Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Month: January, 2009

4 months on and no change

malcolmturnbull_30_1_09As Norman Abjorensen writes in Inside Story

A century after Deakin’s social liberals meekly succumbed to Reid’s conservatives to combat a rising Labor Party, the social liberal dream continues to flicker sporadically among modern day Liberal supporters. The conventional wisdom is that John Howard purged the party of social liberals (which he did) and that Malcolm Turnbull represents some kind of social liberal resurgence (which is doubtful). Turnbull might well try to soften the party’s more hardline policies (in the face of staunch opposition from staunch conservatives such as Abbott and Minchin), but any hopes that this heralds the start of a Deakinite revival are entirely misplaced

I’ve been advancing the theory for a couple of years that we are seeing the broad re-alignment of our political parties to Conservative/Liberal lines. The Reagan Coalition (of which Howard made much profit) of Social Conservatives and Economic Liberals has effectively broken down. A lot of the accommodations made by the conservatives arn’t sustainable (witness the populism of Mike Huckabee’s campaign, or the economic incoherence of the current Republicans). Likewise, with growing levels of education, prosperity and legislative protection of workers are sapping the unions of their strength (the 2007 effort against WorkChoices will come to be seen as a high water mark), and fundamentally changing the membership of the ALP. Kevin Rudd was never a member of a Union, and whilst most ALP types will still claim some union heritage, they no longer will drive the leaders world view. And despite the current economic struggles, the debate over capitalism and its benefits as the primary system of economic organization is done.

In light of this, Abjorensen’s point is well made. Turnbull has led his part for 4 months, including a quiet few months over Christmas mid-way through a term, the crucial time if you were to try and achieve real political and philosophical change within the party. Turnbull either hasn’t the numbers to even raise the question (unlikely if he was actually committed) or he simply doesn’t see a point in trying to move the party in a new direction.

As such, I think it is becoming increasingly clear that The Liberal Party is going to hold onto its Conservative turn, and solidify. Whilst the Labor Party will shift from its labor movement origins to one of both increasing Economic and Social Liberalism. It will never acknowledge this shift, but considering the great pressure coming from the Greens, it will have to make the move on issues like Gay Marriage, whilst redressing its economic commitment to the welfare state & social services in terms of a larger open competitive economy (as Rudd has been doing effectively for Education). What union/working class elements that are disgruntled by the change (such as those supporting protectionist or more exclusive nationalistic policies), will quite easily slide over to the Right as they did under Howard, though with less capable manipulation by the Liberal Party once the divisions become starker.

In some ways this is a change a long time in the making, the left has long been more compatible with a liberal approach to the world, seeking liberty and opportunity for the individual, freed from the bounds of tradition, culture and inheritance.

Sadly, the party of Turnbull and co would have to face electoral annihilation, and someone with an ego the size of Menzies before it relinquishes its ‘Liberal’ title, so confusion will remain for those of us Liberal in politics but not party. But at least the lines should be come clearer.

Update: Turns out Chris Bowen the Labor Assistant Treasurer penned similar thoughts 6 months ago, advertising the ALP as the natural home of Liberalism.

The inspiration for this blog

Rather than just recounting the details of my “About” page, I thought i’d post an article I wrote a few years back that is the real inspiration for my blog and academic career:

 

150 years ago this year John Stuart Mill published ‘On Liberty’. To my mind, no finer work of english language has been written, not just for its clarity and force of language, but the importance of its cause.

The point and purpose of Mills classic essay ‘On Liberty’ is to advance one simple principle

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral is not a sufficient warrant.”

These words, when I first read them as a disillusioned 20-something rang out to me like no other piece of literature, film, philosophy or writing ever has. Mill in two short sentences lays out the absolute limits of societies hold over the individual, in a way that can be applied in each case and circumstance as calculatingly and rationally as Mills Utilitarian ethics demands.

But for me, whilst there is such great intellectual resonance in this phrase, and however quickly it formed a key principle on which I base my own political philosophy, it was not simply the intellectual, but the emotive which makes this work stand out for me above all else. 

Mill’s own education and formative years are unlikely to be matched by anyone of contemporary eras, and nor should it be. He was reading Plato in the original Greek by the time he turned seven, Latin commentaries on the Roman Republic at eight, and devising his own logic systems in response to Aristotle at twelve. Mills education by his fathers hand was designed for the express purpose of turning him into the chief proponent of the system of Utilitarian ethics, summed up blandly as ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’. 

