Archive for October, 2010

What do “liberal” and “conservative” actually mean?

These terms by now can mean almost anything you want them to mean.

I tend to view liberalism as a right-wing ideology, basically running together with capitalism. “Liberals” and “conservatives” in the US argue about parameters of state policy within the context of a state capitalism. This isn’t just a theoretical or philosophical observation, it’s also a practical and empirical fact in the world. In Australia, the Liberal party is the conservative party. In Western Europe, to be “liberal” is to be on the centre-right, i.e. conservative.

So the right, as far as it is concerned in economics, and so far as it expresses itself ideologically (the reality is often different), has been split between those who advocate less (conservatives, capitalists, “free-marketeers”) or more (liberals, Keynesians) State activity in the economy

On the left, I would place anarchism/marxism/socialism and some forms of social democracy, though most social democratic parties have long betrayed their socialist roots and become identified with various forms of class compromise; their various welfare state structures have long been under attack and have been rolled back, often by the social democratic parties themselves. But the decline of social democracy is another long question and less relevant to the US.

Historically, I think one can basically understand this, at a ridiculously broad level of caricature, by noting that “history moves left” in the following sense.

1800: Democracy/capitalism/liberalism/left vs Monarchy/feudalism/conservatism/right

1900: Socialism/Social-democracy/liberalism/left vs capitalism/political-democracy/conservatism/right

1950: Socialism/Keynes/”modern liberalism”/left vs. capitalism/Hayek/”traditional liberalism”/conservatism/right

2000: Socialism/”neo-Keynesianism”/left vs capitalism/liberalism/conservatism/right

And, extrapolating, based on this I fancifully postulate an optimistic future history.

2050: Anarchism/Socialism/left vs social-democracy/capitalism/right

2100: Anarchism/participatory-economics/left vs market-socialism/social-democracy/right

2150: anarchism/left vs participatory-economics/right

Of course, history is full of setbacks, regressions, and catastrophes; and there is nothing deterministic about the future of humans, much depends upon will, intention, and political and social dynamics at every well.

Still, I would like to hope that if I live to 2150, then I will have to think about whether or not to join the conservative party.

Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
— Martin Luther King Jr.


Written by dan

October 25th, 2010 at 12:59 am

Antiwar and queer liberation politics

The antiwar and queer liberation movements are natural allies. Yet the focus on “don’t ask don’t tell” threatens to turn the queer liberation movement pro-militarism.

The two perhaps most important specific LGBT-related issues in recent times — gay marriage, and “don’t ask don’t tell” — are both in a sense actually quite reactionary. They amount to promoting marriage, and promoting the military. These cases are instances of the following general scenario. Marginalised populations (women, queer peoople, jewish people, muslim people, black people, indigenous people, etc. etc.) have long been unjustly excluded from respectable institutions in society (voting, marriage, military, universities, parliaments, corporations); respectable institutions usually being conservative or reactionary, attempts to end this exclusion run the risk of promoting conservative or reactionary institutions. The most liberatory position is to say that the exclusion is unjust; but the inclusion only affirms the conservative/reactionary institution. Taking this position pushes the envelope and promotes critical thought and struggle in the movement, but runs the risk of alienating the movement and losing more mainstream elements.

Emma Goldman, that great defender of the rights of queer people, and much else besides, distinguished sharply between marriage and love. Marriage may have been something a little different in her day from what it is today, but she opposed marriage with such vehemence that she proclaimed above it that motto Dante inscribed on the gates of hell: “abandon all hope ye who enter here”.

In fact, at the widely attended rallies against proposition 8, I never heard a word against marriage; rather there tended to be strong — and passionate and genuine — statements of how one should be able to marry the person one loves and wants to spend one’s life with, and how in this regard queer people should be treated no differently from hetero people. This is deeply moving and touching. It is also, however, rhetoric that if they were made in a heterosexual context, would amount to highly conservative “defence of family values”. For myself, I don’t think the State has any place in marriage at all, regulating people’s private lives in that way; and the historical baggage of women’s oppression through marriage makes it a deeply troubling institution. If I want to spend my life with somebody, I hardly think I should need to get some certificate from the State or Church to authorise it. Proposition 8 was to be opposed, in my view, not in defence of the regressive institution of State-sanctioned marriage, but in opposition to discrimination and bigotry. I think the best one can say about it is, “State-sanctioned marriage is an oppressive institution, but if you want it, you should be able to have it!”

Similarly, the military is an oppressive institution, but if you want to join it, you should be able to!

In this sense, the homophobic policy of “don’t ask don’t tell” in the US military is to be opposed, and its end is to be welcomed. But this should not amount to promoting miltiarism, or promoting the horrors of US military actions, or promoting reactionary patriotism. Those queer people who want to sign up for the US military, just like straight people who sign up for the same, should heed the warning of Goldman, that they are, amongst many other concerns,

assum[ing] that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate. Those who have had the fortune of being born on some particular spot, consider themselves better, nobler, grander, more intelligent than the living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill, and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all the others.

The inhabitants of the other spots reason in like manner, of course, with the result that, from early infancy, the mind of the child is poisoned with bloodcurdling stories about the Germans, the French, the Italians, Russians, etc. When the child has reached manhood, he is thoroughly saturated with the belief that he is chosen by the Lord himself to defend his country against the attack or invasion of any foreigner. It is for that purpose that we are clamoring for a greater army and navy, more battleships and ammunition. It is for that purpose that America has within a short time spent four hundred million dollars.

It is a lot more than four hundred million dollars today.


Written by dan

October 23rd, 2010 at 7:17 am