25 October 2010

Progress v Freedom

The 21st Century paradigm?  

Left v Right was so 18th Century.
Collectivism v Individualism was so 19th Century
Socialism v Capitalism was so 20th Century


The cultural and political debates that are emerging in the 21st Century seem to be better framed in the related, but more informative, dichotomy of "Progress v Freedom", than the opaque, out-moded and blunt, " Left v Right ".  Labelling that tries to be more descriptive of the political content of a person's ideas is more helpful than the arbitrary putative positioning of that person relative to  opponents. Admittedly there is a residual problem that "progress" is also merely a directional indicator, that on its own doesn't indicate a destination. This means it can be appropriated as a label by anyone who wants to takes us to a different place.

"Progressive" is still used as a virtually inter-changable label for the Left today, even though the Left appear to oppose "progress", in its old 19th and 20th Century sense of building or placing more human infrastructure and services in under-developed places.  The Left originally appropriated the "progressive" label by contrasting themselves with "conservatives" who resisted societal change. As politics and society have evolved over the past couple of centuries this has become a little misleading. "Conservatives" or the "Right" have in more recent times become the party advocating the primacy of free markets. This positioning of the "right" is not "conservative". It is in furtherance of letting  free market choices determine failure and success dispassionately, with a minimum overlay of moral judgement. Markets are inherently dynamic, not conservative.

The "Left" have largely become the party advocating the primacy of government intervention to solve social ills rather than allowing unregulated market processes to take their disspassionate course. This often sees "progressives" advocating preserving institutions and resisting market dictated changes that would create what they perceive as undesired social displacements. In this way progressives are the conservatives.  The continued appropriation of "progessive" by the Left  depends now on a redefinition of the different places they want to take us. Rather than any developmental change it is now change of a more nuamced  sort: only progress towards certain defined social equity goals and the betterment of the collective lot of humans and the planet, is now considered "progrssive".  "Progress" thereby can still be used as a label by the Left even though Greens, such an important part of the progressive Left's current self identification, are passionate opponents of people being free to pursue progress in the physical developments of land and the environment.

More descriptive labels than Left v Right would seem to be more helpful . Confused political journalists and commentators might get a more realistic perspective on what is driving the Tea Party movement if they were more nuanced in their labellingAs it is many lazy, incurious or agenda driven reporters seem to just reflexively call the emerging grass roots opposition to both government's excessive intervention in citizens' lives and its fiscal irresponsibility, "right wing extremism".  By doing so they thereby either deliberately or inadvertently, but certainly misleadingly, equate such opposition with fascism, which is its polar political opposite.

The problem is that the 20th century progressive "Left" has always seen itself as having permanently appropriated the political cause of the masses. Both the Left and many of those who who purport to report on our political process, are apparently too conservatively inflexible to see that this convenient long standing appropriation, no longer truthfully describes what is actually happening in contemporary society. The progressive project of the political Left has, with its successful decades long march through the institutions, become the default position of the ruling elites. The masses are now, with a slowly dawning new political consciousness, beginning to spontaneously revolt against the accumulating and accelerating intrusions of the progressive State excessively intervening in citizens' lives. This polar flip in mass political consciousness is potentially quite an exhilarating prospect to behold, even if it remains difficult to predict the the pace and places at which it breaks out.

What's amazing is that so many of our 'would be' disaffected anti-establishment radicals in journalism and commentary (who want to "make a difference" in their work) remain so blinkered by the ideological straight jackets of their educational culture, that they don't seem to be able to acknowledge that this growing inversion in populist sentiment is taking place at all. The evidence, as seen in the much disparaged but clearly massively influential Tea Party movement, is becoming plainer to see by the day. But it seems it is so much easier and politically more convenient to a contemporary journalist's "life's project", to just continue to stay with their old narrative of populist Left and elitist Right, even whilst such facile characterisations aren't holding water anymore.

One of the puzzles of humanity that has always perplexed me, is why otherwise intelligent, serious and curious people seem to be so ready to blithely prioritise their particular current notion of desirable collective social progress over individual freedoms. And this occurs seemingly without any regard being had to the accumulated consequences. This seems to be a common trait of the collectivist worldview: a reflexive willingness to sacrifice others' individual freedoms in the name of their perceptions of the collective good.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Indeed one of the ways you might interpret the civilization we have inherited, is that it is the sum of the lessons passed down to us by our forebears about how we can satisfactorily resolve the conflict between individual freedom and collective good. My concern is that within the current paradigms of this perpetual battle for our political souls, there does not seem to be sufficient , if any, merit afforded  to the case for individual liberty in the contest with collectivist strictures. Although this long term imbalance may be beginning to be redressed.

If a political activist in a contemporary western democracy calls for "something to be done" about a perceived problem, then "being seen to do something" about that problem, has become almost the sole driver of the political narrative. For someone to observe, let alone advocate, that nothing effective can be done, or that the solution could be worse than the perceived problem, has become too difficult a case to make, lest the person putting such a case be characterised as uncaring or heartless. That such shallow polemics is often a complete mis-characterisation of the actual situation, because such observations or advocacy are often actually driven by a deep and real concern for the liberties and prosperity of the wider collective body politic, seems to be ignored.