Mill suffered for these trials, and by age 20 he experienced a mental breakdown and deep depression for over 6 months. This black spell only began to abate when he turned to literature and poetry and found in them the non-purely rational and intellectual demands and rigors as had been so harshly forced upon him by his father’s expectations. 

I first encountered JS Mill when I was of a similar age, though a very different background. I had cruised through school, convinced my schools name and status would entitle me to a place in university, and when I found myself only able to scrape into the local TAFE I had to wonder at my choices. I attempted to overcome this through my own program of study, beginning with the man to whom all western philosophy is mere footnotes, Plato. (Whitehead in Russell 2004)

But in Plato, however great my admiration for his thought, language and ability to challenge common dogma and encourage philosophical inquiry, I found a man whose totalitarian system of political organisation I began to loathe. Further pursuits into Philosophy, notably Hegel, Kant and Sartre seemed similarly torturous, either for their repulsive ideas or turgid language. 

I first read Mill sitting on the bus one evening on my way home, and when I first came across that passage ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others’ I was dumfounded.
Mill for the first time in my education seemed someone who could not just write but express the very notions and principles that were beginning to form within my own conscious. I found in Mill not just a realization that participation within the great political and philosophical debates was possible, but that there were natural allies and reasonable, and sensible men involved in these to whom I could look for inspiration and agreement. Finally I could escape having to grit my teeth as I read Plato or Aristotle for the purpose of improving my mind, all the while detesting most of what they advocated.

Mill’s purpose in the essay is to stress the importance of individual liberty, not simply from the tyrannous king, but also from the majority when acting as a mob. In the face of those who argue we must censor thought or discussion, he recognizes that it is as wrong for one man to stop all humanity thinking or advocating a certain position, as it is for all humanity to stop just one man. Likewise, those who are possessed of the truth are as much robbed when discredited and heretical views are censored, -for they lose the ability to test and prove their own beliefs-, as those who actually holds such views are damaged by this censorship.

Mills individualism is a classical individualism. He does not see man, as Thomas Hobbes or John Locke might, once free and now in the chains of the state (to which all good liberals and individualists must seek to hold back its omnipresence), but rather his individualism, and liberalism is a search for development, and the pursuit of character.

Though I was only dimly aware of it at first, each time I re-read On Liberty, Mill’s declaration of the supreme sovereignty of the individual, what resonates is not just the demand for personal freedom as self-protection, but a clarion call for self-development.

Mill advocated the supreme liberty of the individual not according to some abstract ‘natural right’ handed down by god or nature, and never utters the words ‘human rights’ but instead seeks that we may use freedom to develop our utmost in character and virtue. This Mill argues is the true aim of human freedom and purpose.

As Mill writes in an often ignored passage in ‘On Liberty’ 

“the cultivation of an ideal nobleness of will and conduct, should be to human beings an end, to which the specific pursuit either of their own happiness or of that of others (except so far as included in that idea) should, in any case of conflict give way.”

Mill does not seek liberty simply for its own sake, but according to his utilitarian principles so that we may for our own sake become who we truly are. Mill does not seek to hector or demand we follow his moral or personal as a local priest might, but instead demands the state guarantee us the freedom to take real responsibility for our own passage in life and use of that freedom.

For a disillusioned young man, John Stuart Mill’s work ‘On Liberty’ spoke to me of three great themes. One was recognition that there were great and sensible philosophical minds I could honestly engage with, and find some common agreement. And If I could agree, I reasoned, I could surpass. I also found in Mills simple principle the most honest and forthright principle for the organisation of the states laws that has been before or since been presented. 

And finally, I found in the space and freedom he offers via his principle, an opportunity, and a calling to take responsibility for the use of that freedom. The slave is never answerable for his actions, only the free man is. That is the burden and the joy of freedom. And for Mill, it was the development of that character and virtue as would guide us in our choices to which individuals must turn their focus and thought. 

Mill’s work gave me reassurance I could understand and argue at this level, it gave me opportunity, it offered clarity and common sense, and perhaps most importantly it demanded I take responsibility for my choices from that moment forth. That I am where I am today, PhD student, Lecturer, blogger, is in large part due to the influence of John Stuart Mill and his essay ‘On Liberty’.

p.s – I chose the image for this post because it shows Harriet Mill, his beloved wife, and too whom ‘On Liberty’ is dedicated and is her proper memorial. Also because the more traditional image of Millas the dour faced victorian doesn’t do justice to the passion of the man in both his writing and life.