viernes, 18 de enero de 2008

The advanced liberal

From Prospect Magazine

John Stuart Mill believed in liberty but he valued it less for its own sake than for its contribution to human advancement. It was "man as a progressive being" that most interested him. If we want to resurrect his liberalism, we may have to revive his draconian idea of progress too

Jonathan Rée

John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand, by Richard Reeves
Atlantic books, £30

The Liberal electoral committee for the parliamentary borough of Westminster took a big risk when it invited John Stuart Mill to be its candidate in the general election of 1865. The 58-year-old philosopher had written respected books on logic, political economy and representative government, and spent 35 years working as a senior public servant at the India office. But he was impatient with all kinds of formal flummery and he had a most unfortunate reputation as the cleverest person in the world. He was also a grief-stricken widower who had just retired to a cottage in the south of France to study wild flowers and commune with the Greek philosophers. He made it clear to the committee that he would prefer not to become an MP, and that if elected he would devote himself only to the "emancipation of the dependent classes"—particularly workers and women. He was committed to "advanced liberalism," he said, and would never lift a finger to promote the "local interests" of his constituents.

In spite of his perversity, Mill was elected by a comfortable margin. A vast crowd gathered in Covent Garden to greet the announcement, cheering so loudly that he could not make himself heard. He blinked out at them for several minutes before his reserve gave way and he rewarded them with a brilliant smile.

Mill proved an effective politician and—as Richard Reeves shows in his timely and readable biography—a virtuoso in parliamentary banter. Asked early on to withdraw a remark about the Tories being "the stupidest party," he retrieved himself with a perfect Westminster apology, as recorded in Hansard. "'I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant, that stupid persons are generally Conservative.' (Laughter and cheers.) 'And I do not see why the honourable Gentlemen should feel that position at all offensive to them; for it ensures their always being an extremely powerful party.' (Hear hear.)"

When the Liberals got into trouble over their electoral reform bill in 1866, Mill staved off defeat with some well-judged appeals to high principle, putting Gladstone deeply in his debt. But he had always intended to concentrate on unpopular causes (popular ones could take care of themselves), and when the Liberal administration fell in June 1866 he was able to get into his stride. He began with a campaign to indict Edward Eyre, governor of Jamaica, for his murderous response to an uprising of freed black slaves. Later he agitated for Irish tenants to be granted "permanent possession" of their land. And when Disraeli and the Conservatives came up with a reform bill more radical than the one proposed by the Liberals, Mill achieved what he regarded as the most honourable defeat of his political career—proposing that the word "man" be replaced by "person," thus initiating the first parliamentary discussion of the enfranchisement of women.

The 1865 parliament was dissolved after three years, and by that time Mill was accustomed to being lampooned as a transvestite, a Fenian rebel, a Jacobin or an anarchist who was "nuts upon niggers." He was neither surprised nor displeased when the electors of Westminster turned Conservative, putting an end to his brief but eventful political career.

Reeves tells his stories well, and if he is right we should be looking to Mill for inspiration and enlightenment in our perplexing political times. He realises, of course, that "advanced liberalism" would be pretty distasteful to most of those who call themselves liberals today. Mill may have been a pioneering feminist and anti-racist, but he would not have had much sympathy for the liberal tenderhearts who put their faith in "human rights" and recoil from the death penalty, military intervention or the exercise of political despotism over those who are not civilised enough to govern themselves. He was also an admirer of capitalism, but he regarded it as an engine of economic growth rather than an arbiter of social justice, so he would have repudiated the liberal shock troops of untrammelled market freedom. He himself looked forward to a form of production based not on competition between capitalists in the exploitation of labour, but co-operation between workers in the exploitation of capital: "associations of labourers," as he put it, "collectively owning the capital with which they carry on their operations, and working under managers elected and removable by themselves." More tentatively, he anticipated a further transition from co-operation to a system of communism or socialism where all the instruments of production would be under public ownership, and goods distributed not according to ability to pay, but in conformity with some "pre-arranged principle of justice."

But even in his most collectivist moments, Mill detested the political quacks who peddled socialism as a moral panacea, "the sole refuge against the evils which bear down on humanity." The resolution of fundamental political issues depended, he thought, not on assertions of ethical absolutes but on inventories of available options and evaluations of "comparative advantages." He may have said it through gritted teeth, but Gladstone was probably right when he described Mill as "the most open-minded man in England."

Mill spelt out his standards of political judgement in On Liberty in 1859. Admirers of this pungent little book usually focus on Mill's maxim that "the only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilised community, is to prevent harm to others." And they tend to interpret the remark as a simple warning against the extension of state power above the minimum required for the security of its citizens. But as Reeves points out, On Liberty goes beyond the so-called "harm principle" to make a positive case for what might be called cultural biodiversity—the cultivation of "a large variety in types of character," as Mill put it, "giving full freedom to human nature to expand itself in innumerable and conflicting dimensions." The liberty that Mill prized was not political or economic so much as intellectual, moral and artistic; the real struggle, he thought, was not between individual and state but between originality and conformism, or between creative spontaneity and the "despotism of custom." What Mill wrote was a manifesto for free spirits, not free markets.

Reeves may be right to promote On Liberty as "the greatest celebration of the value of human freedom ever written." But Mill's argument depended on some assumptions that Reeves passes over in silence. He was a disciple of progress before he was a disciple of liberty, and he valued liberty not for its own sake or for the sake of short-term human happiness, but as a contribution to what he called "the permanent interests of man as a progressive being." He preferred creativity to contentment because it was more progressive—it kept people on the move, he thought, and on their way to something better.

Contemporary liberals will probably regard Mill's appeals to the principle of progress as an extravagance and an embarrassment. Yet anyone who uses the term "progressive" as a byword for political virtue—and there are not many people who don't—is standing in the tradition of Mill's "advanced liberalism," whether they know it or not. Indeed, they may well be parroting lines from one of Mill's early books, even if they have never read it. The work in question was a 19th-century bestseller and a standard university text all around the world, and Mill thought he had never written anything better. But it had the misfortune of being called A System of Logic and the title seems to have sunk it. Even Reeves, whose enthusiasm for Mill may seem immoderate, sums it up as "a formidable tome" and then moves on.

Actually, the Logic is a great book, if a little long-winded. The earlier parts are devoted to proving that there is more to science than the observation of patterns in nature: knowledge becomes scientific, according to Mill, only when these patterns are made intelligible on the basis of first principles or "laws of nature"—as when Newton explained planetary motions in terms of the forces of attraction and inertia. And what was true of natural science applied to "social science" too. Political economy, in particular, was not based on empirical observation of people producing wealth, but on a priori calculations showing how people would behave if they were perfectly intelligent and cared for nothing except getting rich. Mill thought that social progress was ripe for similar treatment, and in the Logic he sketched out a "science of history" based on the assumption that every generation is in a position to improve on the civilisation of its predecessors. But progress could never become a reality without the constant clash of competing ideals, hence the importance of cultural freedom. Progress depended on freedom, according to Mill, and if we want to resurrect his liberalism, we may have to revive his theory of progress too.

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