By Gwydion M Williams
Crisis has been the normal mode of existence for Western Europe the fall of the Latin half of the Roman Empire. America can congratulate itself on its enormous advance during the various crises of the 20th century. To criticise America because it presides over a world in crisis is to miss the point.
Will Hutton said some sensible stuff in The State We’re In. Tony Blair briefly tried out the idea of ‘stakeholding’ as a radical new concept, but got no response. The bulk of the left had learned nothing and forgotten nothing since the 1970s, while the ex-Leftists of New Labour showed a naïve belief in the efficiency of ‘free markets’. Hutton himself seemed short of ideas and unwilling to present ‘stakeholding’ as a distinct idea. And his new book The World We’re In confirms the limits of his viewpoint..
The big theme is the dichotomy between the rival American creeds of ‘liberalism’ and ‘conservatism’. As Hutton puts it: “Liberalism means different things in the US, Britain and Europe. I have adopted the American usage. Liberalism in the US is the creed that advocates a rational, universal infrastructure of justice built on the complex trade-offs between liberty, solidarity and equality… Liberal or neo-liberal economics, however, is free market economics asserting the primacy of individualism, which I have chosen to call ‘conservatism’. (Introduction, page 4 of hardback edition.)
I’d say it was neater to identify American liberalism with the tax-and-spend policies that ran very successfully from the 1950s to the 1970s. Hutton’s ‘definition’ might mean almost anything—are two liberties worth more than one solidarity? and just how would one measure them anyway?
The big thing about modern American ‘conservatism’ is its total failure to save the things it claimed to be defending. They are dysfunctional conservatives in a very odd political system, where people sincerely believe that all will be well if only the Constitution is operated correctly. And this is very different from Western Europe, where Christian Democracy and Gaullism were functional conservatisms that allowed Continental Europe to recover from the war and then equal or surpass Britain. Christian Democracy and Gaullism are not topics in Hutton’s index, and De Gaulle is mentioned only in connection with European unification.
In most of Western Europe, Liberalism as a political creed collapsed during the first half of the 20th century. Fascism was in many ways a response to Liberal failure, yet the cure was worse than the disease. After 1945, the dichotomy between Liberalism and authoritarian/fascist creeds was replaced by a healthy division between socialists and real conservatism.
In the USA, socialism never made the key breakthrough in a ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system, and both main parties were a mix of different elements. Republicans used to be seen as the more progressive party, which is why electoral maps show them as red and Democrats as blue.
As for ‘free markets’ the big thing about ‘free market economics’ is that it never has meant everyone selling whatever they please, where they please and to whom they please. No one has ever tried to run such a system, and today’s ‘free market’ creeds mean just that the rich are freed of the social controls and social obligations that used to apply to them.
Effective conservatism means protecting society from the subversive results of market forces. US ‘conservatives’ do bend their dogma to protect the rich, and also groups like farmers who have lots of votes in key states. But they do not see the need to build a system that will leave most people feeling cosy and contented. Cosiness and contentedness are seen as bad things in themselves, in fact, which is why such ‘conservatism’ remains dysfunctional.
Hutton’s view of America is that it was run by wise and virtuous liberals up until the 1970s, after which the bad and foolish conservatives took over for no clear reason. He does mention the enforcement of Civil Rights in the 1960s as a cause. But Civil Rights merely exposed the contradictions between the progressive and mostly-northern wing of the Democrats and its racist anti-progressive southern wing. American liberalism was a sham, a polite front for a society that was in some ways more oppressive than Britain in the 1950s.
What happened in the 1960s was that the liberal world order was attacked by the very people who were in line to be its next generation of recruits and future leaders. The cause of this discontent was that this liberal world order assumed continued dominance by white males living ‘respectable’ lives. It was the continuation of such a system that was attacked, and in fact broken. An attempt at a smooth internal transition was made by President Kennedy, but I doubt he could have kept the disparate elements together if it had not been for his assassination during an election campaign which he looked very likely to lose.
Kennedy was a hard-line defender of the USA’s right to push into every other society and Americanise it. He began the Vietnam War, and the claim he meant to pull out again is very doubtful. Anti-communism was part of the Kennedy creed, with younger brother Robert Kennedy making his mark working for Senator Joe McCarthy in the successful persecution of US radials. Reagan’s notorious remarks about the USSR as an ‘evil empire’ are much less extreme than Kennedy’s habit of calling it a system of slavery—and this at a time when the gap in personal liberties between the two systems was much smaller than it had become by the 1980s.
The joke is, the progressive-sounding liberals kept intact a system of racial inequality and male dominance. The 1970s switch from liberal to conservative disguises the fact that the USA today has very much less of the values the ‘conservatives’ claim to be upholding. There are votes in sounding nostalgic for the 1950, as Ronald Reagan noticed (along with noticing that most of the voters were not as clever as east-coast media people, and resented it. and that there were votes in sounding good-naturedly stupid). But Ronald Reagan was also a divorced Hollywood actor married to a Hollywood actress whose own mother was divorced.
Nostalgia was a nice place to visit, but no one actually wanted to live there. Pat Buckhannon is shut out on the Hard Right because he sounds serious about going back to 1950s values. The ‘conservatism’ of Reagan, Bush and Thatcher has been little more than a line of patter that kept authentically conservative elements in line while the economy was massively restructured to the advantage of the rich.
Thatcher probably believed the story that replacing welfare with commerce and statism with business ethics would somehow restore traditional morality. Maybe she still believes it, despite the complete failure of society to behave in line with their theories. (Reductions in crime are nicely explained by a reduced number of young people as a proportion of the population.)
