Posts Tagged ‘Radicalism’

D.G. Ritchie’s Philosophical Justification for State Interference

December 18, 2018

Okay, this is going to be a long extract, but bear with it. It all needs to be said. One of the arguments I’ve seen Libertarians use to defend their ideology of a minimal state and absolute laissez-faire free enterprise and zero state welfare, is that liberals and socialists don’t have any philosophical arguments to justify their position beyond pointing to the practical, positive effects. I’ve seen this line stated by one of the more notorious Libertarians, Vox Day. Not only is Day a supporter of the miserable and immiserating economics of vons Hayek and Mises, but he has extreme right-wing views on feminism and race. You can tell just how far right he is by the fact that he calls Donald Trump ‘the God Emperor’ and refers to Anders Breivik, the man who called 70 odd children at a Norwegian Young Socialists’ camp, a saint. He really is despicable.

In fact, the philosophers of the New Liberalism, which appeared in Britain in the 1880s, like T.H. Green, D.G. Ritchie, J.A. Hobson and L.T. Hobhouse, produced philosophical defences of state interference to justify the new change in direction taken by the Liberals. These had broken with the stance of the old Radicals, who were firmly against state legislation. Instead, these philosophers argued that state interference, rather than reducing human freedom, actually enlarged it by empowering the individual. Ritchie, in the piece below, attacks the simplistic notion of the state versus personal liberty expressed by Herbert Spencer, the founder of Social Darwinism, and provides a philosophical justification for collective ownership not just in nationalization but also municipalization. In his The Principles of State Interference of 1891 he wrote

Underlying all these traditions and prejudices there is a particular metaphysical theory-a metaphysical theory which takes hold of those persons especially who are fondest of abjuring all metaphysics; and the disease is in their case the more dangerous since they do not know when they have it. The chief symptom of this metaphysical complaint is the belief in the abstract individual. The individual is thought of, at least spoken of, as if he had a meaning and significance apart from his surroundings and apart from his relations to the community of which he is a member. It may be quite true that the significance of the individual is not exhausted by his relations to any given set of surroundings; but apart from all these he is a mere abstraction-a logical ghost, a metaphysical spectre, which haunts the habitations of those who have derided metaphysics. The individual, apart from all relations to a community, is a negation. You can say nothing about him, or rather it, except that it is not any other individual. Now, along with this negative and abstract view of the individual there goes, as counterpart, the way of looking at the State as an opposing element to the individual. The individual and the State are put over against one another. Their relation is regarded as one merely of antithesis. Of course, this is a point of view which we can take, and quite rightly for certain purposes; but it is only one point of view. It expresses only a partial truth; and a partial truth, if accepted as the whole truth, is always a falsehood. Such a conception is, in any case, quite inadequate as a basis for any profitable discussion of the duties of Government.

It is this theory of the individual which underlies Mill’s famous book, Liberty. Mill, and all those who take up his attitude towards the State, seem to assume that all power gained by the State is so much taken from the individual, and conversely, that all power gained by the individual is gained at the expense of the state. Now this is to treat the two elements, power of the State and power (or liberty) of the individual, as if they formed the debit and credit sides of an account book; it is to make them like two heaps of a fixed number of stones, to neither of which you can add without taking from the other. It is to apply a mere quantitative conception in politics, as it that were an adequate ‘category’ in such matters. the same thing is done when society is spoken of as merely ‘an aggregate of individuals.’ The citizen of a State, the member of a society of any sort, even an artificial or temporary association, does not stand in the same relation to the Whole that one number does to a series of numbers, or that one stone does to a heap of stones. Even ordinary language shows this. We feel it to be a more adequate expression to say that the citizen is a member of the body politic, than to call him merely a unit in a political aggregate…

Life Mr. Spencer defines as adaptation of the individual to his environment; but, unless the individual manages likewise to adapt his environment to himself, the definition would be more applicable to death.