We live in a world that is dictated to by 15 second sound bites, 140 character Twitter feeds and sensationalist headlines. These days an argument suggesting that there are net benefits to citizens from  preserving their individual freedoms against the constant erosions to them of the state, risks ridicule by all the university (or wanna be) educated strivers for conformity to collective moral purity, amongst the self important opinion makers in the media.  Surely, we say, everyone must acknowledge that seat belts save lives. Why should we be free to not wear them if we chose to take that risk?    (Can it not be legitimately argued anymore that this is something that is a personal choice and a personal risk for each adult to make and take responsibility for, and not something for editorialists and the Roads and Traffic Authority to dictate to society?)

Today's climate of disparagement of free choice and routine demonisation of advocates for personal freedom of choice, as reckless, uncaring and unintelligent, has seen the balance that is at the core of this perpetual political conflict, badly skewed towards collectivism. The dreadful lessons of the 20th Century's disastrous efforts to impose prescriptive notions of collective well being on humanity from above, seem not to have been heeded.  By allowing collectivism to nearly always trump individualism, we inadvertently risk a steady descent into statist totalitarianism. We are all now live lobsters in a pot being brought without protest, by slow and imperceptible increments, to the boil, so that others may later dine on our carcass. And it is because we have an insufficient appreciation of the importance and value of our individual liberties, that we do not feel justified in protesting when some new minor stricture from the collectivist scolds in power is imposed on us.

The most prominent recent iteration of this persistent theme of contemporary political life is the global warming debate. Most progressives, who prioritise collective coercion over individual responsibility, are currently preparing to compel all of us to sacrifice many of our few precious remaining personal liberties and choices, in the name of the greater good of the planet. The collectivists would have us believe that; like other great progressive achievements of post-Enlightenment Western civilization like universal suffrage, the liberation of women and freedom of religion; endorsing and enforcing low carbon industry and life styles is a great human or planetary good that requires and demands great personal sacrifices from each of us. If needs be, this will be done by force of law with severe punishment for transgressions, and this is for our own good. And it is taken for granted that this is so, even if it means for each of us to be prepared to subsume ourselves under a vast and highly intrusive global bureaucratic apparatus that all non-delusional thinkers know will be not just be imperfect, but potentially totalitarian in character.

As discussed above, "progress" used to mean development of infrastructure for the improvement of living conditions for humans. Climate change alarmism seems to oppose this kind of "progress". Can being Green really be progressive? Well yes, provided you can change the object towards which you wish to progress. Even, it seems,  if it means going in the other direction (from pro-development to anti-development), which is what the Green appropriation on "progress" has done.

This was all prompted by yet another thought provoking post in early October by David Foster on the Chicago Boyz website called "The Scribes and the idea of Freedom".  His post, amongst other things, takes a pre-emptive swipe at Richard Franzen's new novel Freedom, which apparently questions the sanctity of the concept of freedom. Could this be another new beginning for an interesting debate on "freedom" in contemporary academia?  I note that the ABC's book review TV program, First Tuesday, has set Franzen's "Freedom" and Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" as its two novels for review on air in November. So let's get in and dabble a bit in this pond now before these TV literary elitists pontificate from their high cultural altar.  Will the elitist "Scribes" class rally against this impending 'tea party" insurrection from the masses with scorn and ridicule, a la Franzen, for the little folks' misplaced love of "freedom", or will there be some revision in the intellectual ranks towards a new found respect for the chaotic creative power of individualism ?

I was quite taken by this from David Foster's Chicago Boyz post:

The question of why the conceptual and emotional traps that affect human decision-making don’t also apply to these elites–the question of “who will nudge the nudgers”–tends to go unanswered.
You get the distinct feeling Western intellectuals (pseudo and otherwise) are feeling compelled by unfolding events to scramble a justification for their apparently failed, almost universally leftist collectivist prescriptions for society since the second world war.   Could this be the fear that is driving current efforts by the authorial class to re-contextualise the idea of  "freedom"?  The western social democratic hegemony now appears to be on the brink of being openly challenged politically from below by the Tea Party movement. Such a challenge must be confronted otherwise the elite's power will be eroded.

I also liked this observation from one of the commenters on Foster's post:

It is one of the major blind spots of leftist’s elitism that they can’t see that the behaviors that they see as corrupting individual decision-making and private organizations also affect themselves and government institutions. There is no way to evade our programmed impulses to selfishness. Almost all leftists ideas are ultimate based on the idea that an altruistic subset of humans exist who will only use the violent-based coercive power of the state for the good of all.
The Greeks, the Romans of the Republic and the Founders knew better. The farther we deviate from that hard earned wisdom, the worse we do.
I've got a feeling we are going to see from our academic elites and the commentariat in coming months and years, a lot more sanctimonious belittling of the plebians' inability to choose wisely. As the backlash against Obama's failed experiment in government beneficence gathers pace in the US and slowly spreads to the outposts of the empire here in Australia, all the enablers and apologists for statism in the educated cultural elites will desperately stretch to find something to cling to on the mountainside. All the time forgetting or failing to acknowledge how unwise the leftwing choices they have made or would have had us make, in the last century have been.

Capitalism is not pretty, but it has delivered prosperity to the majority who have learnt to survive its indifference to their fate. Socialism looks pretty, but it has impoverished the majority of those who suffer under its loud proclamations of concern for their well being. The cultural elites of Western Democracies do not seem to want to face up to this palpable truth, because it would mean their constant expressions of concern would be without content.

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