Thoughts on Political Liberalism

Political liberalism is effectively a creature of industrialism, and writ large, a creature of 20th-century corporate industrialism. Without the corporation’s innovation, that a secular, physically-productive institution can outlast the individuals who comprise it, the “mass movements” of the political 20th century would not be possible.

Mass, of course, is the signal achievement of the twentieth century. Mass, on the other hand, has signal disadvantages. The more-or-less colelctive response to “the message” which comprises the narrative of 20th-century social change also inherently subjugats individual opinion to that of the approved, “politically correct” whole. It must be remembered that “p.c.” was once a term wused wtih neither irony nor a pejorative understanding. Similarly, one sees that “solidarity” across a spectrum of mutually disinterested groups was absolutely commonplace, and expected, if not mandated, across politically liberal groups. Thus one finds sympathy strikes in labor, activists for one group attenting protests totally unrelated to their particular issues of interest, etc.

Al of this predicated on the (correct) notion that there is strength in numbers, and that large collective movements are those best able to achieve meaningful change. This irretrievably spawns a relatively conservative backlash, as any given individual who does not identify with “politically correct” opinions not only does not identify with the commonly-emerging consensus, but is frequently unwelcome to speak at all. Political liberals who would be horrified to be regarded as oppressors in any way, shape, or form are nonetheless quick to suppress opinions contrary to those of the approved consensus.

“Consensus” is the gasoline in any engine driven by mass participation. thus, one sees that the emergence of a concensus, or just as often, the assertion of one’s existence, is the contemporary “appeal to authority” applied to everything from pollution controls to arguments asserting the validity of global warming controls. “Consensus” as an appeal to authority has had powerful effects, both positive and negative, in public debate.

The twentieth century is gone.

Mass no longer provides the driving impetus in society. The “democracy of common possession” has now evolved from a position where mass production provides for the many, to where the production fo the many provides for an incresingly differentiated mass. Once that mass sub-divides sufficiently, and individual shards of a political mass are more and more capable of taking action on their own, the imperative to mass and consensus, let alone the uniformity of opinion (or, again, the assertion of same) required to make changes occur, political “solidarity” is evaporating as a societal phenomenon. One now rarely sees union activists coming ou to support a protest for some social change — say, gay marriage — and it is now almost-unheard-of for the reverse to happen. In fact, the steady decline of organized labor from the heady days of the Wagner Act is its own well-documented story, one which is now in danger of devolving into stereotype.

In an era where not merely the means of production, but also the means of disseminating ideas, has effectively been democratied, the paradigm has fundamentally changed. This is not merely blogs — any hobbyist with a 3d prototyping machine and access to sufficient raw materials can produce what used to require a factory or light-manufacturing plant.

“Message->consensus->reaction->counter-reaction->change” no longer applies, because the standard liberal paradigm of fire being ignited by the “spark” of a leader is now out of date. It is easier and easier for a crowd of individuals not to simply be the passive recipients of such leadership, but to instead be a crowd of individuals already exercising its initiative on issues of importance to said persons.

Pace Kaplan, “the coming anarchy” refers not merely to nation-states and non-governmental-actors squabbling over resources, but will instead refer to an anarchy of leadership. Rather than a Roosevelt-esque “unity under leadership,” the 21st century is going to completely denude any notion, or illusion, of political unity. This has profound repercussions for any attempt to serve the public at large, because there is an increasing awareness that communities in plural have different needs. More than that, these communities are increasingly self-identifying and self-defining on their own, without meaningful input from the “political class.”

So how is an egalitarian political liberalism to proceed under these conditions? First, political liberals are going to need to become profoundly more comfortable in an increasingly libertarian environment. If liberals attempt to assert consensus, rather than to assum that they need to sell their ideas to each and every individual involved in their issues, they are going to lose. In an “Army of Davids” world, where any individual’s access to information, ideas, and argument is increasingly defined not by wealth and connections, but to mere personal motivation (after all, almost anyone can get to the internet via a public library), appeals to authority are going to become increasingly ineffective, particularly in a media environment so in-one’s-face that younger generations are effectively being trained to ignore information.

This is not going to be a welcome assertion to political liberals to have operated according to a more populist playbook. But as power is increasingly democratized, we are already seeing a general political shift away from Populist successes at the ballot box, whether from conservative or Progressive candidates. Populist support for labor has not been sufficient to keep liberals in office, and their equivalents among the Republicans have also tended to go down in flames.

We have a public that is significantly more empowered than a century ago, and in order to continue to press an an egalitarian message that assists those who are, for any variety of reasons, not so empowered, one will need to focus primarily not on “getting out a message,” but instead on encouraging individuals who have the drive and ideas to make things better — in other words, to focus on the development of leadership. This means one will need to abandon the narrative of the passive mass citizen, and particularly the cult of the victim, in order to adopt a narrative of continuous amelioration and improvement, progressively furthered by those who are willing and able to make specific, concrete changes happen.

Getting with the times offers several political prizes to be won. The “New Left” of the 60s has the potential to be increasingly relevant. The New Deal era is gone, as is the era of the Reagan Coalition. That part of the political body which identifies as fundamentally libertarian is not being served by either major party — in other words, they are up for grabs, and wil either stay home, or else identify with whichever political narrative is best sold to them. If the conservatives are able to rebuild the Reagan coalition, doubtful as that now seems, political liberalism in this country stands to be out in the cold for a long, long time.

Worse than this for however fails to attract them, this demographic is only going to increase as political identification inevitably reflects the daily life of a citienry increasingly tied up in an ever-more-enriched private sphere and increasingly detached from the public sphere at large. On the other hand, the younger generations who take this for granted are vastly more likely to engage in volunteer work and than their predecessors. These are individuals who are not only up for grabs, but who will make positive change happen, if not discouraged by outdated rhetoric and counter-productive populist policies.

Hoover was wrong: in an era defined by mass, with tools only applicable on vast scales, voluntarism was insufficient to provide for meaningful social justice, particularly in times of crisis. In our era, however, said voluntarism is the key to the future if political liberals are to succeed. A rhetoric of universal empowerment, connected to government policies which protect equality, while getting out of the way of those who want both to give back and to do good, is the liberalism of the 21st century.

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