A few lessons from last month’s disaster

I’ve been thinking about the lessons the Lib Dems can learn as a party from last month’s debacle at the council elections and the AV referendum, and have come to a few conclusions that seem a little different from the consensus on the ‘blogosphere’.

We need to concentrate more on constitutional reform
Everyone seems to be saying “Well, we lost the AV referendum, that shows that the public don’t care about constitutional issues, so we should concentrate on bread-and-butter managerial stuff that people care about, and give up on Lords reform.”
Well, no.
Firstly, what people want and what is the right thing to do are two different things. This is undoubtedly the only time in my lifetime we’ll be able to get Lords reform – it’s not like we’re going to get a second term, is it? – and the way the system is set up directly affects all those things that people *do* care about.
Secondly, Lords reform is a far less controversial area than reform of the Commons electoral system. I’ve lost count (literally) of the number of times I’ve had this conversation with my dad, a typical Labour voter:

“I’ll never vote for that AV thing, it’s a load of rubbish, a miserable little compromise [thanks Nick…] and it’s just to keep the Lib Dems in power for ever. Now what you really should do if you care about democracy is get the Lords elected.”
“Well, we are doing that…”
“You only went into this to get AV and you’re not even going to get that, you should get the Lords elected instead.”
“We’re doing it as well…”
“Get the Lords elected instead.”

But also, a point to remember – more than twice as many people voted ‘yes’ in the referendum than voted for us!

For every Lib Dem voter there’s at least one more person out there who *doesn’t* yet vote for us but *does* like our position on constitutional matters. And those people are *passionate*. They voted Yes despite one of the most inept political campaigns I’ve ever seen or heard of (as Millennium put it, it appeared to be run by people who’d masterminded a lot of third place triumphs in General Elections for the Lib Dems, so they considered second place an improvement). The 60% who voted no didn’t, as far as I can tell, really care that much either way – they had a slight preference, and they expressed it, but many of them were voting to ‘get Clegg’ or ‘to break up the coalition’ or (in a few insane cases) because they wanted more radical reform.

When you’re on 17% of the vote, going after the 40% who passionately agree with you is probably better strategically – as well as being the right thing – than going after the 60% who mildly disagree.

However:

We need to link our principles explicitly to our actions
Community politics works. It not only wins us elections, but it’s undoubtedly the morally right thing. Work with communities, find out what those people want, and help them to bring it about themselves, rather than imposing something on them. It’s both the liberal thing to do and an election-winning thing to do.
There was, however, a rather good cartoon posted on Lib Dem Voice recently, an old one from the 80s:

(Interesting that it’s an SDP politician. From what I can gather (being a small child at the time) they were rather less keen on the community politics stuff than the Liberals were in the Alliance days.)

There’s an element of truth in that, but it slightly misses the point.

People vote for us because they like that we get the potholes in their roads fixed. The problem is, they don’t know *why* we get the potholes in the roads fixed. WE know that community politics is a valuable Liberal tradition and springs from everything we believe in. THEY don’t know that. Which means then that people get upset when we act in unpredictable ways like going into coalition with the Tories rather than just being the slightly fuzzier, squishier version of Labour. Or WE get upset when people who tell us they’re lifelong Lib Dem voters also tell us they’re going to vote against AV, because they’re not interested in reform.

We need, as Jonathan Calder has said, more ideology and less policy. I like this post on the subject,, but especially Simon Titley’s comment:

If I were to establish a rationale for Liberal Democrat ideology, I would start like this:

Each of us is on this planet for a relatively short period of time. In that short time, each of us seeks to lead a good life. But, each of us has a unique personality and so each person will have a distinct idea of what will fulfil them. Therefore, the only person who can decide what constitutes a good life is ourselves; it is not something others can decide for us. To be able to make those decisions, we need freedom – not merely an absence of restraint but the practical ability to exercise freedom; not merely a ‘chance’ at the start of our lives but an ability that lasts throughout our lives. Hence we should see freedom in terms of ‘agency’, which means the capacity of individuals to make meaningful choices about their lives and to influence the world around them.

Our political mission is therefore to ensure each person’s freedom.

Our starting point is our humanity. We value people above things; we do not make a fetish of the state or of markets.

