Reception of Transitionalism Part 3 – Beyond Liberalism

by on April 28, 2015

Hands Holding a Seedling and SoilIn the previous two articles we had reviewed positions along the liberal ideological spectrum between the liberals on the left and conservatives on the right. Those who identify with liberalism on both the right and left hold in common the fundamental principle of individual autonomy and interests being paramount over those of society. A spectrum exists due to a declared value judgment as to the role of the society via the government, in the lives of individuals. As we have already established, the divisions that appear arise from deep-seated behavioral predispositions and personal history. In this article we will bring this series to a close by examining social positions that lie beyond the ends of the liberal spectrum: anarchism, libertarianism, socialism, and authoritarianism, and what common ground, if any, could be established between them and Transitionalism.

Beyond Liberalism
Socialism, authoritarianism, in which we include fFascism, and anarchism, could be characterized as responses to liberalism, more specifically industrial capitalism. In turn, we can describe libertarianism as a 20th century response to the challenge of communism. Now let us take a brief look at each of them.

Aside from the conservative response to the rise of liberalism by established monarchies, of which some could be called authoritarian (Czarist Russia), the first opposition came from an ideologically diverse movement called socialism. Socialism was a response to the excesses of industrial capitalism in its exploitation of workers and gross inequality in the distribution of wealth, where it alternatively advocates a system where the means of creating wealth would be owned by the society for the purpose of benefitting and advancing all human needs and aspirations.

Historically, socialism and associated communist movements inspired and continue to inspire those seeking social justice and/or a more rational economic and social order. However, socialism became perverted by the dynamic of escalating violence and social upheaval, a responsibility that needs to be shouldered by movement participants, as well as by conservative political regimes and industrial actors who sought to suppress any challenges to their position and authority.

Socialism as an ideology suffers from a crucial intrinsic weakness where a society’s political and economic foundations are seen as a single structure. The goal of course was to serve all members of the society by technologically advanced, efficient, and rational means; however, in being organized in this way, the system was made vulnerable to centralized control by ideologues who sought to consolidate power for themselves.

Since anarchism is so diverse there is little specific we can say about it, other than characterizing it as a political ideology which objects to and rejects the notion of social institutions based on authority – particularly governments – as antithetical to natural individual freedom. Those who ascribe to the anarchist position generally accept the idea of society and institutions, but instead of being founded on the artificiality of power they would arise naturally in accordance to the principle of cooperative self-organization.

Two questions stand out and are reflected in the writings of Mikhail Bakunin in his book, Statism and Anarchy :

“No state, however democratic – not even the reddest republic – can ever give the people what they really want, i.e., the free organization and administration of their own affairs from the bottom upward, without any interference or violence from above, because every state, even the pseudo-People’s State concocted by Mr. Marx, is in essence only a machine ruling the masses from above, through a privileged minority of conceited intellectuals, who imagine that they know what the people need and want better than do the people themselves.”

The first point relates to anarchism’s emphasis on individuals as the central focus of any social organization, and subject to the same objection we explored in connection with liberalism. Where anarchism diverges from liberalism is what constitutes a legitimate institution. To this we make reference to Bakunin’s conception of social self-organization implied in the phrase “free organization and administration” where we can bring up the rather obvious question: ‘who is to say that the formation of social institutions through the exercise of coercive power is any less natural and not just another means of free organization’? In other words, even if we make a distinction between the actions of individuals and institutions, as does Wolfi Landstreicher in his article, “Autonomous Self-Organization and Anarchist Intervention: A Tension in Practice”, where individuals acting in association practice self-organization and coercion-based institutions do not, still we have to acknowledge that even coercive institutions must have themselves originated in the crucible of self-organization at some point thus setting us up for a regressive distinction.

It well could be argued where anarchism is a political statement against power, libertarianism is anarchism’s economic stand in support for radical individualism. Central to its position was stated by Friedrich Hayek, that the free market is superior to any other system given that it is self-organized, being based on the natural actions of human beings in service to their own interests, and if it is to function properly it needs to remain free of outside interference. Government might have a role but if so it is one that is narrowly defined.

