There was such a thing as the Declaration of Independence. It was a lengthy written statement signed by many people. There was no such thing as the French Revolution. Rather that is the name – or label or category or description – applied to a series of events in France over a period of time, for the duration of which there is no agreement, as a result of which the whole structure of government in France was destroyed with violence and differently put back together again – and again, and again.
On 14 July 1789, the bourgeoisie of Paris did nothing that we can relate. The most we can say is that some citizens who may or may not have answered that description – and there is no agreement on the criteria by which that term may be applied – engaged in a riot that led to the fall of the Bastille – an event that many take to symbolise the series of events to which we apply the label of the French Revolution.
Similarly, there is no such thing as socialism, fascism, or capitalism –or liberalism, conservatism, or progressivism. Each of those words stands for a name, label, category or description for some kinds of social, political or economic aspiration or behaviour. And the criteria, such as they are, for the first three boxes are far more settled than that for the last three. The position is even more obscure with that old left/right distinction.
We are speaking of abstractions. The concrete is material and specific. The abstract is the ideal and general. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy says:
Many philosophies are nervous of a realm of abstract entities…Friends of abstract objects say that there is nothing wrong with referring to them, but we must not make the mistake of imagining them to be especially large or spread-out kinds of concrete object.
Bertrand Russell came close to making that kind of mistake.
If we ask ourselves what justice is, it is natural to proceed by considering this, that and the other just act with a view to discovering what they have in common. They must all, in some sense, partake of a common nature, which will be found in whatever is just and nothing else.
If I want a blue table, I can go and buy a can of Dulux and paint it. But I cannot do anything like that to get a fair (just) result in a dispute I have to decide. Fairness is an epithet to be applied by looking at how that assessment has been made or justified in the past.
So, if we find words like ‘socialism’ or ‘liberalism’ being applied as if they were some kind of thing that has a life or force of its own, then we may be looking at thinking that is at best sloppy.
Consider then the headings and final paragraphs of pieces by Paul Kelly, Greg Sheridan and Chris Kenny in The Weekend Australian (6 June, 2020.)
The Uncivil War Killing Liberalism
The US riots are symptomatic of a disease spreading across the West.
Twenty years [after 1999] it is obvious that those shared values are gravely undermined and equally obvious that liberal democracy is no longer working properly. History, however, suggests liberalism has been in worse trouble at various times in the past. Its demise has been frequently predicted but such predictions always misjudged its immense recuperative ability.
US protests not about race but disadvantage
The liberal media has got it all wrong on America
The U S is not systemically racist. Despite its history, it is systemically anti-racist. If the liberal elites, who more or less hate the U S on principle, push the systemic racism line long enough and hysterically enough, they may create the reality they claim to oppose.
Trump attackers as ignorant and shallow as he is
Millennials, fuelled by the media, are trying to blame centuries of division on just one man
Democrat activists are now proudly cheering ‘defund the police’ along with lawless mobs. The liberal left and the media/political class might realise all too late, that they are fostering a clear-cut law-and-order debate in an election year and putting themselves on the wrong side of it.
May the Lord have mercy on those infected with the liberalism espied by these commentators. They put me in mind of a song of Anne Murray that my daughters grew up with: ‘Hey Daddy…. there’s a hippo in my bathtub.’ (She also does a fine Teddy Bears’ Picnic and, I think, Dorabella in Cosi fan tutte.) It is as if the three commentators are competing to allow abstractions to drive their commentary and go for as long as possible without committing to one verifiable statement of fact.
Just what any of them may have had in mind is not easy to pick. Mr Kelly says ‘liberalism means equality before the law regardless of race, equal access to health care and education on the principle of universalism.’ Over the page we get: ‘The essence of liberalism has been treating people as people regardless of race, gender or sex, religion age and ethnicity.’ Who would oppose that essence? But equal access to health care does not exist in the US, whereas the quickest way to commit political suicide in Australia would be to call universal health into question or to seek to impose universal education provided by government.
Yet we get a citation of an American observer: ‘The thesis is that liberalism is to blame for the decline of religious faith and the destruction wrought by progressive morality….In practice (it) generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity, fosters material and spiritual degradation and undermines freedom.’ Golly. Mr Sheridan sees hysteria; so does Mr Kenny. ‘The hysterical obsession with Trump and the endless hyperbole about him demeans those spewing it and distracts from the central issues.’ Yes, ‘spewing’ is the word.
For the reasons given, the articles that I have set out above do not in my view make sense. And there is something ineffably patronising about the reaction of these people to both climate change and Trump. ‘Yes, yes, Dear Boy, there is a problem….. but don’t go over the top. If you do, you will be consigned to join the ‘liberal elites’ or ‘the media/political class’. And then you might be branded as a Guardian reader. You can trust us. We’ve been around longer than the liberals and progressives. We have seen it all before and we will continue to call it just as we see it.’
It is not ideas or labels that make history – our story. It is people who make history. That proposition is as simple as it is inevitable, but people, who should know better, either forget it or choose to ignore it. Sir Lewis Namier knew as much about writing history as anyone. He said this:
The basic elements of the Imperial Problem during the American Revolution must be sought not so much in conscious opinions and professed views bearing directly on it, as in the very structure and life of the Empire; and in doing that, the words of Danton should be remembered – ‘on ne fait pas le procès aux révolutions’ [There is no fixed process for revolutions]. Those who are out to apportion guilt in history have to keep to views and opinions, judge the collisions of planets by the rules of road traffic, make history into something like a column of motoring accidents, and discuss it in the atmosphere of a police court.
So, the next time someone lobs an –ism at you, ask them if it was wearing blue suede shoes. If it was, the imperative of Elvis may or may not have been honoured.
The MP in question is George Christensen, the Queensland National. It’s no great insight to observe George blows hard. George talks a big game, and here he is, talking a big game on the reddest, hottest, political issue of the moment – Australia’s fraying relationship with our largest trading partner. George has given the matter some reflection, and he thinks ‘we can keep giving in to China’s threats, and selling off our country, or we can make a stand for our sovereignty’ – and he’d very much like you to write him and take his survey.
The Guardian, 23 May, 2020
Community takes precedence over the individualistic liberalistic atomising tendencies of the egoism of the individual.
Hans Frank, cited in East West Street.
Well, did you know that they do a nice line in sovereignty at Manila?