We should rework our policies to better fit values like this (Jennie has a great suggestion re: employment law for starters) – right now everything should be up for consideration. We should look at all the old Liberal ideas like a citizen’s income (especially since we’re pretty much getting that with the benefit reforms), Land Value Tax (especially since Vince seems quite keen on the idea in principle), zero-growth economy (could easily appeal to the Green vote) and so on, and see if any of them are worth bringing back – possibly in a modified form, but worth consideration. Drug law reform. We’re down to our core vote, so we have little to lose – let’s try to have a genuinely radical set of policies to go with the people in the party.

(Note I’m not suggesting we actually go with any of those particular things as policies – I have very, *very* little knowledge or understanding of economics, and for all I know I’ve just said “why don’t we consider dooming the whole planet to dying of starvation?” – but they’re all ideas that have long had a currency in the Lib Dems and our predecessor parties, and so they’re the kind of ideas we should be looking at.)

But we also need to link those policies, and our actions in local government, to our principles in a very obvious way. We need to start talking about political philosophy.

I don’t mean we need to be handing out copies of John Stuart Mill [and Harriet Taylor], like the Gideons, or turn into a SWP-like debating society (“Well, I think you’ll find that Keynes said…”, “If you’d only *read* Michael Meadowcroft’s position paper from 1981, The SDP Are All A Bunch Of Bastards, you would *know* why you were ideologically wrong!”, “We must expunge every trace of reformist Grimondism from the party and get back to the true Liberalism of Lloyd George! An end to female suffrage!”). What I mean is that our campaigning should, along with saying *what* we’re doing, say *why* we’re doing it.

Come up with some simple bullet-point summary of Liberalism – four or five points, something like the preamble to the constitution – and make sure one of them’s on every page of every Focus. If you have “Lib Dems fight to save local schools” page, put something on there about the principles of valuing education and of valuing independence from centralised decision making. Nothing huge, just a box with a bullet point at the bottom – “Helping people to help themselves is one of the Lib Dems’ key principles. Find out more at http://libdems.org.uk/what-we-think “.

That kind of thing will, hopefully, help convince our voters to think more liberally and convince liberals to think of voting for us.

And finally, for now (I have some thoughts on co-operation with other parties, which might not be what you’d expect from me, but I’m saving them for later as this is long enough as it is):

Things are going to get better for the party
I know a lot of tribal Labour people who spent much of the last year attacking the Lib Dems quite viciously. After the council election (and the recent hatchet-jobs on certain Lib Dem MPs by the right-wing press) they seem to have stopped. The public mood appears now to have swung against attacks on the Lib Dems and more to feeling sorry for us. “They’re not that bad really.” “I don’t like that Clegg but it’s a shame that Councillor X lost hir seat”. Richard Herring (a comedian I like but who has been one of the more vitriolic critics of the coalition) said of the council election results “It’s like breaking into the Top Gear studio with a gun with one bullet and then using it to shoot Richard Hammond when Jeremy Clarkson’s right there”. Plenty of other people have said things like “I think the Lib Dems were just naive, they’ve been tricked by the Tories. It was their own fault, but the Tories are to blame.”

That may not sound comforting, but these are people who were spouting utter *hatred* about the party fairly recently. Some of them no doubt will again. But I think the attacks on us have started to lose public sympathy, and over the next few months we’re going to turn more and more into the underdog in the public’s eye. Which is not a good place to be, but it’s better than being the whipping boy.

[NB I have used the word tribal in this post. I dislike this word and consider it to have racist connotations. However, I don’t know of a better word for it.]

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34 Responses to A few lessons from last month’s disaster

  1. Thanks for this post. I think it’s really constructive, and it’s certainly been helpful to me. Your point about how many more people voted for AV than the LibDems literally hadn’t occurred to me before, but you’re right that it’s very important, and something we should take on board.

    I absolutely agree about the need to articulate principles more clearly as well. One of the commonest complaints I have heard about the LibDems is that people ‘don’t know what we stand for’ – and I fear the coalition is likely to have made that worse if anything, rather than better.

    It’s one thing for LibDems to discuss values amongst ourselves, which clearly happens a great deal. But that’s all but worthless if it isn’t reaching the general public. Your call for clear bullet-points is absolutely right, and I very much hope that someone in a position to do so will put some serious marketing experts to work on that as soon as possible.

