Thursday, July 4, 2013

Look for the Liberal Label

One of the tools we're going to need to change America is an accurate understanding of what "liberal" means. For 20 years, conservatives and right-wingers have tried to turn the name into a term of abuse. But I think the Rev. Jesse Jackson is right when he reminds us, "America was a liberal idea from the start." 

The Liberal Revolution

To understand what liberalism means, go back to the days when Christian kings and queens ruled their European nations in the name of God. Each person was assigned his or her role in life: rich and powerful aristocrat, poor peasant, serf tied to the land. You were not supposed to have a life of your own. That was considered unnatural, unnecessary, and even sinful. You were supposed to live out your role in this life and hope for a reward in the next one.

But a new idea about the good human life began to spread (first in cities), and its name was liberty, or freedom. To be free meant not to live a life determined in every detail by tradition but to have choices, and to make them as your own reason and tastes told you to. Free men (and to a limited extent, women) had property of their own they didn't owe to a lord or king. Free people made rules together to govern their relations with each other. They called these rules "laws," and they began to consider the laws free people imposed on themselves as equal or superior to the dictates of religion or the commands of the state. So, freedom and self-government became linked.

Notice that in those days at the end of the Middle Ages, the dominant forces shaping people's lives against their wills were government and religious authority. That's why liberals, people who believed in freedom, had to try to limit government and separate church from state. They confronted what they saw as the biggest forces against freedom in their times.

Enter Capitalism

Flash forward to the Industrial Revolution. The new system of production gave the people who had money to invest (capitalists) power over everyone else. If you wanted to work, increasingly, you had to work for them, for the hours and wages they set. If you didn't want to accept their terms, you were "free" to go elsewhere. But capitalists were "free" to wait you out. While you were looking for work at a decent wage, and starving, they were sitting on their wealth--or hiring your neighbor who got desperate earlier than you did.

Freedom in a capitalist system, in other words, had to mean something different from what it meant in the Middle Ages. Government and religious institutions still had the power to impose on people's lives, but so did the rich. And the tools liberals had developed to carve out a sphere of liberty in the middle ages didn't work against the power of capitalism. Indeed, the owners were oppressing the working class, all in the name of freedom!

Separation of church from state didn't separate wealth from power. Government under law could at the same time be government under class rule. As the writer Anatole France put it, "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." 

Redefining Liberalism

What was a liberal to do? People who believed in freedom had two choices.

1. They could stick with their old definition of liberty and give up the broader notion behind it: that to be free meant having the chance to live a flourishing human life of your own making. Many traditional-style liberals went with this option. Today, we call them conservatives! (That's why conservatism is such a mixed bag. It includes the people who respect religious tradition and political authority above all, as some people have done since the Middle Ages, and it also includes people who believe in limiting government even if that means inequality and immorality survive and spread.)

2. They could expand their definition of liberty to include ways of ensuring people had the material prerequisities of a good life. Without food, clothing, shelter, and education, the new liberals realized, people are just not in a position to make choices about what kind of life they want to live--or to put those choices into practice.

Liberalism: Still About Freedom

Sometimes conservatives accuse this new kind of liberalism of forgetting about freedom in order to achieve equality. But liberals don't see it that way. FranklinRoosevelt, for instance, spoke of the New Deal as involving Four Freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of every person to worship God in his or her own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The first two are expressions of traditional liberalism, and "freedom from want" is as clear an expression of the new liberalism as anyone has ever formulated.

The new liberals didn't stop worrying about the power of the state to oppress. They made a calculation that they could use state power to check and constrain the power of capitalism. Agree or disagree, but don't let anyone tell you liberalism is some wild notion ungrounded in reality. Liberalism has produced the greatest freedom as well as the greatest prosperity this country has ever known.

Then why am I not a liberal myself? That will wait for a future post.

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