It must not be supposed that we wish to blind ourselves to the many real difficulties and objections which there are in the way of remedying and preventing evils by direct State action. If assured that the end is good, we must see that the means are sufficient and necessary, and we must be prepared to count the cost. But, admitting the real difficulties, we must not allow imaginary difficulties to block the way. In the first place, as already said, State action does not necessarily imply the direct action of the central government. Many things may be undertaken by local bodies which it would be unwise to put under the control of officials at a distance. ‘Municipalisation’ is, in many cases, a much better ‘cry’ than ‘Nationalisation’. Experiments may also be more safely tried in small than in large areas, and local bodies may profit by each other’s experience. Diffusion of power may well be combined with concentration of information. ‘Power’, says J.S. Mill, ‘may be localized, but knowledge to be most useful must be centralized.’ Secondly, there are many matters which can more easily be taken in hand than others by the State as presently constituted. Thus the means of communication and locomotion can in every civilized country be easily nationalized or municipalized, where this has not been done already. With regard to productive industries, there may appear greater difficulty. But the process now going on by which the individual capitalist more and more gives place to enormous joint-stock enterprises, worked by salaried managers, this tendency of capital to become ‘impersonal,’ is making the transition to management by government (central or local) very much more simple, and very much more necessary, than in the days of small industries, before the ‘industrial revolution’ began. The State will not so much displace individual enterprise, as substitute for the irresponsible company or ‘trust’ the responsible public corporation. Thirdly, and lastly, be it observed that the arguments used against ‘government’ action, where the government is entirely or mainly in the hands of a ruling class or caste, exercising wisely or unwisely a paternal or ‘grandmotherly’ authority-such arguments lose their force just in proportion as government becomes more and more genuinely the government of the people by the people themselves. The explicit recognition of popular sovereignty tends to abolish the antithesis between ‘the Man’ and ‘the State’. The State becomes, not ‘I’ indeed, but ‘we.’ The main reason for desiring more State action is in order to give the individual a greater chance of developing all his activities in a healthy way. The State and the individual are not sides of an antithesis between which we must choose; and it is possible, though, like all great things, difficult for a democracy to construct a strong and vigorous State, and thereby to foster a strong and vigorous individuality, not selfish nor isolated, but finding its truest welfare in the welfare of the community. Mr. Spencer takes up the formula ‘from status to contract’ as a complete philosophy of history. Is there not wanting a third and higher stage in which there shall be at once order and progress, cohesion and liberty, socialistic-but, therefore, rendering possible the highest development of all such individuality as constitutes an element in well-being? Perhaps then Radicalism is not turning back to an effete Toryism, but advancing to a further and positive form, leaving to the Tories and old Whigs and to Mr. Spencer the worn-out and cast-off credd of its own immaturity.

In Alan Bullock and Maurice Shock, eds., The Liberal Tradition: From Fox to Keynes (Oxford: OUP 1956), pp. 187-90.

Libertarianism was discredited long ago, when 19th century governments first started passing legislation to clear slums and give the labouring poor proper sanitation, working hours and education. Its philosophical justification came later, but I think also effectively demolished it. The people promoting it, such as the Koch brothers in America, are big businessmen seeking to re-establish a highly exploitative order which allowed industry to profit massively at the expense of working people. It became popular through aligning itself with left-wing ideas of personal liberty that emerged in the 1960s, such as the drug culture, and in the ’90s produced the illegal rave scene. In the form of Anarcho-Capitalism, it also appealed to some of those who were attracted to anarchism, while attacking the communist elements in that philosophy. Its adherent also try to justify it by calling it Classical Liberalism.

But it’s still just the same old reactionary ideology, that should have finally gone out with end of the Nineteenth Century. I think that as more people become trapped in poverty as a result of its policies, it’ll lose whatever popularity it once had. And perhaps then we can back to proper political theories advocating state intervention to advance the real, practical liberty of working people.