  2. Mike Taylor says:

    Thanks for this, it’s encouraging and makes sense to me. The emphasis that nothing is more practical than principles is very Chestertonian.

    BTW., there’s nothing racist about the word “tribal”. In this context, the word just means “splitting off into a tribe and caring more about it than about broader society”.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Thanks. And yeah, Chesterton was a good Liberal (though he had some very strange ideas as well).

      As for ‘tribalism’, from what I understand tribal societies actually behave less like that than more ‘advanced’ societies.

      • Mike Taylor says:

        Right, but this is merely a pun: when you use the word “tribal” to discuss electoral politics, you don’t mean at all the same thing as when you use the same-sounding but different-meaning word to describe a pre-industrial civilisation.

        • Jim says:

          I agree with Mike on this point, but it’s worth noting that the the ‘anti-racist’ ‘social justice’ types very much disagree. If you want to avoid problems with the wider liberal field on the web, I’d recommend avoiding words like ‘tribal’, and certainly avoid defending them in the way Mike has above – you’ll be called a white supremacist very quickly.

          ‘die-hard’ might be a good substitute, although it doesn’t have the desired connotations of having been ‘born into’ voting Labour. But those connotations themselves could get you into trouble – isn’t it ‘classist’ to say nasty things about people from disadvantaged backgrounds?

          Incidentally Andrew, what ideas of Chesterton’s do you find strange?

          • Mike Taylor says:

            If you want to avoid problems with the wider liberal field on the web, I’d recommend avoiding words like ‘tribal’, and certainly avoid defending them in the way Mike has above – you’ll be called a white supremacist very quickly.

            *sigh*

            And this is why it sometimes feels like more work than it’s worth even to bother engaging with people whose political ideas I am pretty much aligned with.

            And I am afraid “die-hard” isn’t even close to a good substitute. All it means is refusing to let go of something; whereas “tribal” has the much more specific meaning of valuing the needs and desires of a small subset of society above those of society as a whole.

            If anyone has a truly good synonym for “tribal”, I guess I’ll switch for the same of a quiet life. But if, as seems to be the case, there isn’t one, then I am going to stick with “tribal”, and assume that anyone stupid enough to call me a white supremacist on that basis wouldn’t have been worth talking to anyway.

            • Andrew Hickey says:

              “If anyone has a truly good synonym for “tribal”, I guess I’ll switch for the same of a quiet life. But if, as seems to be the case, there isn’t one, then I am going to stick with “tribal”, and assume that anyone stupid enough to call me a white supremacist on that basis wouldn’t have been worth talking to anyway.”

              Absolutely agreed there. But I think it worthwhile to point out my discomfort with the term, at least, even though I continue using it.

            • Best I can come up with is ‘factionalism.’

              • Mike Taylor says:

                Actually, “factionalism” IS a good synonym for “tribalism”. So that’s the abstract nouns covered. The problem is with the adjectives: “factional” doesn’t really work as a synonym for “tribal”.

                • I dunno. “The factional SWP walked out of the meeting at that point.” That would make sense to me.

                  The limitation – factional perhaps has connotations of choosing to be in factions, but doesn’t necc. mean the same faction each time. ‘Tribal’ means just sticking to your group no matter what.

                  And I do take Andrew’s point that tribes don’t neccessarily behave tribally, according to this definition. (Though some do, it’s far from universal.) So it’s not just some PC feelgood thing, it could be said to be actually inaccurate.

          • Andrew Hickey says:

            It’s been a while since I read most of Chesterton (though I’m doing a reread at the moment in order to pull quotes out for the 7S book, actually), so I’m rusty on him apart from a general feeling of ‘he got that wrong’ness, but apart from his anti-semitism (which is of course just that of his time and no worse than that of, say, Wells or Shaw) he seems at times to argue in an almost post-modernist way against the impossibility of ever knowing anything, and use that to argue against the scientific method and *for* accepting authority. His arguments at times remind me almost of newage ones of the “there’s no real truth at all, so, like, this is true for me, yeah?” type.

            *THAT SAID* Chesterton is one of my favourite authors, and some of his ideas definitely deserve a further look.

            • Mike Taylor says:

              I certainly wouldn’t have characterised Chesterton as post-modernist or new-agey!

              But, yes, one of my favourites, too; The Man Who Was Thursday is up there among my very favourite of all books.

