Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Liberalism and Conservatism--Roots in Our World History

Conservatism, liberalism, radicalism, neo-con and neo-liberalism. These terms have become a bit confusing to many and empty to many others. I have had some friends, relatives and others ask me when I say “neo-liberalism” what I mean, because I link the term to a type of economic policy that does not seem to ring true or coincide with what we think today as liberalism. Because of this, before we begin our choral quest to define for ourselves what direction the Democratic Party should take, I would like to offer a quick history on these terms and what they mean today. For this quest, I am utilizing Immanuel Wallerstein’s book “World Systems Analysis: An Introduction” because he offers a concise and helpful history about these terms (See chapter 4: “The Creation of a Geoculture”). However, I am providing links to articles that depict the same basic story throughout this essay. Wallerstein links these terms to what we call the modern-world, which originated in the sixteenth century with the emergence of capitalism. Later, during the French Revolution, differing ideologies about our social, economic and political system began to arise and was debated widely. First, the suggestion that political chance could and should take place was a unique idea as this concept no longer rested with the elite fight for a place on the hierarchal latter, but with the general population. Second, the concept of citizenship was born, which suggested that everyone should be included in making decisions that affect their lives within their states. Of course, the French Revolution was a time of social and political chaos. People such as Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre (61) felt that the change occurring and the ideas put forth by the revolutionaries were disastrous and destructive. To be certain, there was resistance to change which challenged the status-quo of power. However, what really offered proof that the conservatives’ concerns might be valid was the 1793 Reign of Terror “in which French revolutionaries sent other French revolutionaries to the guillotine for not being revolutionary enough” (ibid). The conservatives’ final argument was that the old power structures needed to be kept. It was argued, not unlike we often hear today, that most people did not have the education or the know-how to run for or vote on a stable political and social structure. Indeed the Reign of Terror showed as much. It was best to keep with the old ways, that which had proven to keep social unrest at bay. Like today, they spouted in their own way “traditional values” and “the good old days.” The liberals felt that political and social change was not only demanded but necessary and inevitable. They wanted to save the core ideals that the French Revolution stood for: all people had the right and should have the ability to pursue social, economic and political opportunity depending on their natural ability—“la carrière ouverte aux talents” or “careers open to talents” (62). They worked to distance themselves from the Reign of Terror, while arguing that change happens, change will happen, and that it is foolish to try to keep what did not work in practice. They argued against traditional “inherited” hierarchies and stated that “natural” hierarchies would be more just (ibid). But like the conservatives, most liberals were also worried about the average Joe making decisions as most people were uneducated. So, they suggested that specialists should lead the effort, those educated, and that the specialists would do right by the people (63). In modern terms, a type of representational government—we vote in the experts and they make the decisions. On the true left were the radicals who wanted extreme change quickly. Both the conservatives and the liberals were weary of this proposition—The Conservatives’ wishing little to no change. The liberals advocating measured, but natural change and the radicals wishing immediate and complete change. In 1848 there was a world revolution that affected almost all areas of Europe but England. As Wallerstein explains,
“essentially two things [happened]. On the one hand, there occurred the first true ‘social revolution’ of the modern era. For a very brief period, a movement supported by urban workers seemed to acquire some power in France, and this movement had resonance in other countries. The political prominence of this group wouldn’t last long. But it was frightening to those who had power and privilege. At the same time, there was another revolution, or series of revolutions, which the historians have called ‘the springtime of the nations.’ In a number of countries, there were national or nationalist uprisings. They were equally unsuccessful, and equally frightening to those in power.” (64)
This world revolution caused a larger split between liberals, conservatives and radicals on how things should be handled. But the group that won out in the end was the liberals who took the middle road between the two movements. Stay tuned to find out what happens next!

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