by Kenneth Minogue
The story of liberalism, as liberals tell it, is rather like the legend of St. George and the dragon. After many centuries of hopelesssness and superstition, St. George, in the guise of Rationality, appeared in the world somewhere about the sixteenth century. The first dragons upon whom he turned his lance were those of despotic kingship and religious intolerance. These battles won, he rested a time, until such questions as slavery, or prison conditions, or the state of the poor, began to command his attention. During the nineteenth century, his lance was never still, prodding this way and that against the inert scaliness of privilege, vested interest, or patrician insolence. But, unlike St. George, he did not know when to retire. The more he succeeded, the more he became bewitched with the thought of a world free of dragons, and the less capable he became of ever returning to private life. He needed his dragons. He could only live by fighting for causes - the people, the poor, the exploited, the colonially oppressed, the underprivileged and the underdeveloped. As an ageing warrior, he grew breathless in his pursuit of smaller and smaller dragons - for the big dragons were now harder to come by.
Liberalism is a political theory closely linked these days with such democratic machinery as checks and balances in government, an uncontrolled press, responsible opposition parties, and a population which does not live in fear of arbitrary arrest by the government. A liberal state is one where most actions of the government are taken with the consent of at least a majority of the population. A liberal political philosophy is a description of this kind of state, combined with the attempt to work out the general principles which can best rationalize it. A fair case could be made for John Locke as its founding father, even though the actual term "liberalism" was only imported from Spain early in the nineteenth century. In their early formulations, liberal philosophers built an edifice of doctrine upon the natural rights of man. Their successors, blooded by idealist criticism and Marxist social theory, admitted that the "individual" was an abstract and implausible hero for a political doctrine. Men, liberals came to agree, were largely moulded by the social environment in which they grew, and to talk of "natural rights" bordered on metaphysical dogmatism. Indeed, as time went on, they did not merely admit their error; they positively rushed to embrace the corrections which Marxists and Idealists forced upon them -for reasons which should become clear. Out of this intellectual foray emerged modern liberal doctrine, representing political life as the struggle by which men make their society rational, just, and capable of affording opportunities for everyone to develop his own potentialities.
Liberals sustain not only a political movement, and a political philosophy, but also a moral character. Liberals are tolerant. They dislike recourse to violent solutions. They deplore stern penal methods for keeping a population in order, and they disapprove strongly of the death penalty. They have rejected the patriarchal order which Europe has inherited, and they are critical of puritanism in sexual matters. They also deplore the heritage which has organized men into competing gangs called nation states which periodically rupture human brotherhood by savagely falling upon each other in warfare. Liberals are prepared to sacrifice much for a peaceful and co-operative world order, which can only come about by the exercise of great self-control and a talent for compromise. These are moral characteristics recommended to all men. Liberal social theory is frequently an attempt to discover the social arrangements which most encourage this kind of behavior.
We have still not exhausted the content of liberalism. For it is not only the habit of campaigning for reforms, nor a political doctrine and a moral character, it is also a special kind of hope. It not only recommends to us a political system of democratic liberty; it also tells us what will result from such a system. One result will be prosperity, for the energies of the people will be released from the varied oppressions of the past. Another result will be political stability, for when a responsible opposition is allowed, discontent is not forced underground, where it may turn nasty and foment rebellion. Parliamentary government based on popular consent will, by definition, produce what the people want, and people are happy who get what they want. Many of these fruits have indeed been plucked in the centers where liberalism originated - in the English-speaking world and parts of the continent of Europe. To others, however, liberalism seems to represent both the aspiration and the promise of these things -and one thing more: that industrialized prosperity and power which has now enchanted most of the world.
This side of liberalism can be seen in its keen sensitivity to time, the character which disposes it to serious use of such political terms as reactionary and progressive. Even sophisticated liberals, who are aware of the crippling arguments against historicism, are nonetheless prone to believe in progress, because they have domesticated Victorian optimism into a general belief that progress means getting more of what one wants. Thus for liberals "the present" means not only everything that is happening now; it also carries a further meaning that the present is only what ought to be happening now. On the basis of this ambiguity, traditional societies like the Yemen are described as "advancing headlong into the thirteenth century." Time, like everything else in this social world, is simultaneously a fact and an aspiration.