              • Jim says:

                TMWWT is one of my favourites too.

                I’d be interested in discussing those points as your re-reading uncovers them, Andrew – I too haven’t read Chesterton much in a while, and I’ve never had a chance to discuss his ideas with people I fundamentally disagree with. :-)

                How about ‘visceral’? It seems to me the important thing about ‘tribal’ politics is that these ‘tribal’ labour supporters don’t support the party from any real reasoning, but because they ‘obviously’ ‘must’ vote labour. I think ‘visceral’ expresses that aspect nicely: ‘purely visceral labour voters will never be persuaded to vote LD by simple campaigning’.

                • Personally I’d have to say I don’t think either ‘visceral’ or ‘must’ really covers it. It’s the sense that I must be with my people. It’s really a gang mentality. But it’s hard to turn that into an adjective without saying ‘gangsterish’, which has connotations of protection rackets.

                  …though come to think of it, political parties are that too.

  3. MatGB says:

    “zero growth economics”

    for all I know I’ve just said “why don’t we consider dooming the whole planet to dying of starvation?”

    Pretty much, yeah.

    Every time someone creates a more fuel efficient process, a more energy efficient computer, a faster way of making something? That’s economic growth.

    Figuring out how to grow more food for less polution? That’s economic growth. Oh, the other point about zero growth policies is it pretty much requires controlling chilbirth, and probably forcibly killing old people, you need a stable population, so we’ll have to stop looking for all those cancer cures and similar…

    But yeah, your basic point is sound, we need to be appealing to those people that like liberal ideas–getting 30%+ votes gives us a permanent seat in Cabinet or main opposition party, either is good. I don’t care if the majority oppose liberalism, I care that we speak for the minority that do.

    persuading them to vote for us consistently, especially in PR elections, would be good.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I knew at least one of the things I mentioned would be nutty – I was just mentioning a few phrases I’ve heard Proper Liberal Types talk about. Economics is so far from my own area it’s ludicrous. The point is that the kind of ideas that keep getting talked about but never actually become policy would be the kind of ideas it’d be useful to actually consider as policy – even if we reject them as lunacy.

      And yeah, I’m a liberal before I’m a democrat – I’d rather be in a truly liberal party that got 5% of the vote than an illiberal populist one – even a competent one – that got the other 95%. Although of course ideally I’d like to be in a truly liberal party that got 95% of the vote because we’d convinced everyone we were right. And that’s what we have to work towards. Getting the people who agree with us to vote for us would be a good start.

    • Mike Taylor says:

      Surely when people advocate “0% growth” they do not mean by that the kinds of growth that you’re describing. The aspiration to slow growth comes from opposition to the idea that we always need more of everything at any price; what you’re listing here are ways of getting more for less. Is anyone opposed to that?

      • MatGB says:

        You’ve not encountered the back-to-the-landers then?

        And while some Greens say they’re happy with progress and “slow growth”, whenever you push them they do tend to fall apart, essentially reducing resource use is a good thing, stopping productivity growth, which is what economic growth essentially is, is stupid.

        And most that advocate low/no growth have shown no understanding of economics whatsoever. If you’re going to critique a system, you first need to understand it, when you make basic level suggestions or alternative ways to acheive an objective and get met with blank loos or even rejection, it can get really frustrating, especially when it comes from fairly senior people.

        The more I learn about economics, the more I realise how little I know. Then I meet people who rail against the current “neoliberal” or whatever false pejorative, and realise how much I do know (seriously, I’m not a neoliberal, I’m a liberal socialist, but I can respect an actual neoliberal a lot more than anyone who uses it as a term of attack, if we had a neoliberal consensus, where’s my negative income tax? What’re all these big corporations doing suing people for copyright “theft”, etc.

        So yeah, there are people that don’t mean to advocate no productivity savings, but due to their ignorance of actual economics, actually are advocating it, and it always gets to me more than it should.

        • “stopping productivity growth, which is what economic growth essentially is,”

          Okay, I can take the point that upping productivity can be seen as a form of economic growth. More crops from the same area of land means more stuff to sell etc. But you seem here to decide the reverse must be qeually true, that all forms of economic growth must stem from producitivity growth. Yet the housing boom, for example, was not caused by building more houses or getting more houses out of the same area of land.

