Saturday, 8 February 2014

A New Direction For Conservatism

As Britain and America grow closer together in terms of policy, I find myself being increasingly marginalised as a conservative woman. To be conservative before used to mean we were pragmatic, cautious, and keen to maintain traditional values in a changing world. These days it means "authoritarian religious zealot," "narcissistic and narrow-minded," "free market enthusiast," and "fact-free demagogue."

Hop into any online newspaper comments section and see for yourselves what this looks like. When someone complains about poverty and a right-winger responds, they usually say you should turn to your family or "ask for help," then decry state intervention because God forbid that the state should divert funds from drone strikes and mass surveillance to providing healthcare or meeting the needs of people caught in the teeth of the recession (that's not really a recession, honest, we pinkie promise). The economic crisis may be over for big business, but wages are falling or frozen for the rest of us.


Influences


The conservative movement here in the UK is being increasingly influenced by that of the USA, which, worryingly, appears to be influencing conservative groups worldwide. Why? Follow the money. The most generous donors are individuals and groups who work for or have considerable interest in multinational corporations, particularly those in the financial service sector. Is it really surprising, then, that when we think of the Tories, and conservatives in general, as being corrupt? The number of people jailed for fraud as a result of their activities in bringing about the global financial meltdown can be counted on the fingers of one hand. While the Economist may argue that it was basically down to incompetence, Matt Taibbi of the Rolling Stone differs. It matters much because these people are pulling the strings. What they say goes. If they want a law passed, they wine, dine, and donate to the coffers of their preferred politicians. They own our politics because we're unwilling to do as much to engage with our politicians as it would take to actually make them work in our best interests.

The state of play


As it is, the current crop of conservative politicians are leaning towards a more authoritarian, nannyish approach to governance which is slowly eroding our freedoms in the name of protecting us from the usual suspects: terrorists, child porn, drug dealers, and criminals of every stripe. Ruled by FUD and the politics of fear, I'm amazed they can even leave their homes to go to Parliament to enact the laws they're foisting on us. Perhaps they don't believe it themselves, but they sure as hell want us to.

The internet


Thus it is that the internet is portrayed as the Wild West, a bastion of lawlessness where anarchy rules and evildoers get off scot free. Needless to say, the cowboy approach is favoured - shoot first and ask questions later. Due process is portrayed as an inconvenience, a barrier to getting things done and an affront to common sense. The trouble with this approach is that all too often, people's livelihoods are destroyed (see Dajaz1 for details. Ars Technica has a great roundup of what actually happened there, but it's a cautionary tale of why due process is so important. And did the Feds learn a dratted thing from this? Nope. Of course, the same thing happens here in Britain. If there's any lawlessness going on, it's by the so-called law enforcement agencies, which seem to see due process as an impediment to justice rather than a necessary hard-won right.

The Surveillance State


Meanwhile, the surveillance state rolls on. Opposition is characterised as an assault on national security and the need to catch criminals because, I kid you not, fictional television programmes have made this clear. It's getting to the point where "conservative" and "idiot" are becoming interchangeable. The trouble is, on the left it's not much better. The Labour Party here in the UK aren't challenging the surveillance state. Indeed, they fight shy of taking it on because they brought it in. Only the liberals seem to be doing anything about it, but don't appear to be getting any further than ineffective bleating. Anyone can pass a motion. Who is going to stop this? In America, the prevailing doctrine is that the surveillance state is Obama's child, when the truth is it was born of the over-reaction to 9/11 in the administration of GW Bush. President Obama has, however, defended and extended it. Whatever his position, he's no liberal.

Positions


The prevailing debate between the left-liberal/right tends to focus on

• tax-funded services characterised as "government intervention" V personal responsibility
• pro-life/anti-choice V a woman's right to control her fertility
• surveillance V privacy
• anarchy/minarchy V democracy
• Capitalism V Labour
• Free market economics V state-sponsored solutions

This is mostly bunk, based on straw man assumptions about how "the other side" behaves and what they believe. The truth is, in practice, the lines between the positions ostensibly held by either "side" tend to blur when their interests are at stake. For example, former DHS boss Michael Chertoff's private consulting firm, The Chertoff Group, promoted the failed body scanners used by the TSA. While the Big Two parties in the US and the UK are characterised as being left V right wing, the truth is they are closer to each other in belief and practice than they or their supporters - and detractors - claim they are. In any case, the legislation they enact tends towards advancing the agenda of the religious authoritarians, the military-industrial complex and the mega corporations. In the case of the alleged left, it's basically what the right does but with added welfare and more choice for women over regulating their own fertility minus the religious authoritarianism.