Thousands Protest Tory Conference in Manchester

October 2, 2017

This is another really great clip from RT. It shows the mass protests that have taken place outside the Tory conference in one of the great, historic centres of British working class radicalism. One building flies a red banner proclaiming, ‘Ohhh, Jeremy Corbyn’. A speaker declares ‘They say Labour is a government in waiting. I agree with that, except for one thing. I am not waiting’. Another speaker states that ‘they have slayed men, women and children as they slept in their beds’, presumably referring to Cameron and May’s escalation of the illegal wars in the Middle East. One elderly lady states that we’ve had eight years of austerity, pay caps and poverty, and we’re not taking it any more. A crowd from Unison march with a banner, ‘Taxi for Theresa’. A group of girls march past, smiling for the camera, while at the end there’s a couple pushing a skeleton in a wheelchair underneath the banner ‘Found Fit for Work’, in protest at the government’s murderous Work Capability Tests. The crowd seem good natured, and drawn from across Britain. I noticed one banner, which seemed to be a group from my hometown, Bristol.

This shows some of the extent of the deep dissatisfaction with the Tories, their lies and the deaths they’re causing in Britain and particularly in the Middle East through policies designed to drive the poor at home to starvation and suicide, and murder innocents abroad under the guise of combating terrorism, when the intent is simply to seize their oil reserves and state industries. Same as it was in the imperialism of the 19th century.

I’m left with only one question after watching this: has any of it been broadcast by the Beeb? Somehow, given the Beeb’s flagrant right-wing bias, I doubt it was. Or if it was, much time was spent on it.

Thomas Spence on the Working Class as the Creators of Prosperity

March 1, 2014

Spence Book Cover

Back in the 1980s Margaret Thatcher and the New Right declared that the entrepreneurs, businessmen and the financiers were the ‘Creators of Wealth’. This is another appropriation by the right of the claims and slogans of the left. Previously, the term ‘Creators of Wealth’ was used by the Left, chiefly Marxists, to refer to the working class. There was, for example, the Communist slogan, ‘All wealth to the creators of wealth!’ promising the people the true value of their products, if not exactly power. That was to be held exclusively by the Communist party as the ‘vanguard of the proletariat’.

The attitude that the working class are the creators of wealth ultimately goes back to the idea of classical economist, like David Ricardo, that the value of a product was determined by the amount of labour taken to produce it. The classical economists themselves followed Adam Smith in advocating free trade. The early radicals built on this demand more political rights and economic reforms for the working classes – the ‘labouring poor’.

The late 18th and very early 19th century radical, Thomas Spence, strongly argued that all of Britain’s prosperity ultimately rested, not with the landlords and aristocracy, but with the labourers and working people, who physically worked the soil and made industrial products. He urged that Britain should be transformed into a federation of autonomous communes, in which all the inhabitants, including women and children, should govern, and parish lands taken into the collective ownership of the parish. In his pamphlet, The Rights of Infants, he defended this system of the communal ownership of land against the view of the great contemporary revolutionary, Tom Paine, that the people, who worked the land really only had only a claim to a tenth of it. Spence rebutted this in the following passage

BUT stop, don’t let us reckon without our host; for Mr Paine will object to such an equal distribution of the rents. For says he, in his Agrarian Justice, the public can claim but a Tenth Part of the value of the landed property as it now exists, with its vast improvements of cultivation and building. But why are we put off now with a Tenth Share? Because, says Mr. Paine, it has so improved in the hands of private proprietors as to be of ten times the value it was of in its natural state. but may we not ask who improved the land? Did the proprietors alone work and toil at this improvement? And did we labourers and our forefathers stand, like Indians and Hottentots, idle spectators of so much public-spirited industry? I suppose not. Nay, on the contrary, it is evident to the most superficial enquirer that the labouring classes ought principally to be thanked for every improvement.