Liberalism depends upon a consciousness of being modern, and such a consciousness began to gain ground as the controversialists of the seventeenth century worked out their rejection of Scholasticism. They began to construct a picture of the middle ages which has held its ground ever since. At the center of this picture was a static and intricately structured society. Individual men held merely a subordinate place in this medieval scheme; each was but a minor participant in a drama of propitiation. The middle ages were seen as a time of mysteries. God's will and the nature of the cosmos were mysteries whose character men could only dimly penetrate; so too was skill, as preserved in ritual-ridden guilds. In a similar way, ruling was a mystery whose success depended upon the birth of its practitioners. Men of the seventeenth century thought of their medieval ancestors as victims of superstition and ignorance. For truth, in the middle ages, was thought to have been at the mercy of feudal intermediaries: the nobility, which mediated between Subjects and King, and the Church, which mediated between Man and God. Such intermediaries were regarded as parasitic middlemen extracting a vast and illicit profit of privilege.
The decline of the middle ages had come about because men had thrown off their chains. A long series of social and political struggles had overthrown feudal privilege and led to the establishment of sovereign monarchs. Religious dissension had culminated in Protestantism, which rejected or at least diminished the power of spiritual intermediaries, just as it simultaneously rejected one of the more prominent mysteries -the clerical mystery of priestly power. Aristocratic birth, which had been the basis of so much social and political power, had also come under criticism. Intelligent men of the seventeenth century had the sense that a great structure had, like Humpty Dumpty, had a great fall. They experienced two dominant emotions. One was exhilaration as they glimpsed the new possibilities which lay before them; the other was fear and confusion, due to the apprehension that society itself might gradually be involved in the fall, and that all the benefits of social cohesion, of settled law and order, might be lost.
What is distinctive of modern liberalism, in which the visionary and hopeful element has in this century grown stronger, is a new understanding of politics. We may contrast this new understanding with politics in earlier centuries when rulers did little more than maintain a traditional structure. Occasionally some blinding vision, such as the recapture of Jerusalem from the infidel, might captivate rulers and even provoke widespread enthusiasm. But no ruler could commit his state to any long-term objective, and the possibilities of social mobilization, even for war, were severely limited by the independence and varied preoccupations of a most unservile nobility.
Politics was seen as something apart from particular visions, but constantly bombarded by them -pressed by those who envisaged a tidy hierarchical system, or by those who dreamed of a population contentedly obedient to the Church; for all important social activities generate visions of a society most suited to their demands. The general features of medieval society were determined by the relations between the activities of worshipping, fighting and food-producing; within a complex system, poets and craftsmen, shoemakers and beggars, could all find some room to work. As time went on, more and more people were drawn into the cities; here they produced goods and exchanged them. Some men became more interested in explaining the physical world, whilst others began thinking independently and heretically about religion and morals. A new range of activities grew up, and this led to different laws and social relations resulting from struggles between activities. One cannot pursue scientific enquiry if one is hampered by a dogmatic theological orthodoxy. One cannot follow a commercial life and grow rich if social life is constantly in ferment because of quarrels between teams of nobles. In this way, activities came into conflict with one another, and as some weakened and others grew stronger, so politics changed; and as politics changed, so also did people.
Liberalism, however, has come more and more to see politics simply as a technical activity like any other. We first decide what it is that we want, how we think our society ought to be organized, and then we seek the means to our end. The politician must be an expert skilled in political means, and his ends must be democratically supplied to him by popular demand. This view of politics introduces a novel inflexibility both into the actual work of politicians and into hopes we have of it. It means, for example, that all widespread problems turn into political problems, inviting a solution by state activity. It follows logically that people commit themselves to long-term planned objectives roughly as individuals commit themselves to new year resolutions. But while individuals may break their resolutions if they change their minds, peoples cannot be flexible in this way. Faced with backsliding, governments must coerce. They must control the climate of thought in which people live, and if necessary engage in large-scale and protracted repression in order to keep a populace consistent with what it seemed to want some time in the past.
