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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2001, MCB UP Limited
Letter to the Editor
Keywords Politics, Socialism
Aidan Rankin's article, "Are 'human rights' becoming old-fashioned?" (New European, Vol. 12 No. 2, 2000), intrigues me because it links to a feature that I feel is important if the pretensions and dangers of what I like to term Extreme Liberalism are to be understood, and then avoided.
I had better add at this point that I regard myself – and I hope that I am not merely flattering myself – as a moderate in every mainstream political party: a moderate Conservative, because I believe that history has created much that should be preserved, but not at the expense of steady improvement; a moderate Socialist, because I believe the distribution of wealth to be unjust and that it should be changed, but not by violence; and a moderate Liberal, since I believe in toleration and diversity, and so on. Conversely, I object to all brands of extremists, whether reactionary Conservatives, revolutionary Socialists or Extreme Liberals, as illustrated (in one form) by New Labour.
The feature I have in mind is the analogy or to put it rather more strongly, duality between extreme Socialism in the form of Communism and Extreme Liberalism.
Extreme Liberalism has the same Messianic impulse – Blair has even claimed to be a man with a mission! How dangerous! – as all those one-time extreme Communist programmes: likewise, in each case a more moderate programme of basic rights and basic economic change has been acceptable to very many.
Revolutionary Socialists, including Communists, detected vast and profound injustices in the economic system which they proposed to remedy by violent means. The results were less than happy, plausibly because their models of human nature, starting with Marx himself, were defective.
Extreme "revolutionary" Liberals, including the neo-liberal school in economics, find nothing at all wrong with the economic system – on the contrary, it is potentially flawless – but do find great faults in the values and institutions of every society that is outside the European/Anglo-Saxon orbit.
The reason for their profound disquiet (as I have argued in my book, Tony Blair: Making Labour Liberal) is that, while they are superficially in favour of variety and multi-everything, their deepest psychological need is for lack of conflict and the uniformity that matches that goal. Therefore, everyone is welcome into the gigantic New Labour tent, provided that they sufficiently conform. Those who resist, such as most inhabitants of the countryside, rouse the rage, no less, of New Labour, and this very rage, in striking contrast with reasoned argument, is witness to the deep psychological threat that such differences pose to Blair and his ilk.
It is this profound inability to accept very real differences, and the matching conviction that they alone possess moral truths, that makes this Extreme Liberalism so dangerous, and so similar to Communism (or indeed every other extreme ideology, whose sincere devotees invariably believe that they alone possess the truth.)
Therefore, I suggest, the Extreme Liberal programme for extending (Liberal!!!) "rights" all over the world, into every corner and into every nook and cranny, is the Liberal analogue of Socialist "overarching" plans for world revolution.
Extreme Socialists wish to change society, by violence, towards an economic form that is better suited to their tastes. Extreme Liberals accept present mainstream economics, but wish to change all "moral attitudes" and values which do not match their own. Hence the culture of "universal rights", the promotion of which is, of course, presented as totally non-conflictual and pacific, in typical Extreme Liberal style, even as acceptance of such rights by very differing societies with very different cultures will certainly conflict with their traditional ways of life.
At the same time, all these Extreme Liberal "rights" proponents have absolutely nothing to say about those many features of our own society that non-Western societies might criticise. To mention just a few, what about the right for women (and men) to walk the streets alone at night without fear of violence ? (It is no doubt impossible to eliminate rape entirely, but what about a right to live in a society where rates of rape are very low?)
It is notable – and strikes me as passing strange – that even the most ardent feminists have relatively little to say about a society in which many women, and old people, actually feel frightened to go out at night.
What about children's rights to grow up in a stable family – impossible in our fragmented society, but taken as the norm elsewhere ? What about children's rights not to be bombarded with endless advertising and media images, which have, among other effects, the result of leaving many young girls, and boys, with distorted images of themselves and the desire to shed fat they do not have?
What about a genuine right to employment or to generous unemployment benefits, in contrast with the enthusiasm of neo-liberal economists for endlessly reducing security at work and beneficial conditions of work?
The common feature of all these "let's-not-talk-about-them-rights" is that they are or have been enjoyed in many traditional societies, but had to be abandoned with the arrival of laissez-faire capitalism, which might without exaggeration be described as consuming such rights, as well as consuming many other features of society, in its quest for endless growth and – wait for it! – higher standards of living!
Here I return to my claim to be myself a moderate in all respects, which links, however, with Aidan Rankin's claim that "rights" arguments of the Court of Human Rights, in the cases of homosexual servicemen and in the Bulger case, have merits but go too far.
Extreme Liberalism is like all ideologies, one-sided and blind, both to the merits of its opponents and to the weaknesses in its own fantasy polity, and not least to the ideological nature of its own favourite cause, universal human "rights".