Posts Tagged ‘Merchants’

19th Century Liberals Not Democrats

April 13, 2014

Libertarians claim that they returning to the real Liberalism of the 19th century, while also claiming that they stand for true, individual freedom against the encroachments of the state. Yet historians have pointed out that in the 19th century, while Liberals fought for individual freedoms against aristocratic privilege and feudal oppression, they were not Democrats and feared the working classes. Peter Jones in the book The 1848 Revolutions (Harlow: Longman 1981) states

Liberalism in the nineteenth century was the belief that government should be carried on by means involving consent among the various sections of society or the nation. Liberalism’s intellectual justification was derived from eighteenth-century rationalism, which had attacked all forms of arbitrary power, particularly the power of kings. Liberals believed that the power of traditional institutions, such as the Church and the monarchy, should be restrained by institutions presenting the interests of society more generally and the aristocracy and the more wealthy sections of the middle class in particular. The liberal programme – government by parliament or representative assembly, freedom of the press and individual freedom – was most popular among the emerging classes of manufacturers, merchants and professionals, who saw the privileges of the Church and the most wealthy sections of the aristocracy as obstacles to their own economic and social betterment. Liberals, as distinct from those who preached democracy, believed in the sovereignty of parliament rather than the sovereignty of the people. Middle-class liberals regarded democracy with suspicion, since it was associated in their minds with the excesses of the First French Republic . Consequently middle-class liberals in both Britain and France advocated broadening the property franchise: ‘Vox populi, vox dei, which gives to the majority the infallibility of God … is the most dangerous and most despotic absurdity that has ever emerged from the human brain. If you want to ruin a state give it universal suffrage’, so claimed Odilon Barot, leader of the Dynastic Opposition in the 1840s.

This concern for the interests of the middle classes and the fear of democracy and the working class explains why von Hayek and Mises, the founders of modern Libertarian, were prepared to serve and give their approval to extreme Right-wing regimes – Dollfuss’ Austrofascist dictatorship in Austria, and General Pinochet in Chile. It also explains why sections of the Italian Liberal party actively co-operated with Mussolini and appointed him as a coalition partner. In this milieu, Pareto’s elitism, which stemmed from his belief in free trade, was merely part of a general distrust of the masses taken to its logical conclusion. And Fascism did gain support from the Italian middle classes for its support of liberismo – sound money, a balanced budget, free trade and private enterprise against the threat of Socialism and organised Labour. The same authoritarian mindset also explains why the Tory Democrats have supported highly authoritarian and illiberal initiatives by the Tories, like secret courts and the Gagging Law.

This fundamental authoritarianism is disguised, but nevertheless extremely strong in other areas of Right-wing ideology. The Neo-Conservatives of Bush’s administration considered themselves to be ‘Democratic revolutionaries’. Nevertheless, they believed strongly in limited the power of the state in favour of extreme laissez-faire economic policies. One Neo-Con politician interviewed on Adam Curtis’ series How We Lost Our Dreams Of Freedom, stated that the democracy they wanted to introduced was ordered to exclude state economic intervention. The NeoCons have even written their policies into the Iraqi constitution to make them unalterable. This policy no doubt influenced David Cameron in his statements that he would try to force subsequent governments to follow his policies even if the Tories lost next year’s elections.

For all their claims to represent individual freedom, Libertarians, as the self-professed heirs of 19th century Liberalism, share the same distrust of democracy and fear and despise the working class and organised labour. The freedom they espouse are those only for a very restricted class of the wealthy and privileged.


The Utopian Socialist Fourier on the Evils of the Merchants and the Banks

March 13, 2014

Fourier Pic

One of the very earliest, pioneering Socialists of the 19th century was Charles Fourier, a French shop clerk, who recommended the reform of contemporary capitalist France into a federation of phalansteries, co-operative communities, each containing about 1,600 people. Fourier believed that capitalism was not only cruel in the poverty it inflicted on so many people, but also wasteful. He stated that he was moved to develop his socialist ideas after seeing tradesmen throw away a consignment of rice on the grounds that too much of it would lead to lower prices. I found this description of Fourier’s attitude to trade in John Plamenatz’s book Man & Society II: From Montequieu to the Early Socialists, revised edition by M.E. Plamenatz and Robert Wokler (Harlow: Longman 1992):

Widely felt emotions, he tells us, are rarely mistaken, and in most countries traders have been despised. He approves Christ’s rebuke to the merchants driven from the Temple ‘You have made of my house a den of thieves.’ He concedes that the ancients went perhaps too far in their contempt for traders, but that is a better fault than to exalt them, as is done in industrial society. For there the merchant and the trader call the tune. They are the middlemen, the controllers of the market, the speculators who levy tribute on consumer and producer, and who create disorder by their manoeuvres to increase their profits. Fourier sees free competition in industrial society leading inevitably to a kind of mercantile feudalism – the dependence of the producer (both the manual worker and the manager) o0n the merchant and the banker, the real masters of society.

Fourier’s plans for the restructuring of French society were utopian. The small, co-operative communities somewhat like his, which were founded by the Robert Owen and Etienne Cabet, failed, often lasting no more than about two years. Nevertheless, I think Fourier would feel very much that his analysis of the evils of capitalism were amply confirmed today. We have had a series of governments that have consistently rewarded the bankers and the financial sector over manufacturing industry since Margaret Thatcher. The present cuts to essential services and the abolition of the welfare state are justified by a government, which claims this is necessary due to the chaos and massive debts created by the banks. In the case of the Conservative authors of Britannia Unchained, they have also tried to justify their attacks on workers’ wages and conditions by demanding that they be lowered to compete with India, China and the Developing World in line with the demands of international trade. Sometimes, despite their unworkable schemes, the Utopians made points that still remain valid.