Thursday, March 20, 2008

note on liberalism

In the essay Why I am not a conservative Hayek mentions the changes in that which is denoted by the word "liberalism":

"Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change. It has, since the French Revolution, for a century and a half played an important role in European politics. Until the rise of socialism its opposite was liberalism. There is nothing corresponding to this conflict in the history of the United States, because what in Europe was called "liberalism" was here the common tradition on which the American polity had been built: thus the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense. This already existing confusion was made worse by the recent attempt to transplant to America the European type of conservatism, which, being alien to the American tradition, has acquired a somewhat odd character. And some time before this, American radicals and socialists began calling themselves "liberals." I will nevertheless continue for the moment to describe as liberal the position which I hold and which I believe differs as much from true conservatism as from socialism. Let me say at once, however, that I do so with increasing misgivings, and I shall later have to consider what would be the appropriate name for the party of liberty. The reason for this is not only that the term "liberal" in the United States is the cause of constant misunderstandings today, but also that in Europe the predominant type of rationalistic liberalism has long been one of the pacemakers of socialism."

The liberalism with which Professor Hayek aligns himself conceptualises an attitude toward a social order in transformation, consonant with the attitude of conservatism before the French Revolution toward a society imagined static. A conservatism restored is likely to exhibit as odd a character as one transplanted. Hayek's tradition covers a relatively brief period. It consists principally of such ideas as were useful to the ascendant capitalist class.

(This isn't meant as some kind of unconscious censorship, in a psychoanalytical vein, just a rather banal admission of ordinary social politics. For example Marshall writes concerning Ricardo and his Principles of Economics: "He was with difficulty induced to publish it; and if in writing it he had in view any readers at all, they were chiefly those statesmen and business men with whom he associated. So he purposely omitted many things which were necessary for the logical completeness of his argument, but which they would regard as obvious".)

Similarly the adoption of the tag "liberal" by "radicals and socialists" relates back to an older, more general liberalism as well as the Latin American tradition that has followed its own distinct course.

We will look at Hayek's logic in due course, but we could perhaps say, rather provisionally, that Hayek's method, which works backwards from institutions to human practice, has something in common with the experience common to people in modern cities, drawn into the decipherment of giant billboards.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Bill Turnbull Update

Apparently my review of the BBCs Bill Turnbull Programme from several months ago was written in an overly cryptic way and impossible to understand. At any rate this wretched programme has still not been cancelled. Basically the Bill Turnbull Programme is a news programme on BBC1 and BBC News 24 that's on for two hours or so each morning, at a time when people are getting ready to go to work and is devoted almost entirely to fatuous news stories. It also has a strong middle class feeling insofar as the stories are not only fatuous but boring rather than salacious, as per tabloid journalism.

I'm saying, imagine a fishmongers shop, for instance, that only stocks a few distressed undersized fish. You would probably infer from this that better quality fish were comparatively difficult to source.

The same with this programme, which evades reporting the excesses of, for instance, the British state that underwrites its existance, not through standard tactics of disinformation, but through a kind of militant irrelevantism.

Masterpieces of Conservative Intuition: Duchamp's Urinal

Alain Badiou talks somewhere, quite grandly, about art; a theory to art to which he does not subscribe, in which art appears as something like "the condescension of the infinite into the material abjection of the body."

There are many good reasons to talk about art. It's pleasant to discuss pleasant things. It can be a way of obliquely discussing political questions, since the distinctions between ethics and aesthetics are somewhat indefinite. Also there is a great deal of money sloshing around unrestrained by dreary market imperatives.

It is perhaps not Professor Badiou's intention here to be working through an explicit critique of political conservatism.

The infinite is certainly a category of the postmodern political aesthetic. In employing such figures such as "the statistical mysteries of GNP" one suggests the real abstraction of things; infinite displacement. But this way of looking at the world is prefigured by more ancient ideas, those of modern and precapitalist conservatism.

Conservatism has an afiliation with theology. It is nonetheless fundamentally pragmatic and emotional. Its basis is something like the idea that human institutions are justified by a series of validating operations tending to infinity. This perpective is, or ought to be, underwritten by the relatively static nature of the society in which it subsists. Several strands of distinctively modern ideology depend to an extent on the same feeling, notably evolutionary biology and political economy.