          “What’re all these big corporations doing suing people for copyright “theft”, “

          Surely that’s an example of neoliberalism in practise! Of course it’s not what it says on the lid. But you never get far in analysing a doctrine by just reading what it says on the lid,

          • MatGB says:

            Surely that’s an example of neoliberalism in practise!

            Nope, it’s a clear indication of corporatism in practice. Sepcifically, copyright, especially copyright extensions like the recent extension of copyright length for recorded music, are examples of rent seeking, something any decent neoliberal economist wants to elminate as soon as possible.

            Other types of liberal economist don’t think it’s necessarily at the top of the list of evils, but it’s clearly a problem.

            you seem here to decide the reverse must be equally true, that all forms of economic growth must stem from producitivity growth

            Ya got me, there are other ways of getting growth, but aggregate growth (ie the stuff that stays with us instead of the boom/bust cyclical stuff) is from productivity and improvement.

            The biggest problem of the last boom was it was too reliant on property and speculation growth, not on actual productivity growth–note the countries in the most trouble, globally, had property boom problems, whereas the ones that had the smallest property booms (especially Germany) had the least trouble.

            So yeah, traditional GDP growth includes measures that give a false indication of success, including speculative booms.

            Figuring out how to deal with that while still counting actual growth and improvement in land use is way beyond my pay grade ;-(

            • “…examples of rent seeking, something any decent neoliberal economist wants to elminate as soon as possible.”

              I’m still a bit skeptical. The Neoliberals were essentially in power in the US for at least one-and-a-bit terms. Can you think of any examples of them striving to reduce ‘rent seeking’ in such a way? My suspicion is this theory only applies when rent seeking works against them.

              No argument about the last boom or the skewed nature of GDP. But I think the moment of truth in the Green’s analysis is that we live on a finite planet, which makes it difficult to conceive of ‘growing’ endlessly.

              Of course they can be somewhat fuzzy over what to do about this. Where you say they lack an understanding of economics, I would say they lack an analysis of capitalism. Many Greens seem to assume capitalism is somehow a function of size – supermarkets are capitalist and therefore greedy and destructive and need reigning in, so corner shops must be anti-capitalist as they’re the opposite. (Some Greens are more sensible of course, but its a common feature.)

              • MatGB says:

                The Neoliberals were essentially in power in the US for at least one-and-a-bit terms.

                No, they weren’t, that’s the whole point I’m making. There were politicians in charge who were cherry picking some ideas that they called neoliberal, and their opponents used the term to attack them with ever knowing what it actually meant.

                Neither the UK nor the US has ever had an actually neoliberal Govt, and the lack of action that you cite is evidence to support this assertion.

                I think the moment of truth in the Green’s analysis is that we live on a finite planet, which makes it difficult to conceive of ‘growing’ endlessly.

                A finite planet, yes, but in an infinite universe, and we’re only just scraping the surface of what can be done with Earth’s resources, let alone the rest of the solar system, etc.

                For example, currently virtually all the ‘rare’ earths used in IT manufacturing processes come from China. But the odds are there’s quite a lot buried in the granite rocks of Devon and Cornwall.

                The Greens, naturally, would object to digging up Dartmoor (and as someone that grew up rambling the place, I probably would if it were done badly), but the resources are there.

                We have an infinite amount of power being wasted every day, figure out how to, for example, build sola collectors in every desert, and we can stop fossil fuel burning almost immediately.

                Some of the Green critique is spot on and right on the button. But their solutions?

                Are as daft as some of the neoliberal ideas, and their analysis of the problems was equally sound.

                Sometimes people can do a brilliant critique of a problem. But they then propose a completely daft and counter productive solution…

  4. bronchia says:

    It’s important to me that people know what you stand for, too, as it benefits politics generally if people actually know what they’re voting for. Especially in an era when, more than ever before, the perception is that “they are all the bloody same”.

    Re: “like a citizen’s income (especially since we’re pretty much getting that with the benefit reforms)” – we aren’t pretty much getting that from my perspective. A citizen’s income in my mind means for every citizen. Under the current system, I’m not employed and nor am I entitled to any benefits, unless I manage to get magically good at knowing what to put on the DLA forms and/or the PIP reforms actually recognise autism in people over 18 with IQs above learning difficulty level and properly recognise mental illness. Under the reforms, I won’t be entitled to any either.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Re: your first point – absolutely.