Where they fail


Actually, if the political dyads we have actually put their stated beliefs into practice, we'd probably be better off. For example, the right claims to be all about family values, a strong work ethic, fiscal prudence, and personal responsibility. However, they then stymie this by expecting "the market" to attend to our needs, leaving traditional social structures such as churches and charities to aid the poor. The trouble with this hands-off approach is that neither of these solutions actually works in full. At best, they're a stop gap. Modern conservatism favours the rich and the very rich, and leaves the rest of us out in the cold. The only reason it continues to succeed is due to "God, guns, and gays." Without the backing of religious authoritarians to guarantee votes, it'd fail. The left/liberals tend to advocate welfare programs and tax-funded freebies that fail to lift people out of poverty because their programs are dependent on funding via taxes. When those monies are repurposed by a new administration or for a new policy, the programs are discontinued. In any case, if they're not geared towards helping people to help themselves, the people become dependent on them or end up in a poverty trap where, if they take a job that pays less than they require to pay for food and bills, they can't get supplementary benefits to fill the gap. Result: people stay on benefits because it doesn't pay to work. Taking their benefits away just makes them poorer as any work they do won't cover their expenses.

The way forward


We need to challenge the ideological positions currently held in order to break the stranglehold of the Far right on our freedom to work without fear of losing our jobs or facing other sanctions if we challenge the status quo on the one hand, and to force a debate on how to reward work with a living wage that doesn't infringe on the rights of business owners on the other. What we need is a system that rewards work and acknowledges the necessary tension between capital and labour by striking a balance. As it is, it tends to ricochet in favour of either labour or capital, resulting in stagnation and inflexibility for employers or job insecurity for workers.

Religious authoritarianism must also be challenged. At the moment in America you can use your religious beliefs to restrict what medications your workers can or cannot have, even via a third party, you've crossed the line into slavery. The Little Sisters of the Poor's argument is about controlling which medicines they permit those who work for them to access, whatever way they choose to frame it. Their freedom ends where mine begins, and they need to accept that. Failed ideological positions on social issues also needs to be addressed. The ridiculous assumption that marriage automagically doubles your income doesn't take much effort to debunk.

The studies mentioned are unlikely to have included people who are not working, couples where one is working and the other isn't, deductions from benefits for couples, the working poor, or people in debt. That said, we need to also stop merely throwing money at problems and actively empower people to take control of their own lives. Work programs need to get people working.

Finally, we need to get that "free market" nonsense out of our systems one way or another. Constantly repackaged as "neoliberalism," "The Austrian School," or "laissez-faire," it always comes with the promise of freedom of choice and increased opportunities while limiting both by flooding the market with cheap foreign imports, thereby putting local enterprises out of business, which limits "freedom of choice" to "what you can afford" and "opportunities" to "whatever is available." Repeat after me: "There's no such thing as a free market."

The myth of the free market


I can't stress this enough: there is no such thing as "the free market." It's a myth created by wishful thinking and refusal to acknowledge these central truths:

• you need money to access the markets
• no demand, no supply
• no customers, no custom
• no profit, no provision
• market forces are subject to a variety of influences
• market forces, by themselves, cannot accomplish anything
• distorted markets can still function
• whoever has the gold makes the rules

Do I really need to explain all this? Poor people can't access healthcare in America if they fall between the cracks of what services are available to them because they can't afford it. "The market" can't and won't supply that need because there's no financial incentive to do so. However great the demand, if there's no money to be made by providing the services, they won't be provided, end of. Social projects such as churches and charities can only do so much but are subject to religious rules that can and do cause more problems than they solve. Over here, it's less fraught, but businesses are closing because austerity is forcing people to spend less in the retail/service sector and the government is cutting funding to vital services like the NHS and law enforcement and privatizing where they can.

Intellectual property


We need to stop shoring up the obsolete business models of legacy industries to the detriment of personal freedom. Little does more to undermine the idea of a free market than "intellectual property," which I have written about on many occasions. Suffice it to say, we need to see it as a contract between creators and the public in which we get the product released into the public domain after the creator (or other parties under licence) has had an opportunity to be the only one permitted to commercially exploit the work for a limited time.

A better direction


 • acknowledge and balance the rights and responsibilities of the public and proprietors
 • freedom of conscience for all, not those whom others depend on for employment or services
 • leave matters of faith to the individual — your rights end where mine begin
 • recognise that "the market" (profit motive) will only provide where a profit can be made, and that charity comes with strings attached
 • regulation to protect the public from detrimental practices
 • critically evaluate positions to ensure all the facts are considered
 • cautious, pragmatic approach to policy-making
 • inclusive, transparent governance — public interest groups should also be at the table
 • provide support for policies so they work in practice
 • government overreach = bad, tax-funded services = good
 • robust safety net with a bias towards getting people working in self-sustaining programs
 • community-sponsored services compete with private enterprise

Basically, we need to address the issues as they are and work from a solution-oriented perspective rather than dredging up the same tired old ideologies and repackaging them for a new generation every thirty years or so. Conservatism needs to be based on serving the needs of the people and the state; maintaining the balance between rights and responsibilities of each instead of pitting people and the state against each other. Coupled with a fact-based approach to policy-making, this new attitude of rational stewardship would rejuvenate conservatism and hopefully sweep away the hard-headed cold-hearted authoritarianism that pervades it now.

A girl can dream.

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