Having carefully studied Duchamp's urinal, not to mention the theoretical articles supporting it in The Blind Man, it is hard not to be convinced that the opinion of many art-school professionals, who assert that this work expresses Duchamp's personal lyricism, and that whatever such a remarkable individual designates as art is so, is not only wrong, but expresses prejudices comparable to those Duchamp attacks. The affective basis of Duchamp's work is, clearly, the conflation of the conservative paradigm, where an institution is validated retroactively irrespective of its practical usefulness (as a thing detached from its circumstances, such detachment being unacceptable), and an object of no practical usefulness as art (though with undeniable practical usefulness in itself, as Hegel was fond of saying). This is a deconstruction of conservatism, and it's odd to find it discussed in a way that conforms to the tenets of this same conservatism.

The conservative instinct is, however, very strong, meshing as it does with material interests, and can be expected to cling tenaciously to the bottle-rack and the bicycle-wheel.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Introduction to Liberalism

At a meeting in 1975, Margaret Thatcher reached into her briefcase and pulled out a book. According to John Ranelagh in Thatcher's People, she held the book up for all of us to see - This, she said sternly, is what we believe, and she banged the book down on the table. The book was The Constitution of Liberty by F.A. Hayek.

How much credence to give this attachment to Hayek's letters. These are the parts of an ideology. They aren't purely a banal set of instructions, an instruction manual. And yet this couldn't be just anything.

We have interests and seek to defend them. It helps for there to be a coherent narrative threading together the various moments through which power is manifested. And yet it's likely that these ideas have a degree of autonomy beyond that of cynical post hoc justification. This ought to be demonstrable empirically.

Iain Boal and Michael Watts write in a review of David Harvey's book about neoliberalism that:

"neoliberalism" should be approached – could this possibly come as a surprise to a Marxist? – as an ideology. Any adequate account of its rise to hegemony should not assume a pure body of neoliberal theory "lurking in the wings" of history, as Harvey has it. Rather it has to begin from the premiss of a contested discursive field among whose keywords are "freedom", "market", "private property".

This point is confirmed, quite starkly in the Joseph Stiglitz exposé in last week's Guardian:

I ask what discoveries Stiglitz found the most disturbing. He laughs, somewhat mirthlessly. "There were actually so many things - some of it we suspected, but there were a few things I couldn't believe." The fact that a contractor working as a security guard gets about $400,000 a year, for example, as opposed to a soldier, who might get about $40,000. That there is a discrepancy we might have guessed - but not its sheer scale, or the fact that, because it is so hard to get insurance for working in Iraq, the government pays the premiums; or the fact that, if these contractors are injured or killed, the government pays both death and injury benefits on top. Understandably, this has forced a rise in sign-up bonuses (as has the fact that the army is so desperate for recruits that it is signing up convicted felons). "So we create a competition for ourselves. Nobody in their right mind would have done that. The Bush administration did that ... that I couldn't believe. And that's not included in the cost the government talks about."

Then there was the discovery that sign-up bonuses come with conditions: a soldier injured in the first month, for example, has to pay it back. Or the fact that "the troops, for understandable reasons, are made responsible for their equipment. You lose your helmet, you have to pay. If you get blown up and you lose your helmet, they still bill you." One soldier was sued for $12,000 even though he had suffered massive brain damage. Some families have had to buy their children body armour, saving the government costs in the short term; those too poor to afford it sustain injuries that the government then has to pay for. Then there's the fact that it was not until 2006, when Robert Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defence, that the DOD agreed to replace Humvees with mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) armoured vehicles, which are much more able to repel roadside bombs; until that time, IEDs killed 1,500 Americans. "This kind of penny-wise, pound-poor behaviour was just unbelievable."

Yet on another level, Stiglitz is unsurprised, because such decisions are of a piece with the thoroughgoing intellectual inconsistency of the Bush administration. The general approach, he says, has been a "pastiche of corporate bail-outs, corporate welfare, and free-market economics that is not based on any consistent set of ideas. And this particular kind of pastiche actually contributed to the failures in Iraq." There are the well-rehearsed reasons: ignoring international democratic processes while advocating democracy; pushing forward liberalisation before Iraq was ready. Stiglitz's twist on this was the emails he was receiving from the United States Agency for International Development, complaining about the Treasury being obstructive. "They were saying, 'Can you help us? Because we're trying to get businesses to work, but the US Treasury is trying to tighten credit, so there's no money in this country.' "

It's probably fair to judge the liberals in these circles, the “free market people”, as the progressive element, or at least as the less anti-progressive. But I don't think the course of human freedom is going to be set back by looking at these things.