      Second point – that’s the main change I’d want to see between the new system and a citizens’ income. My wife’s in pretty much the same position (substitute visual impairment for autism) and so I know that the new system still won’t help people like her and you. But it’s close enough to a citizens’ income in practice that I think we can get there from here, in a way we couldn’t with the current system.

  5. TAD says:

    It seems to me that AV is designed to give the fringe parties a seat at the table, whereas otherwise they’re left out in the political wilderness, because they can never woo enough mainstream voters to their side.

    I would oppose such a constitutional reform here in the United States. I like the idea of kicking people out of office by defeating them in elections. If you don’t like the job your Congressman is doing, vote him out of office and get somebody else in. But with AV, it would be much trickier. I suspect it would lead to more behind-the-scenes corruption, as it would be up to the party leaders to decide which Congressman got booted. That would just bring on a whole set of new problems, and you’d never get rid of the entrenched politicians in the system.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      That’s not how AV (or STV, the system we’re hopefully bringing in for the Lords) works – you’re thinking of closed-list PR systems where, yes, party leaders get to decide on representatives. I despise those myself and would never vote for or support one under any circumstances, for precisely the reasons you state.

    • MatGB says:

      I like the idea of kicking people out of office by defeating them in elections. If you don’t like the job your Congressman is doing, vote him out of office and get somebody else in. But with AV, it would be much trickier.

      Actually, it’d make it a lot easier. At least in most other countries, the US primary/minor endorsement system makes it different.

      But if you look at Canadian politics, for an example close to home, with 4 effective parties in most districts. In the district I grew up in, there used to be three parties competing, it was only when the Lib Dems (my party) managed to persuade enough Labour voters (third place) to abandon Labour in favour of them to defeat the Tory. In a seat I was campaigning in last year, we were instead persuading Tory voters to abandon their party to vote LD to defeat Labour.

      In my own seat, where we traditionally come third, we know that a large number of our supporters took the decision to vote for one of the other parties to stop the other.

      It makes it harder to throw people out if the 2nd and 3rd candidate are close and campaigning hard, and there have been many cases where an incumbent has lost votes by a large number but stayed in as no one is quite sure how to vote to kick out the incumbent.

      List systems create party control, AV is the opposite. However, minor parties are best served in the US by running candidates in Primaries and/or endorsing a major party, most states have a few extra parties that always endorse one of the main two candidates, and you also get ‘enrtryist’ groups, the most recent example being the Tea PArty, that would be minor parties but instead work within a mainstream party.

      Primaries are effectively a form of AV, but to my mind les honest, I really like the effect that IRV (which is what you guys call AV) has where it’s used.

