The Lament of the Conservative Left

David Selbourne, in the left-of-center New Statesmen, writes:

With socialism at the end of its historical evolution, the "left" now lacks a coherent sense of what progress is. It has only a ragbag of causes and issues, rational and irrational, urgent and idle: a politics of personal rights and 'lifestyle choices', of anti-racism and environmental protection, of multicultural separatism, individual identity and gender, and much else besides.

Neither rhyme nor reason -- and certainly not socialist reason -- can be made of it, especially when mere transgression is confused with progress. In fact, we are now landed with a "left" concept of freedom which is little different from Milton Friedman's "right to choose", a libertarianism that has overshadowed the social in what used to be socialism. It is itself a market freedom; after all, self-restraint has less market worth than self-indulgence. Nor is today's 'freedom'n'liberty', whether right or 'left', the freedom fought for in the Reformation or in the revolutionary overthrow of the anciens régimes. It is not the freedom for which the 19th-century emancipationists and the suffragettes struggled. It is the freedom to do what one wants and the devil take the hindmost. No wonder that the far right is advancing.

There is ignorance, too, in this pseudo-left libertarianism. It is reactionary, not progressive, to promote the expansion of individual freedoms without regard to the interests of the social order as a whole. Those who want the right to choose, and who object to moral or social restraint as 'authoritarian', cannot logically object to the rights of Capital to do whatever it wants also. The rapacious equity trader has as much right to be free as you or me; these 'rights' differ only in scale and consequence, not in essence."

Here is what I find interesting: Note the disdain for individual social freedom as being "without regard to the interests of the social order as a whole." Doesn't that sound just like a religious conservative?

I have thought of conservatism as "socialism of the soul" but, in the tradition of Oliver Brett's In Defense of Liberty, I also see socialism as fundamentally conservative. In 1921 Brett wrote that socialism "will not be a liberal revolution but a conservative reaction."

He saw socialism in general, and Marxism in particular, as merely other forms of the "Old Order," because the hallmark of the conservative is that he will "leave hardly any action or any thought to the independent volition of the individual. This is not only because he has contempt for the individual, but also because he himself is "possessed by that instinct for power against which the desire for liberty is in perpetual conflict."

For Brett there were two choices: liberalism or conservatism. "The effort to escape from State control has always been the sign of liberty; the effort to enforce State control has always been the sign of Conservative reaction." For this reason: "Socialism, in so far as it postulates State control, is Conservative in thought."

Socialism was not a "revolutionary" alternative to liberalism. It was a conservative reaction against it. Ludwig Mises said: "It was Liberalism that undermined the power of the classes that had for centuries been closely bound up with the Church. It transformed the world more than Christianity had ever done. It restored humanity to the world and to life. It awakened forces which shook the foundations of the inert traditionalism on which Church and creed rested."

Professor E. Harris Harbison, of Princeton, concurred: "The truly 'radical' movement of the later medieval and early modern period was the growth of economic individualism, not the appearance of a few communistic books, sects, and communities. Against the background of nineteenth century individualism, 'radical' is today almost synonymous with 'socialist' or 'communist'. ...It is essential to the understanding of utopian socialism to remember that when it first appeared in European history as a fairly consistent theory, it was very largely a reactionary protest against a new, 'progressive' and poorly understood economic movement, an appeal to turn the clock backward." Walter Lippman wrote: "...I insist that collectivism, which replaces the free market by coercive centralized authority, is reactionary in the exact sense of the word."

Max Beer in his General History of Socialism and Social Struggle argued that socialism advocated a "modernized medieval order." The socialists looked around them at the changes that liberalism had wrought and found it frightening, they: "...could not accept ideas and demands and economic practices which were based on individual freedom of judgment and of action--without regard to the Church, the State, and the community, and placed egoism and self-interest before subordination, commonality, and social solidarity. The modern era seemed to them to be built on quicksand, to be chaos, anarchy, or an utterly unmoral and godless outburst of intellectual and economic forces, which must inevitably lead to acute social antagonisms, to extremes of wealth and poverty, and to a universal upheaval. In this frame of mind, the Middle Ages, with its firm order in church, economic, and social life, its faith in God, its feudal tenures, its cloisters, its autonomous associations and its guilds appeared to these thinkers like a well-compacted building...."

Socialism embraced some liberal goals but wanted to offer the security of the old order where disturbing social change was minimized and what change was allowed was carefully controlled. It grabbed the methods of conservatism, embracing state power as the means of planning permissable changes and preventing others. It embraced change to a limited degree, unlike conservatives, but wanted to direct it. Liberalism, to the socialist, meant unplanned change. It was this concept of an "invisible hand" that disturbed them. The socialist, in his heart, is a conservative, just one who wants some of what liberalism has to offer.

In the end intellectuals such as Selbourne, find themselves lamenting "the expansion of individual freedoms without regard to the interests of the social order as a whole." He has to argue that freedom means allowing "Capital" to do whatever it wants. He needs some such shibboleth to justify his conservatism.

Liberalism, however, actually argued that the freedom of each is limited by the equal freedom of others. The problem for the would-be central planner is that he can't believe in equal freedom, he can only accept a world where he plans and you are planned -- pretty much what conservatives want to do in the name of God.

Note: It appears to me that Selbourne has in essence plagiarized himself -- if that is possible -- for sections of his New Statesman article strongly resemble his lament in The Guardian four years earlier. His theme, once again, was that we have too much freedom and that the "socialist ideals" of the Left have "been displaced by an open-ended libertarianism." Again, he damns those of us on the "libertarian left" for "screeching about 'intrusions' upon personal liberty." If that is his accusation, I plead guilty as charged, proudly.