Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Liberal Democracy - The greatest oxymoron of them all

The first section of this article is based upon part of the final chapter of "Hegemony and Socialist Strategy - Towards a Radical Democratic Politics" by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe.

Liberal Democracy has managed to successfully brand itself as the most "democratic" of political systems. Any system calling itself socialist, never mind communist, is tainted with undertones of totalitarianism or authoritarianism. The Liberal Democratic model, with a multi-party system based upon "free and fair" elections is the model exported around the globe by the giants of capital and their militarised political wings. And why not? Surely being "liberal" (in the social sense) is what every educated person would want to be described as. And "democratic", well don't we all want to be that. . .

In the 1940s the economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek attacked state intervention in economics and criticised the creation of welfare states. His belief was that a state would move towards totalitarianism when the law, which he viewed as a means of controlling the state, was instead used by the state to give new powers to itself. This addition of legal powers to an administration would lead to collectivisation and an increased bureaucracy.

This version of liberalism entangles liberty and democracy and reduces political objectives to one goal: individual liberty. "Democracy is a means, a utilitarian device, for safeguarding peace and individual freedom" - Hayek, The Road to Serfdom.

In Capitalism and Freedom Milton Friedman declares capitalism to be the only system that allows individuals to interact politically and economically without coercion. State intervention is an attack on liberty and should only occur in areas that cannot be regulated by market forces.

Libertarian philosophy builds upon these examples of philosophers simply calling themselves "liberal". Robert Nozick (1938-2002) viewed the sole function of the state as to protect what legitimately belongs to citizens of that state (by that he means private property). The state should  only be concerned with law and order, and taxes levied by the state should not go beyond what are needed to maintain the police and legal systems. As his definition of property is dependent upon the phrase "legitimately belongs", as long as property was not obtained illegally, then the state has no business in interfering with it.

This is a very brief (so brief in fact, I'm ashamed to write it, but then again, this is only a blog) outline of some of the main liberal thoughts dominant during the end of the twentieth century. They are important because Margaret Thatcher was a firm believer in the philosophy of Hayek, and all the examples above are related to the same school of thought. So we can immediately see that the current ConDem coalition is not only natural, it was also inevitable in the face of the economic crisis of global capital.

The trends of liberal philosophy run through everything the coalition government is doing. The "big society" demolishes the state and seeks to hand "power" to individuals, charities, voluntary organisations and local communities. The "state" is caricatured as centralised, controlling and undemocratic. After all, what could be more democratic than people doing things for themselves? Schools run by parents, healthcare run by local GPs, police chiefs chosen by local people, legal services opened up to the market in the name of choice - every aspect of our lives will be democratised by giving us choice in everything we do. We will become the ultimate consumers. Everything will be for sale.

I will not, in this post, outline socialist ideals of democracy. But rather point out some of the errors of Liberal thought, and the disgusting mistakes about to be meted out by the current government.

Noam Chomsky sums the situation up very well in describing the USA: "The country was founded on the principle that the primary role of government is to protect property from the majority. And so it remains."

Liberalism, rather than seeking to make society more democratic by involving people in the democratic process, tries to democratise society by getting rid of the undemocratic institutions. By empowering people it assumes citizens will automatically become more engaged with society. Democracy becomes "choice". Economic power replaces political power.

The free market becomes the only freedom. Citizens are able to engage with services as consumers. If a service is no good, people won't use it, and that service will either improve or fail, as citizens move to another service provider. The state pension wouldn't be needed as citizens invest in the "best" private schemes. The NHS would become obsolete, as consumers would buy their healthcare and health insurance from the "best" provider. State schools would be an abhorrent indoctrination of the past. "Free" schools funded by private sponsors and paid for through minimal taxation (a pupil premium?) would improve standards, as if they didn't, parents would choose to send their children to a "better" school.

But no matter what the institution or area of society, two great black holes remain in this utopian liberal dream.

The first, although socially important, is brushed aside by the liberals. What about the poor? What about the people unable to interact in a economically-democratic-liberal way? We are assured, by Nick Clegg and David Cameron, that there will always be the "safety net" of the state to protect the most vulnerable. In that statement not only do they undermine their liberal philosophy, but also acknowledge its failure to solve the problems of society - the rich, under liberalism, will get astronomically richer, the rest of us will fund them.

The second problem strikes at the heart of their definition of democracy. Yes, the citizen-consumer is able to exercise democratic choice in the free market. But the institutions we will be buying our services from are private companies. Private companies, however constituted, are not democratic. Co-Operatives may theoretically be "owned" by their customers, mutuals may be "owned" by their staff; but the only truly democratic (in the true sense of the word) form of ownership, is public ownership. Yes, that public ownership may be overly centralised, but the fundamental role of a private company is to generate profit, and that profit is placed in the hands not of the public, but of private share holders.

Liberalism seeks to sell democracy to private profit.

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