We Need a New Age I Tell You…!
I kicked off this blog yesterday with some (rather rambling) thoughts on why I want to blog and what I want to blog about. A couple of people have already kindly asked what’s behind the ‘LiberalismFive’ idea so I thought a brief (ish) explanation is in order.
The New Becomes the Accepted
We do naturally tend to assume that what is commonly accepted today has ever been thus, and is the correct and only way of seeing things. Ask a fisherman if today’s fish stocks are ‘normal’ and they often say yes- however despite me knowing very much less than them about fishing I can pipe up and say ‘sorry, historically fish catches were much larger, more bountiful and with much bigger fish'(1) . Or to take an example from the excellent Clay Shirky (@cshirky) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Here_Comes_Everybody) with any new technology we can divide people into those who never accept or adopt the technology, those who adopt but are always conscious of its newness and innovativeness, and those for whom it is just there, and invisible/accepted. Interestingly that changes over a lifetime-with those who see for example see telephones as invisible, always being aware of say social media or video-calling, but the younger generation treating them as invisible. I’m willing to bet today’s 20somethings will always be conscious of robot helpers and driverless cars when they come whereas their kids won’t.
The point being that, taking a long enough perspective, we can track great progress in Europe in terms of liberal ideas, and my suggestion is that, having seen four great ‘ages’ of liberalism, we now need a fifth.
I’ll say more as the blog develops about what I think this fifth ‘age’ should involve, and why, but for the moment, what were the previous four?
Ages One and Two- Shaking Off The Religious and Economic Shackles
I’d count the first age of Liberalism as involving that time in the 17th century onwards where, in beginning to develop science, and beginning to demand the restriction of political absolutism, we experienced increasing freedom to hold different religious views (and sometimes even none), and where the power of monarchs and rulers began to be restricted by parliaments, law-makers and the rule of law itself. Gradually, the age of enlightenment meant that at least for some (often white, often privileged, often men), the freedom existed to hold different religious, political and personal views on life and how to live it. One might, very simply, consider it the beginnings of a rights based approach to personal and political freedoms- to worship as you want or not at all, to speak up as you wished to, to associated with whom you wished, and crucially for many, to define and clarify property rights.
This is of course a very simplistic view, very Western and full of holes, but it gives a flavour. Thinkers range from Locke, to Kant, to Winstanley and Lilburne, to Rousseau and John Wilkes, amongst many others (shout out for the Baron D’Holbach!) and many on my list would not be considered liberals in the modern sense (that great figure Jefferson for example owned slaves for much of his life).
As time went buy, a combination of population growth, empire building, growth in the theory and practice of capitalism and huge technological change increased the benefits that flowed from a more open and trade-led economic view, as opposed to that merely zero-sum view that led to wars of acquisition, or mercantilist views, or closed economies. This is what I would term very broadly a ‘second age’ of liberalism.
Very much the ‘classical’ liberalism of the 19th century, with debates mixing empire with trade, rules about ownership and limited liability of companies with emerging concerns about the effects on workers, the 19th century saw a huge upturn in the desire to advance the economy, using the new insights of economists, a growing understanding of how trade and open borders and economic growth could enrich society (or at least some of it). I’d include in this period a growing reaction to the horrors of unchecked capitalism, the reaction of Marx, the introduction of restrictions on working conditions and child labour, and the beginnings of the gathering of economic statistics to support an understanding of why trade mattered, how incomes were changing, and how the state could support and develop these patterns. Classic liberalism also began to consider a whole range of issues associated with this growth, and how to reconcile personal freedom with the larger impersonal forces unleashed. And of course, it neither neglected nor solved the problems of freedom of religion, conquest or state and power flowing from wealth.