These consequences of considering politics as a technical activity are, of course, mostly fanciful if we consider Britain and America, where liberalism is prevalent in all its fullness. But they are fanciful simply because the political traditions of those countries remain stronger than the prescriptions of liberal ideology, and because what the British and Americans declare politically that they want to do represents with some accuracy what they are in fact disposed to do. The consequences of a technical view of politics can only be actually seen in non-liberal countries with a totalitarian system of government. Here only force and propaganda can whip a reluctant or unenthusiastic populace into conforming to what is taken as the popular will.
A technique of politics, like any other technique, may be seen as the servant of desires. In the case of modern liberalism, these desires arise from the growth of a standardized sensibility, one which also provides the commonest justification of liberal policies. Liberalism develops from a sensibility which is dissatisfied with the world, not because the world is monotonous, nor because it lacks heroism or beauty, nor because all things are transient, nor for any other of the myriad reasons people find for despair, but because it contains suffering. The theme that progress in civilization is bound up with a growing distaste for suffering in all its forms is a common one in liberal histories of modern Europe, and we find it succinctly stated by Bentham: "The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor." He is discussing - a theme dear to an English heart - the sufferings of animals, and hopes that the "day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny . . . the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?"
Compassion may seem an odd emotion to attribute to liberalism. It was not conspicuous in the operations of the Whig lords who largely engineered the 1688 revolution, nor in the early economists who contributed so much to liberal attitudes. Certainly also there was little that was compassionate about the laissez-faire system whose advocacy was long associated with liberalism. If for the moment we crudely consider liberalism as the amalgam of a sensibility and a technique, it is clear that the technique came first, and was first developed for other purposes. Yet even before the end of the nineteenth century, liberal politics began to involve the state in welfare programs, converting government from a threat to freedom into an agent of individual happiness. In the last half-century, this development has gone far to reunite liberals previously divided over whether political solutions should be individualist or collectivist. The sufferings of any class of individuals is for liberals a political problem, and politics has been taken as an activity not so much for maximizing happiness as for minimizing suffering.
Yet compassion and a disposition to relieve the sufferings of others can hardly serve to distinguish liberalism, for these emotions may be found among men and women everywhere. There is, however, an important difference between goodwill and compassion in the ordinary concrete situations of everyday life, and these emotions erected into a principle of politics. For liberalism is goodwill turned doctrinaire; it is philanthropy organized to be effcient. If one seeks guarantees against suffering, then one is ill advised to look to the spontaneous sympathy of men and women. A mechanism must be created to relieve suffering impartially and comprehensively: a ministry to pay the unemployed, a medical service to care for the sick, and so on. Suffering is a subjective thing depending on individual susceptibility; politically, it can only be standardized. And it has been standardized, over a long period of time, by an intellectual device which interpreted events in terms of what we may perhaps call a suffering situation.
A good example, because morally unambiguous, of a suffering situation would be the condition of child labor in nineteenth-century Britain, or that of slaves in the United States. In the case of child labor, a powerful group of employers was ruthlessly using for its own purposes children who could neither understand what was happening to them nor do very much about it. Here was what everyone agrees was a wrong, and one which could only be changed by the disinterested goodwill and active intervention of a third party. Negro slaves were a similarly helpless group of people; though here the criterion of suffering was less conclusive. It was easy enough to produce vicious cases after the manner of Harriet Beecher Stowe. But it was also possible to produce cases where the slaves were kindly treated and seemed content. Here the criterion of suffering had to be supplemented by arguments about the immorality of being born and growing up dependent upon the arbitrary and unchecked will of a slave owner.
The point of suffering situations is that they convert politics into a crudely conceived moral battleground. On one side we find oppressors, and on the other, a class of victims. Once the emotional disposition to see politics in this way is established, then we find people groping around trying to make the evidence fit. Of course people living in slums are miserable about it and want (the only alternative possible in modern societies) a clean, well-equipped household! Of course colonialism is an evil; look at what King Leopold did to the Congolese; look at all the African parties claiming independence. Those who do not claim immediate independence must be puppets of the colonial rulers, for we all know that colonialism is an evil! And so on. Politics proceeds by stereotypes, and intellectually is a matter of hunting down the victims and the oppressors.
