Late capitalism: the weakness of western liberalism

Where do major parties stand now?

In a previous post, I wrote about what it means to be liberal on different fronts, including the difference between being culturally and socially progressive and economically progressive.

Formerly, major parties in western democracies largely differed in the extent of national economic liberalism they promoted. By national economic liberalism, I mean economic liberalism within a country. Left-wing parties supported workers and unions, right-wing parties supported big businesses and the owners of capital. Both sides were not particularly engaged in social or cultural rights, though perhaps right-wing parties more openly supported traditional social structures as time wore on.

Early capitalism was about economic liberty within a nation, and that’s how major parties aligned themselves – capital vs labour. However, when this “low hanging fruit” was picked, capitalism became less about capital vs worker and more about globalism vs protectionism, where the remaining gains lay. Most western major parties, whether left or right are largely pro-trade.

The negative effects of globalisation are only really being felt now (e.g. GFC, Brexit, Trump), but major political parties have been slow to re-align themselves along the globalism/protectionism spectrum.

Compounding this issue is the confusion over where major western parties stand on social and cultural liberty. While most major centre-left parties identify as socially progressive, at times this has jeopardised the support from their traditional voter base (blue collar workers).

Currently, major parties in western democracies tend to be either:

  1. Pro-globalisation (economically liberal) and socially progressive e.g. Democrats, or
  2. Pro-globalisation (economically liberal) and socially conservative e.g. Republicans, LNP

While the old capital vs worker division still exists between major parties, that division no longer meaningfully captures all the issues that western societies grapple with today.

The common ground between Trump and Sanders

Lots of journalists have analysed the similarities between Trump and Sanders before. My understanding of their political alignment is that

They differ from major parties because they recognise that western countries are now at a stage where pursuing more globalisation may do more harm than good. This is a difficult message to sell, possibly because

  • globalisation made so many people richer
  • free trade is the logical extent of capitalism, which in many ways has also become a moral (i.e. correct) way of living
  • protectionism has nationalistic connotations, and extreme nationalist countries in the past have limited individual cultural and social freedoms

Rebalancing freedoms: economic conservatism and social progressivism

Is the strongest society one that strikes a stable balance between individual freedoms and social cohesiveness? We’ve seen 20th century communism collapse because the balance was too far in favour of social cohesiveness. Maybe the problem with western democracies now is that the balance is too far in favour of individual freedoms.

But what kind of freedoms? Australia is currently conducting a same-sex marriage postal survey and among other reasons for voting no, is the broader concern that certain freedoms should not be allowed in society. This argument does not conceptualise and engage with same-sex marriage as a basic human right, and on its own logic fails to be convincing if same-sex marriage is the kind of freedom that society can absorb without affecting its fundamental “cohesiveness”.

In fact, such cultural and social rights have only been actively explored in mainstream politics since the 70s or 80s. Capitalism, and by this I mean economic liberalism, has had a much longer run time. If there is a critical threshold at which too much freedom becomes bad for society, then I think an argument can be made that this threshold has already been breached but not in relation to social and cultural rights. If western liberalism is retreating it is because we have afforded individuals and other economic agents too much freedom in the market.

A lot of social frustrations and instability stem from the lack of real wage growth and the growing wealth divide in developed countries. In terms of identifying the weakness of western democracies, expanding social and cultural freedoms is at best a distraction from the real issue, and at worst used as a scapegoat for the decline of western societies.

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