  6. I’ll start a new thread to reply to Matt GB or else we will be stuck in those dreaded compressed columns all over again!
    ”No, they weren’t, that’s the whole point I’m making. There were politicians in charge who were cherry picking some ideas that they called neoliberal, and their opponents used the term to attack them with ever knowing what it actually meant.”
    Of course it’s true that, to argue with someone, you have to engage with what they’re actually saying. One of the pointless and depressing elements of most internet debates is people’s failure to do this. Once I’ve decided I know better than you about what you’re saying the whole thing becomes pointless. You could even argue that is particularly the case for neoconservatism which was largely incubated in academia and thinktanks, making it (at least in theory) a more clear-cut doctrine than, say, paleoconservatism (it’s apparent opposite number).
    But my point is that’s not sufficient, that it fails as material analysis. You also have to look through what they’re saying to see where they’re coming from. Neoconservatism is an ideological doctrine arising from modern corporate America. To use a comics analogy I suspect most will be familiar with, the critique of rent will be employed against Jerry Seigel’s claim to have invented Superman. (Why should be reap a reward from a piece of work for hire finished decades ago? Why doesn’t he just go back into the marketplace and invent someone else? Etc.) But, if applied consistently, it should also be used to argue against Warner Brothers owning Superman. Anyone want to take a guess whether they’ll be arguing that one?
    Regarding the Bush cabinet not being neocons, it included (to name just two) Paul Wolfowitz and John Bolton. If they weren’t prominently involved with neoconservatism I’m really not sure who is!
    This reminds me of an argument we once had with a friend, who was defending the concept of capitalism. Whenever we pointed out practical deficiencies, he’s reply that wasn’t the way it was supposed to work. We were sitting in an upstairs flat looking down on a busy high street and finally, exasperated, someone cried “We know what capitalism is, it’s going on outside the window!” He briefly gave the street a disinterested glance. “They’re not capitalists” he responded, “they’re just pretending to be capitalists!”
    ”A finite planet, yes, but in an infinite universe, and we’re only just scraping the surface of what can be done with Earth’s resources, let alone the rest of the solar system.”
    Is this for real? Peak oil, climate change and spiralling food prices are happening now. And how well are we getting on with colonising that infinite universe? A few space probes that aren’t even intended to return to us. (Even assuming we want such a parasitic existence, hopping from one planet to another in order to despoil it.) It’s not necessarily likely but it seems to me entirely plausible that human civilisation could collapse in our lifetimes. We can be fairly sure we won’t last another millennia if we continue the way we are.
    I’m not some stick-in-the-mud opponent of improvements. Better I figure to be better. But the pathological drive for growth is something quite different. How many times have you bought an upgraded or fresh model of some gadget, only to find it wasn’t really any more functional, it had just been dressed up a bit more fancily? There’s the profit motive and the planet we live on. Sooner or later one of those things will have to go. Right now it looks like being the second one.
    ”figure out how to, for example, build sola collectors in every desert, and we can stop fossil fuel burning almost immediately.”
    Of course I agree that renewable energy is the only option with a future. But I disagree with vast solar farms in the Sahara, which seem to me just another form of colonialism. What I’d like to see is more decentralised micro-generation, power created near to where it is consumed. Already in parts of California they have a two-way grid; if your generator over-produces for your needs, it feeds back into the grid, if it under-produces the opposite.

    • Just as a point of fact, Mat’s not arguing that those people weren’t neo*conservative* but is arguing that they weren’t neo*liberal*.

      • Okay, so is there an emoticon for kicking yourself?

        Still, though, despite my dunderheaded mistake, neoliberalism’s the broader term? Neoconservatives are essentially a subset, they have to be neoliberal by definition.

        • MatGB says:

          No, they don’t, that’s the point I’m making. Specifically, in a US context, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are seen as opposites. Both Hayek and Friedman (the two leading neoliberals) wrote articles asserting why they weren’t conservatives, etc.

          We have never had a neoliberal government. Occasionally, govts have cherry picked aspects of neoliberal thinking, but Labour cherry picked aspecs of Lib Dem policy, it didn’t make them either liberals or democrats.

          Essentially, your long comment arguing that Bush et al were neocons proves my point, they were neocons, but not neolibs.

          To repeat my first assertion, most people that use the term neoliberal, especially those that oppose it/use it as a pejorative, do so incorrectly, and would be better using a term that has clear meaning–neocon is one, corporatist/capitalist also work, etc.

          I’ll address your other points about green stuff later, busy at the moment.

          • ”No, they don’t, that’s the point I’m making. Specifically, in a US context, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are seen as opposites. Bush et al were neocons… but not neolibs.”
            I am fully responsible for conflating ‘Neolib’ with ‘Neocon’, and openly acknowledge to say the two mean the same thing is absurdly reductionist. But I’d persist in arguing that Neocons are a form of Neolibs.
            I think you’re being distracted by the ‘lib’ versus ‘con’ thing when it’s the ‘neo’ that’s important. The fact that as headline terms they seem opposed actually enhances their doctrine, which they always dress up as something ‘natural’ or evolutionary rather than a political choice. (Similarly, Labour and Tory are held to be opposing terms but you wouldn’t know it from looking at what they actually do.)
            To take just one example, the occupation of Iraq – that big Neocon triumph. Other Neolibs may have been opposed to it’s military interventionism, preferring world domination to be undertaken through the clamps of the World Bank, the IMF and all. But let’s remember Rumsfeld’s policy of ‘transformation’ which was calculated to undermine one of the last great Fordist industries of the US – the military. Iraq was one of the most privatised wars of history, and was fought not so much in the interests of the US as in the interests of a handful of corporations who won potentially lucrative contracts without even any pretence of a bidding process. The world exists as a means of private profit. What’s non-Neolib about that?
            ”I’ll address your other points about green stuff later, busy at the moment.”
            No problem!

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