Suffering situations may be extended even further. In most cases they are produced by generalizing from particular instances of suffering to the proposition that the institution is evil and must be reformed. But this line of approach is elastic enough to allow the development of what we can only call the theory of implied suffering. This may be illustrated by the case of parents with delinquent children. Here the fact of delinquent behavior is taken to imply a history of suffering, and delinquency is explained in terms of unstable family circumstances and lack of love. Parents appear as potential oppressors. This use of the suffering situation makes a number of assumptions we need not discuss here, the most important being that virtues are natural (since man is spontaneously good) whilst vices are the result of some part of the environment.
Environmentalism is an essential element in all suffering situations. Victims are, by definition, the products of their environment, and sometimes put to the test the purity of our rational concern by exhibiting unsavory characteristics. This complicates liberal moral reactions, for the ideal suffering situation is one in which the victims can be painted as virtuous and preferably heroic -noble savages, innocent children, uncorrupted proletarians, freedom-loving strugglers for national independence. But where caricatures of this kind break down, as they often have in the past, then environmentalism supplies a means of conserving liberal sympathy for the victims. The delinquency, or even the downright nastiness, of victims is an index of the extent of their suffering.
Those who fit into the stereotype as oppressors, however, are not seen as the products of their environment, for that would incapacitate the indignation which partly fuels the impulse of reform. Parents, for example, are taken as free in a sense in which children are not. Yet a logically consistent environmentalism (as far as that is possible) would invalidate this distinction: either we are all the products of our environment or we are not. Similarly, the rich are free to mend their ways, whilst the poor are driven by the pressures of the society around them. This kind of illogicality is, of course, typical of ideologies and results from the attempt to explain and to persuade, all in the same breath.
So far, we have treated suffering situations as being composed of two elements, oppressors and victims. But there is also the third element, those whose interests are not directly involved. Many of these people might agree with a liberal diagnosis of a social evil, but remain passive on the ground that it was none of their business. Against this attitude, liberals were able to assert the duties of democratic participation. This could be, and was, broadened into a general indictment of neutrals on the ground that those who do not help to remedy an abuse must share the responsibility for it. Child labor was not merely the responsibility of avaricious employers; it was a blot upon the whole community, especially those who, knowing about it, did nothing to stop it. This third element, led by the liberals themselves, was taken as entirely free of environmental pressures, and upon it rested the unrelievedly moral burden of choosing to act or not.
Two other features of suffering situations are worth noting. One is that the liberal attitude is entirely secular. It will not countenance theological arguments that suffering in this life is a better passage to heaven than worldly prosperity. The entire game is played out on earth -a feature which is important, though seldom explicit, in discussions of capital punishment. It is partly this feature of liberalism which incurs theological disapproval. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has regarded liberalism as a product of "That fatal and deplorable passion for innovation which was aroused in the sixteenth century, first threw the Christian religion into confusion, and then, by natural sequence, passed on to philosophy, and thence pervaded all ranks of society." This Catholic position must, however, be seen as an attack primarily upon continental liberalism, a more dogmatic version of rationalism than is usually found in English-speaking countries. For English liberals, theology is simply a different territory, on which they do not really have to pronounce.
Secondly, liberals choose to rely upon peaceful persuasion rather than upon violent means for the reform of the abuses that cause suffering. Liberalism is impossible without the assumption that all men are reasonable and will, in the end, come to agree upon the best social arrangements. There are, of course, some liberals who become impatient and advocate unconstitutional remedies. To this extent, however, they move outside the tradition of liberalism towards more messianic faiths. In general, liberals disapprove of violence, on the ground that it creates more problems than it solves. But their disapproval of the violence of others varies according to who carries it out. All left-wing revolutions are carried out by groups who make out their own credentials as victims, and liberals are likely to dismiss such violence with gentle regret. The violence of a Mao Tse-Tung is more acceptable than that of a Chiang Kai-Shek, that of a Castro more than that of a Batista. The violence of left-wing revolutionaries is excused partly by the past and partly by the future -the past because violence is taken as an inevitable response to past oppressions, the future because revolutionary violence is conducted under the banner of hope: hope for the end of suffering, and the initiation of a new order.