The emphasis I would argue blended both a concern for religious and personal freedoms, with a desire for economic liberty as well. I think it’s no coincidence that this period also saw huge growth in movements of workers, with the first unions established, the first acts introducing systematic controls on pay and conditions, child labour, and even some controls on pollution. No coincidence that over this period we see key developments in democracy itself, from the eroding of the power of the monarchy, to the reform of electoral conduct, to the massive extension of the electoral role (see for example the chartists and their demands). Key figures could include a huge range, from ‘liberal’ politicians such as Gladstone, Palmerston and Lord Russell, to John Stuart Mill, John Bright or Richard Cobden (yes dear reader, I greatly simplify for the sake of some brevity.)
I take this period of the ‘second age’ to close at roughly the close of the 19th century- as we began to understand and take action on the social consequences of this personal and economic focus and the negative and clearly unfair impacts it imposed on people and society.
The Third and Fourth Ages – Social Protection, the State and Today’s Politics
Continuing my simplistic gallop through history, I’d argue that the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century, saw a new bargain being struck. That bargain, between capitalists, companies, workers and the state, recognised that the levels of inequality being reached were not healthy, that more needed to be done to protect workers and the more vulnerable members of society and that doing so was not only a moral imperative but also an economic one- with a huge growth in the role of the state. Some in the paternalistic tradition also feared for the consequences of ignoring the demands of workers and the urban and rural poor.
Key developments included in the UK the beginnings of a state pension, the beginnings of a comprehensive welfare state, further controls and improvements to workers lives, and the gradual movement of education and a host of health and protection services from private, charitable and religious provision, towards that of the state itself. Key figures at this point might include JA Hobson, LT Hobhouse, the great reforming liberal governments of Campbell-Bannerman, Henry Asquith and Lloyd-George, and the early work of Maynard Keynes. In this period from roughly 1900-1945 we see great advances in the role of the state, arguably the beginnings of some gender equality, an increasing recognition of the tensions of being ‘liberal’ whilst maintaining an empire, and continued if patchy improvements in the social protections for the young, the old, the weak and the infirm.
Finally, from 1945 onwards we reach my ‘fourth age’ of liberalism. Here, many of the great innovations in public policy are solidified, increased and become mainstream- from the founding of the NHS to the introduction of lengthy compulsory education, the expansion of Universities to allow for many times previous numbers. We see the introduction of an extensive environmental protection system and the slow rolling back of hundreds of years of environmental damage. We see the end of empire (in theory at least) and the building of extensive social protection systems covering (again in theory) a citizen from cradle to grave. We see enormous improvements in the lives of UK citizens- from health to life expectancy, from likelihood to experience violence to educational attainment, from material possessions to contact with other cultures, from growth in home ownership and decent standards of housing to greater mobility and flexible working patterns. Finally, over the last 20-30 years we see new norms developing to embrace more gender equality, formally and in practice, with similar trends for gay people, and very recently for transgender people. Ethnic minorities and minorities in general are given more formal rights of redress, and in the UK we gain rights under a UK human rights act.
That is- in very broad brush terms, what I mean by the four ages of liberalism to date. I would argue that enormous strides have been made, and we would do well to remember that progress. My view is that there never was a golden age – a time when all of society flourished, when minorities were respected and protected, when the environment was cherished, when racism was non-existent and communities lived together in harmony and peace. We can make strides and we have.
But I want to use this blog to argue that we now need to move on. That the increasing tinkering associated with liberal thinking just won’t be enough going forward. That, like many, I think the pace of change is accelerating in many ways, and needs more fundamental addressing and consideration. That, as 2008 and 2016 have shown us, too much power resides in the hands of too few, poorly understood and rarely challenged. That the increasing tendency to assume that a new form of politics based on advocacy, and lots of small interest groups working away for technical changes and legislative victories, isn’t enough. That we need to look at the basic structures of society and the signals we send.
My aim is to try and show why we need a new age, and offer a small contribution to how that might be developed, and what it might look like. As this blog develops, I want to move from these rather abstract thoughts to evaluations of much more specific ideas, but knitted into a coherent political philosophy. Time will tell!