Libertarianism does have some adherents on the left, but is more often associated with the right. As to the level of interest, libertarianism has a passionate yet limited following, in part due to the general discomfort expressed particularly by traditional social conservatives who interpret the libertarian social agenda as an invitation to chaos, perceiving it to give license to individuals to do most anything they want.

Beyond the intrinsic fallacy of individualism, the Transitionalist objection to libertarianism is in it being utopian. Such an approach could conceivably work in a pastoral village environment where there is a relatively even distribution of wealth and no significant means or motivation to change the status quo. Of course this is rarely if ever the case, where at a minimum libertarianism fails to take into account the role of status and hierarchy as an integral part of the process of human self-organization.

While not questioning the sincerity of those who adhere to these ideals, nevertheless, given the world as it is, it is difficult to see libertarianism as anything more than a doctrinal justification for the economic elite and those who aspire to become one of them. This makes libertarianism an ideology of economic power providing justification for the concentration of wealth in the hands of the strong with the consequence of reintroducing a rigid class social structure where power and wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few, not based on bloodline, but on their ability to defend and expand their position.

Authoritarianism is a political order where government has supreme authority over all other organizations in society. An authoritarian government is not necessarily totalitarian defined by the latter’s reliance on a coherent ideology; however, for the purpose of our discussion we will combine the two forms under a single heading.

In its most basic form, authoritarianism is an exercise of power as an expression of will that originates from a highly centralized authority. When ideology is employed to justify the political order’s authority and use of power, the rationalization can arise from either extreme position of the political spectrum. Instances of this are all too familiar; notably, on the right in Germany under Adolph Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini, while on the left there was Josef Stalin in Russia and Mao Tse-Tung in China.

If anarchism and libertarianism are to be faulted in their over-emphasis on the individual as the basis for social organization, authoritarianism, and tTotalitarianism in particular, overemphasize the interests and objectives of society. Such political systems, totalitarian ones in particular, discount or deny the reality of individuality, constraining personal development. While in the main this is the case, we are obligated to point out that there also exist personal dictatorships where state policy expresses the will and whim of an individual.

A second objection is the threat of violence to impose the social will to be used against those who resist the existing order or act as an ever present reminder to those who are compliant to remain so.

Common Ground
After an all too brief overview of a few of the non-liberal ideological perspectives, what can we now say about what they and Transitionalism might share in common? Beginning first with authoritarianism in its various guises, given its gross overemphasis on the interests of society, and specifically the ready application of violence to realize its interests and goals for self-perpetuation, it can be stated simply that there exists no ground for discussion between its advocates and Transitionalism.

Regarding the many expressions of anarchism and its economic counterpart libertarianism, their primary error is a gross overemphasis on the interests of individuals relative to those of society to the extent that it makes it difficult to carry on a fruitful dialogue.

Of the perspectives discussed here socialism has the most potential to form common ground with Transitionalism. The reasons for this are two-fold. First, because it sees human evolution in psycho-material historical terms, in that society is the source of the individual. Secondly, that the society is responsible for the individual. Further, when the individual works for the good of society all individuals benefit.

Now that the series has come to an end, what kind of observations could we make? The first is that liberalism as an ideology was an extraordinary social development that appeared in Europe around the year 1600; standing in distinct contrast to the almost exclusive monarchical and authoritarian structure of society. Since that time the power of liberalism has been demonstrated, particularly in how its principles have framed the debate, ever since where socialism, anarchism which we can include libertarianism, and modern authoritarian movements are all direct consequences of its emergence.

Being products of the 19th and early 20th century, these derivative opposition ideologies, like liberalism itself, fail not only due to their intrinsic weaknesses but they are also inadequate to provide solutions to future social and economic challenges. This is not to say that aspects of these different perspectives couldn’t be re-interpreted to find application within the new social framework of Transitionalism.

Transitionalism too lies outside the liberal ideological spectrum, given that one of its foundational principles requires the institutionalization of a political balance between the rights and responsibilities of individuals, society, and the environment relative to one another. Further establishing it as distinct from liberalism and other ideological alternatives, where ideology is strictly secular, Transitionalism identifies spirituality as essential to what it is to be human. Moreover, where liberal ideology has been the source of social disintegration, Transitionalism is the means to regain social reintegration as ideology and the spiritual become once again fused into a single worldview allowing us to see individuals and society as united wholes.

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