a key question.

    There are some things that we can achieve as individuals. There are some things that can be achieved by competition between individuals. However there are also some things that can only be achieved through cooperation, especially in complex societies. This requires institutions, which are sets of rules and procedures for achieving common goals. The institutions that we are most familiar with are State institutions, but these often do not meet the standards for a efficient institution: they are not transparent and accountable, the rules are unclear and get broken, the rules for changing the rules are unclear and the level of trust in them is low. This is clearest in the ex-colonial context, where states were originally created to achieve the goals of outsiders and have struggled to gain the trust of their citizens.

    So can State institutions be made more accountable? Or do we have to create new institutions to reach common goals? Or are complex societies necessarily authoritarian?

  • I have added LC to my RSS Reader and we shall see how it develops.

    As for the rest, well, thank you for the various compliments. I’d return them by saying that I regard you as being much the same as me: although we have nominal party affiliations, our politics is not really reflected by any one party.

    DK