It is absurd to call these characters ‘conservative’. They cultivate old-fashioned attitudes, and some of them resent the changes that have happened over the past few decades. But they have no coherent idea what to do about to preserve it. They are indeed committed to ‘half-liberalism’, economic liberalisation that is supposed not to have damaging social effects.
Republicans have also noticed and accepted the ‘browning’ of America. You can’t get elected any more with just white votes, you need to move with the times. If someone in the 1950s had got a time-machine and taken a quick look at the ethnic and sexual mix of the cabinet of George Bush Junior, they’d probably assume that the US Communist Party had just been elected. In the 1950s, it was only Communists and some independent radicals who were serious about breaking down existing hierarchies.
This is also a change from the Reagan years. As far as I recall, the only notable black man at Mr Reagan’s inauguration was playing the piano, a division of labour that a plantation slave-owner of the 1850s would have found eminently proper.
It was however a dysfunctional conservatism, and this was just what the voters wanted. A television review of the new US comedy-drama Six Feet Under commented “President George Bush senior may have wished that Americans preferred the values of the Waltons to those of the Simpsons, but, from Roseanne to The Sopranos, his countrymen have continued to embrace the dysfunctional over the wholesome”. I’d add that embrace the dysfunctional over the wholesome is what got Reagan and Bush Senior elected, and Bush Junior too. Former Vice-President Gore was disliked because he was clever and humane, the voters are comfortable with an apparent idiot at the centre of the world’s most powerful state machine. Though Bush Junior, like Reagan, knows that there are votes to be won from receiving the sneers of superior intellectual commentators. Half the voters are below average intelligence, after all.
Hutton does say some sensible things about inequality. The US has some three million millionaires, the poorest 10% are poorer than in most European countries, and social mobility is not in fact any better than it is in Europe. Also the USA has done as well as it has, only because it has been able to import huge amounts of capital from overseas—as I write, there are fears that much of this capital could run away again, because its overseas owners are far from sure that the US has in fact bounced back nicely from a small recession.
But Hutton also sees such things as an aberration in a basically good system. It’s just not true to say “the founding fathers of the US constitution—Washington, Hamilton and Madison—all knew that a constitution that proclaimed the equality of all men and women could never be squared with slavery. But they also knew that the political necessity of combining all the former British colonies… trumped the need to offer any constitutional injunction enfranchising the black population.” (Ibid, p 90). Washington was a slave-owner, and most white Americans were in agreement in keeping down free blacks. De Tocqueville in Democracy In America recorded how even free blacks with a right to vote were being intimidated out of actually voting. Local democracy meant that local prejudices could be enforced regardless of the letter of the law.
Even among whites, Washington and most of his colleagues did not intend their republican system to become a democracy, the gentry of America were supposed to remain in control. This was only changed by the triumph of Jefferson and the Democratic-Republican Party, the forerunner of the Democratic Party of today. But Jefferson was also a slave-owner who opposed abolition, and it was the split among Democrats that got Abraham Lincoln elected. Lincoln regarded the ending of secession as more important that abolishing slavery, and made a serious effort to persuade free blacks to emigrate to Africa or Latin America, he did not want them as part of free and white America. As for “the equality of all men and women”, the rights of man were just that, the inferior position of women was taken for granted even by most radicals.
Hutton does give a good account of the negative effects of ‘shareholder power’. But is Boeing really in decline? Hutton says so, but other sources see it as still doing fine, letting Europe’s Airbus consortium have some parts of the market but pushing innovatively into others. But the basic picture seems clear enough, “44 cents in every post-tax dollar of profit was distributed as dividends; by the 1990s the proportion had nearly doubled to 85 cents” (Ibid, p 133). He also cites European companies like Volkswagen, Michelin and Nokia that ignore all of the New Right rules and yet do very nicely (pages 239-41).
There is indeed no logical basis for the New Right’s Dogma of Market Infallibility. They assert that returns on capital for the owners of capital will guide them to better production, whereas ignoring profit and trying to do the right thing will produce waste, failure and bureaucracy. This idea was first expressed in The Wealth Of Nations, and it’s based on verbal trickery, as I showed in my book Adam Smith: Wealth Without Nations.
Hutton foresees a clash between the USA and an expanding Euro zone (page 321). I’d see it as doubtful. European leaders since the end of the Cold War have sought to revive the European hegemony that had apparently been dropped in the fact of the Soviet challenge. Europe and America have so far exercised a ‘duel monarchy’, and it was America that did most of the work dismembering Yugoslavia when the Serbs tried to carry on being what they had been under Tito. Also while Africa remains poor and disordered, Asia east of Pakistan is mostly doing very nicely and both China and India are slowly moving towards the kind of wealth and power that their population and cultural heritage would entitle them to. For the moment, Europe shows an unfortunate willingness to share privilege with the USA and hold out against any real global equality.
I said earlier that American power made enormous advances during the various crises of the 20th century. But these were crises for which America was not guilty, or at least where American guilt could be plausibly denied. Now this is getting harder, after an unfinished Gulf War, the horribly costly subversion of Yugoslavia and a ‘war on terror’ directed against people whom the USA originally encouraged and armed. The various crises of Western Europe have been a veritable ‘wheel of fortune’, that typically wear down and ruin whichever power may be strongest at a given moment. That’s the world we’re really in.
This was written in 2002. Still seems valid.