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WHAT IS MEANT BY 'LIBERALISM'?

The theme proposed for this discussion is 'Mother Russia. What it about Russia that enables it to resist liberalism?' And I've been asked to talk specifically about 'contemporary thinkers who oppose the liberal outlook' - perhaps with particular reference to Alexander Dugin and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

This of course immediately poses the question 'What is meant by "liberalism"? In an article in the journal Labour Affairs, referring to the situation as it was in 2015 before Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, Chris Winch offered what might be a useful guide. He doesn't quite define liberalism but he outlines one of the necessary conditions for its success in government - the existence of a coherent governing élite. Discussing why parliamentary democracy suits it without being one of it necessary characteristics, he says:

'A parliamentary democracy is invariably run for and on behalf of an elite often through competition through sub-elites of the dominant oligarchic group, bound together by wealth, thus satisfying classical liberal aspirations for the maximum freedom in public and private life, for that elite. The advantages of organisation, incumbency, family connection, wealth and political know-how all make this possible and relatively plain sailing' {Labour Affairs, May 2015).

He continues:

'the dominance of both social and economic liberalism, which privileges on the one hand the unrestrained development of individualism and on the other, the market mechanism as the means of securing and preserving the wealth of elites, the stealthy privatisation of public services such as health and education, the narrowness of opinion that is tolerated as acceptable in the commercial and state media and the grinding down of the legal right to take industrial action. The market tends to favour those with connections and insider knowledge and thus tends to reinforce privilege, something liberals have always deemed indispensable for themselves.

'All the main political parties support this agenda and that is why we call them all liberal parties. They are all the product of the dominance of an elite and exist to promote the agenda of that elite, albeit with small differences of emphasis. They are able to ensure that the parliamentary system that had been developed through class struggle to open up some alternatives to the liberal view and liberal practices can be turned to the advantage of the liberal agenda.

'One other point, liberalism has always flourished on the basis of exploitation. The UK is a master of this, not only domestically, but in the way in which it continues to hoover up wealth from all over the world, sustaining the domestic population way beyond its own productive capacities. That is almost a defining characteristic of liberalism. Without this ability it would wither and die.'

The idea here - essentially that liberalism is rule by an oligarchical élite big enough to generate sub-élites - seems to me to correspond rather well to what Russia is at the present time. As I understand it, the Soviet Union was based on a very large but tightly disciplined élite whose power was not based on the possession of property. They did possess property but that was a consequence, not a cause, of their possessing power. In the 1990s that system exploded resulting in a free-for-all and the emergence of a new but utterly anarchic oligarchy whose power was now firmly based on the possession of property. Putin's achievement, and it is admirable, was to impose some discipline on the situation - to oblige the élite to behave more like a class, or caste, thus preventing, or at least inhibiting, the intrusion of foreign élites. What the free-for-all would be like without the discipline can be see in Ukraine.