Indeed, if there had never been any slaves, any vassals, or any day-labourers employed in building and tillage, then the proprietors might have boasted of having themselves created all this gay scene of things. But the case alters amazingly, when we consider that the earth has been cultivated either by slaves, compelled, like beasts, to labour, or by the indigent objects whom they first exclude from a share in the soil, that want may compel them to see their labour for daily bread. In short, the great may as well boast of fighting their battles as of cultivating the earth.

The toil of the labouring classes first produces provisions, and then the demand of their families creates a market for them. Therefore it will be found that it is the markets made by the labouring and mechanical tribes that have improved the earth. And once take away these markets or let all the labouring people, like the Israelites, leave the country in a body and you would immediately see from what cause the country had been cultivated and so many goodly towns and villages built.

You may suppose that after the emigration of all these beggarly people, every thing would go on as well as before: that the farmer would continue to plough, and the town landlord to build as formerly. I tell you nay; for the farmer could neither proceed without labourers nor find purchasers for his corn and cattle. It would be just the same with the building landlord, for he could neither procure workmen to build nor tenants to pay him rent.

Behold then your grand, voluptuous nobility and gentry, the arch cultivators of the earth; obliged, for lack of servants, again to turn Gothic hunters like their savage forefathers. Behold their palaces, temples, and towns, smouldering into dust, and affording shelter only to wild beasts; and their boasted, cultivated fields and garden, degenerated into a howling wilderness.

Thus we see that the consumption created by the mouths and the backs of the poor despised multitude contributes to the cultivation of the earth, as well as their hands. And it is also the rents that they pay that builds the towns and not the racking building landlord. Therefore, let us not in weak comm9iseration be biased by the pretended philanthropy of the great, to the resignation of our dearest rights. And if our estates have improved in their hands, during their officious guardianship, the D-v-l than them; for it was done for their own sakes not four ours, and can be no just bar against us recovering our rights.

Rights of Infants

Now clearly you do need talented businessmen and entrepreneurs, who can set up and manage businesses. But Spence is right about the vital importance of the working classes and how they do the physical works that creates civilisation and prosperity. And this is still a vitally contested point. Obama in many ways isn’t noticeably different from many other American presidents. Despite his introduction of more state medical assistance, he still has the same very strong ties to Wall Street. This has not, however, stopped the American Conservatives viciously attacking him as a Communist. A year or so ago there was a lot of Republican American carping centred around the slogan ‘You didn’t build this!’. Reading between the lines, I got the impression that Obama had dared to state the obvious: that all the American people built their country, including those who physically laid the bricks and mortar, and not just big businessmen like Donald Trump. And that clearly touched a nerve.

The power of organised labour is still feared by the Tories over here. After all, the miners managed to beat Ted Heath, and so, when Thatcher got the chance, she destroyed the British mining industry, and organised the mass transfer of jobs from Britain to less truculent workers in the Developing World, thus devastating the British industrial base. However, even in this era of globalised markets, big business still needs the markets provided by the mass of the working and lower middle classes. There’s an interesting piece over at Another Angry Voice about this, where the Angry Yorkshireman proves that the Tories’ policy of paying low wages actually makes no sense. He points out that Henry Ford, the ferociously anti-Semitic and anti-socialist industrialist deliberately paid his workers very good wages, so that they could afford to buy more, and so stimulate business. It’s also why FDR in his New Deal introduced a limited form of state unemployment assistance. He felt that if the unemployed were able to continue buying goods, this would continue putting money into the economy and so help end recessions. This, however, isn’t good enough for the Conservatives, who would rather keep the poor in abject poverty, even if this does harm the economy, simply out of viciousness, spite and a desire to hang on to their privilege and status.

It’s about time this was challenged, and the poor started getting back their share of the nation’s wealth.


Ian Duncan Smith: Along with Cameron and Osborne, has a policy of spite and vindictiveness towards the poor, just preserve the government’s own social position no matter what the economic and social costs.