Friday, December 12, 2008

Liberal, Conservative, Democrat, Republican, Green

In a political version of American political eeny, meeny miney, moe, my headline attempts, in response to recent comment to my recent essay about conservative ideas, to count some of the possible varieties.

Individuals, of course, do not come in pure unalloyed laboratory state. We can be, as one commenter wrote, conservative in social customs and liberal politically. Or, as some (gold-digging?) Washington women claim, Democrats are fiscally liberal about the public purse, but not on a date when it's their dime.

But, careful! "Liberal" and "Conservative" have checkered histories when it comes to a social, economic and political worldview, for short, a political economy.

Conservatism, as I failed to mention, usually arises after the alleged thing to be conserved is gone or has been changed. The Counter-Reformation attempted belatedly to get rid of Protestantism ... too long after Luther had let the cat out of the bag.

Indeed, this is where it gets tricky.

In the 17th and 18th century Europe, all countries -- except Switzerland -- were monarchies of one sort or another, interrupted by occasional upstarts, such as Cromwell. The challenge came from the promoters of the industrial revolution and the new form of banking based on money traded as capital.

These were skilled, educated, city-dwelling and mercantile-minded burghers, the future bourgeoisie, who had neither land nor title but aspired to a place in society. The monarchist nobility, based on agrarian wealth, fiercely opposed the budding industrial capitalists.

The Cromwellian civil war in England might be deemed an expression of that conflict.

But note: the capitalists were the liberalizers of trade, the "Liberals," while the monarchists and agrarians were mercantilist and protectionist "Conservatives." In Continental Europe, this is still the prevailing nomenclature.

Liberal democracy is, hence, capitalist democracy, in which the government is a committee of the capitalist class -- the men of Philadelphia in 1776, the ones who penned the words "we, the people," were all male, white gentry who owned vast estates with slaves or urban industrial enterprises founded on indentured servitude.

The Whig, Federalist, Democratic and Republican parties, the only ones ever allowed to compete to win in electoral contests to see who has the biggest bankroll and the craftiest lawyers, were all only teams -- call them Harvard and Yale -- with a common ideology even to this day.

Today's conservatives, as we saw, seek a status quo ante that never existed.

Contemporary liberals, in contrast, are really social democrats, seeking to extend the democratic experiment begun for the privileged few to all classes and races, to economic power as well as civil power.

We are about to see how this plays out.
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