Saturday, 12 February 2011

The emergence of Social Liberalism

For a recent essay I had to answer the question 'was the new Liberalism simply a response to the emergence of socialism?'  Here is a precis of some of the more interesting aspects:

Liberalism’s evolution during the latter half of the Nineteenth Century can be defined as what John Stuart Mill describes the ‘struggle between liberty and authority’. He argued that individuals should be free from the state, provided they do not harm another’s liberty; they should even be free from control if they cause harm to themselves.

Mill went on to warn against the consensus of majorities and assumed wisdom within society, which he believed leads to an assumption of infallibility in dominant ideas and a suppression of free thought. Mill suggests that this creates conformity which stifles progress, and therefore that individualism is desirable in society.

William Gladstone’s Liberalism was characterised by support for free trade, mistrust of imperialism and a desire that the ‘state withdraw where it had no business to meddle’. As the ‘franchise’ extended and clerical workers gained political influence, the Liberal Party became divided between the conflicting interests of property and supporters for various reforms.

The party’s politicians became more concerned with notions of rights and justice; the Radicals were particularly interested in social equality, ending Britain’s urban deprivation and extreme poverty. Gradually during this period British Liberalism evolved from being predominantly the champion of individual rights, to an ideology which was concerned for the rights of the many, leading to the first elements of welfare.

New Liberalism somewhat evolved from the progressive Liberals desire to reunite the Liberal Party with a socialistic and individual liberty agenda. However they rejected socialist theory in its ‘universal’ application as they were deeply sceptical of the Labour Party, which they believed to be uninterested in the rights of the individual.

The economist John Hobson’s work became influential with the Progressive Liberals as he argued for a new economic strategy which sought for the government to take a greater role managing both the public’s consumption, as well as encouraging the public to save. This would ultimately lead to a shift in ideology for the Liberal Party, away from a Laissez-fair to more interventionist policies.

Hobson went on to argue that he believed that there were ‘compatibilities’ between socialism and Liberalism, however he did not believe there were ‘interconnections’. He believed that the ideologies of Liberalism, which take personal freedoms as its aim and socialism, which to varying extents, seeks to ‘subordinate’ the individual towards a collective state effort are not as contradictory ideals as they may appear on first inspection. Hobson thought that a compromise which could unite these two ideologies of the individual and the state, could lead to a ‘rationalisation’ of capitalism and build a more ‘cooperative’ society in Britain.

Leonard Hobhouse’s vision of a Liberal rationalisation became known as ‘social liberalism’ and was designed as an answer to the philosophical issue of whether any connection between Liberalism and socialism existed in reality. Hobhouse argued for three principles of ‘rational reconstruction’. These consisted of an effective social system, the liberation of individuals, and a ‘philosophic socialism’ which sought a government which operated for the ‘common good’.

The Twentieth Century has paradoxically seen Liberalism decline across most of the world as a political force exclusive to Liberal Parties; whilst liberalism has become the dominant background theory which pervades political thought across the political parties and is now the accepted ideological framework for most modern societies.

It is to this curious contradiction that ‘new’ or ‘social’ Liberalism developed, being characterised by a strong moral and social ethos, concerned that society reflects the efforts of individuals and eliminates illegitimate advantage. There is a desire for fairness and welfare; but with a central theme of supporting the moral significance of the individual. There can be no liberty, if the individual does not have decent housing, is not given a good education, and is not protected from exploitation. This new Liberalism accepts the intervention of the state, to provide fair conditions so that every individual has the opportunity to enjoy and explore their liberty.

This therefore perhaps explains the peculiar situation in Britain, whereby political parties of the ‘left’ and ‘right’ appeal to the ‘centre’ in general election campaigns; as the public now feel so secure in their liberty that they believe that so long as these freedoms are not challenged, then a party which is defined by personal freedom is somewhat irrelevant.

It is inaccurate and simplistic to describe new Liberalism as simply a response to socialism. New Liberalism is influenced by similar aims and shares the principles of equality and social justice with socialism; however its abhorrence of authoritarianism and class conflict combined with a strong belief in liberty with individual personal freedom, creates a coherent and independent political ideology which is in itself distinct from socialism.

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