The Struggle for Freedom and Democracy
Liberalism is one of the oldest political traditions. Its roots stretch back to 1688. Far from being a philosophy of the status quo, liberalism has a rich radical history. For centuries it was the philosophy of radical political and social change. It is time that the lost political tradition of radical liberalism was rediscovered.
The father of liberalism, John Locke, laid the foundations for the philosophy in his Second Treatise of Government in 1689. Government was only to be justified through the consent of the people and should any government violate the fundamental rights to life, liberty and property; then the citizenry had a right of revolution. Right from the beginning, there were two aspects of liberalism which often came into conflict with each other. These were the political aspects such as liberty, individual rights and government by consent; and the economic aspects such as private property, capitalism and a limited state. The political aspects became radical liberalism and the economic aspects became laissez-faire liberalism or modern day neoliberalism.
In 1776, the American revolutionaries took up arms against the British Empire. In the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers echoed John Locke by stating that man had unalienable rights such as "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Liberalism also inspired the French Revolution which began in 1789. The radical liberal philosopher, Thomas Paine wrote a staunch defence of the revolution in his "Rights of Man." Liberalism throughout the 18th century was seen as a radical revolutionary philosophy. In the name of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” the old aristocratic tyrannies were to be challenged and overthrown in favour of democratic governance.
Whose Land is it Anyway?
Liberalism's challenge to the power of the aristocracy took a different form at the end of the 19th century. Many nations in Western Europe had become republics or exchanged their autocratic monarchs for constitutional monarchs. In constitutional monarchies such as the United Kingdom, the aristocratic land owners drew their wealth and power from the land and as a result many had wealthy estates. It was this fact that made radical liberals such as Henry George support land value taxation.
The taxation of land became a popular movement especially within the British Liberal Party in the early 20th century. Working class Liberals supported land taxation as a means of shifting wealth away from the aristocratic land owners towards the working poor.
Social Liberalism and Freedom from Industrial Inequality
Throughout the 1800s, liberalism had been the philosophy of the Industrial Revolution. Liberals such as William Gladstone had pursued a policy of laissez-faire. A century earlier liberalism had proclaimed "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" now it appeared to be the philosophy of a capitalist industrial elite. Liberalism was derided by socialists as being a bourgeois ideology, which they thought should be overthrown and replaced by a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
It appeared that radical liberalism had run its course and that it would soon be replaced by socialism. It was at the turn of the last century that the radical liberalism of the 18th and 19th centuries became the social liberalism of the 20th century. Social liberal thinkers such as Thomas Hill Green and Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse argued that liberalism needed to promote social justice in order to help the industrial poor. Equality was therefore seen as a means to advance liberty. Social reform was needed to combat the tyranny of unrestrained industrial capitalism. As a result liberals began to support welfare policies and workers rights.
The British Liberal Party under Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George began to lay the foundations of the welfare state. In 1942, another social liberal William Beveridge published a report calling for social security from the cradle to the grave and founded the modern welfare state. Liberalism had therefore gone from being a philosophy of a laissez-faire elite to a philosophy with a genuine concern for the welfare of the poorest.
Power to the People
Throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s the Liberal Party in Britain was seen as a political irrelevance by its opponents. It was during this period that the Liberal Party began to believe in placing power directly in people's hands. The Liberal Party leader, Jo Grimond placed great emphasis on cooperatives and workplace democracy. In the early 1970s a new philosophy began to emerge called "community politics." This was the legacy of a left wing libertarian group within the Young Liberals often referred to as "the Red Guards." Community politics emphasised the need for people to use power at the grassroots level. It was not just meant as a campaigning strategy but as a means of creating a more participatory democracy. The radical liberalism that had toppled regimes in America and France was now embarking on a peaceful democratic revolution in the way that power was used within local communities and in the workplace.
Neoliberalism: The Death of the Radical Tradition
If radical liberalism had been about anything it was about putting power into the hands of ordinary people and about holding the powerful to account. This changed in the 1980s as laissez-faire liberalism re-emerged in the form of neoliberalism. Early neoliberal politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan sought to unleash free market capitalism, privatise state assets, restrict workers’ rights and shrink the welfare state.
Far from bringing power closer to the people as neoliberal economists argued; in reality power shifted upwards towards global corporations. In an age of economic globalisation the ability of nation states to pursue welfare policies has been limited. Furthermore the ability to hold wealthy corporations to account is limited at best and non-existent at worst. Added to this global institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank advocate and reinforce neoliberal philosophy. Neoliberalism is a reaction against the historic principles of radical liberalism and social liberalism.
Global Radical Liberalism
In the 21st century the principles of radical liberalism and social liberalism are needed to mitigate neoliberal globalisation. Radical liberalism sought to tackle unaccountable power. A new democratic globalisation based on radical liberalism is needed to hold the global corporate elite to account. Global institutions underpin contemporary economic globalisation. Therefore new global institutions will be needed to wrestle back democratic sovereignty from global corporations and the Washington Consensus. Hopefully, global radical liberalism will in time help to replace global neoliberalism.
Radical liberalism might date back to the end of the 17th century; however it is needed once again in the 21st century. Transnational corporations are the unaccountable kingdoms of the 21st century. In the age of globalisation; the lost political tradition of radical liberalism needs to be rediscovered.