Interpreting their behavior through the stereotype of the suffering situation, liberals see themselves correctly enough as a middle party. They have often found themselves uncomfortably sandwiched between the derisively indifferent oppressors, deaf to appeals for reform, and on the other side men eager to solve the problem by means of violent revolution. If political situations did polarize in this way -as classically they did in Russia up to 1917 - then liberals were reduced to political ineffectiveness. But in more sympathetic surroundings, their influence has been enormous, the greater no doubt because they were able to present the dilemma: either carry out reforms voluntarily, or be overthrown and lose the opportunity to do so.
Liberals were also a middle group according to their moral interpretation of political life; for while most of society appeared as a complex of groups each struggling for its own interests, liberals alone were a disinterested force for good, seeking merely to correct what all reasonable men recognized as evils.
Liberalism cannot be understood unless it is seen to possess an emotional unity of something like this kind. And on this question, it is extremely hard to maintain objectivity. For it is difficult to analyze the dogmatism and crudity of the stereotype, without simultaneously seeming to imply that liberals were misguided in attacking suffering wherever they thought they saw it. Clearly they were not. The same problem recurs if we attempt to discuss the motives which led liberalism in this direction. All human behavior stems from a complex of motives, and it is a simple propagandist device to justify or discredit a movement by pointing to "good" or "bad" motives. Yet we cannot understand either the political role of liberalism, or its consequences, unless we do consider its motives. For motives in men are movements in society. We cannot therefore simply accept the view that liberalism arises out of an uncomplicated passion for good.
All we need keep in mind at this point is the testimony of the foes of liberalism. Its conservative enemies often like to attribute its power to the fact that it organizes the sleeping envy ever latent in the bosom of the masses. From the Marxist side, the attack on motives takes the form of attributing liberalism to middle-class guilt. Marxists see liberalism as the desperate attempt of the more intelligent among the privileged classes to paper over the gaping contradictions of capitalism in order to preserve that system. Both agree, for example, in deploring the condition of the proletariat. But while Marxists argue for the complete overthrow of the system which has produced proletarian degradation, liberals can only offer steady doses of welfare, insufficient to cure the sickness but enough to discourage the proletariat from drastic remedies.
Neither of these views would affect the intellectual validity of liberal doctrine. But the Marxist view is interesting in explaining some features of the liberal attempt to involve everyone in the campaign for reforms, along with its insistence that all citizens share responsibility for any evil which exists in the community.
People at any given time are likely to adopt liberal opinions, or liberal habits of thought, for a great variety of reasons. But we may at least distinguish between those who, like the French intellectuals of the eighteenth century, believed that all men are born free and equal out of a consciousness that they were not being freely and equally treated; and those modern liberals who adhere to the same belief simply because they consider others are not being so treated. The former group is very likely to change the moment they attain power, and their analogues will be found today in the leaders of various colonial liberation movements. The latter group consists of those who consider themselves morally bound to become involved in any suffering situation of which they are aware. These people are the product of secure societies in which notions like decency and fair play are deeply rooted; and in them, liberalism takes on something like the heroic stature of a frequently defiant moral integrity.
It is precisely these people who are most clearly aware of what we may call the liberal paradox of freedom. It may be stated thus: victims are not free, and in a hierarchical social system those at the bottom of the hierarchy will be victimized by those above. The road to freedom therefore lies in the destruction of all hierarchies and the arrival of a society which is, in a certain sense, equal. Yet in the modern world, the steady erosion of traditional hierarchies has not produced States which are noticeably freer than those of the past. On the contrary, it has produced a "dehumanized mass" subject to manipulation and control by commercial and political interests. This paradox has provoked only a half-realization from liberals themselves. They have evaded it by the use of two propositions. The first is that we live in an era of transition -in other words, that we cannot yet judge what are the consequences of the disappearance of feudal and class hierarchies. And the other proposition is that the modern world has opened up a vast potential, whose use depends upon us. The modern world is not, of course, the sole product of liberal policies and attitudes; the growths of industrial techniques and modern nationalism are both at least as important as liberalism. But liberalism has, of all movements, opened its arms widest and most promiscuously to modern developments, going so far as to regard whatever it dislikes in the modern world as being atavistic or unmodern. The domestic dragons have now almost become superannuated; and if we have not yet freed the princess, we are held back by barriers of a different kind - ones which cannot be understood in terms of suffering situations.
End of Suffering Situations by Kenneth Minogue