Liberal ‘Fetishes’

August 26, 2010 at 4:24 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | 3 Comments

Being such a well-versed connoisseur of hip hop, I do have a love for the way words sound. When spoken, ‘fetish’ has this wonderfully illicit, forbidden quality which works well as a description for this blogger’s love of cider & subsequent habit of listening to ’80s soft rock.

Context, however, is everything, and in writing I’ve often used it far more pejoratively. When writing about education or crime & justice, I’ve often described both excessive testing and incarceration as ‘fetishes’, and used the word to suggest a kind of unthinking indulgence in policies with questionable long-term benefit.

On the Police State blog, Lib Dem activist lizw has a different take. When told that her fellow Lib Dems possess a ‘civil liberties fetish’, she hears the implication that there’s something transgressive or deviant about their policy preferences.

Whilst I’m hardly qualified to pry into the semantic intentions of others, that’s not an interpretation I’d share. Certainly, some civil libertarians (myself included) would advocate certain freedoms which the rest of society isn’t ready to accept; chief among them the legalisation of drugs. However, most demands of the civil liberty mainstream (identity cards, 42 days detention, control orders) are perfectly reasonable and grounded as much in a quite conservative desire for a judicious and restrained state. The last word I would use to describe an establishmentarian like Henry Porter is ‘deviant’.

Instead, I often hear the civil liberties ‘fetish’ used as a synonym for ‘obsession’, and signifying a belief that the priorities of civil libertarians are misplaced. I’m not stating anything revelatory when I note that the driving force for many on the left is improving equality of outcome and bettering the material conditions of the working class; insofar as liberty is desirable, the best way of getting there is by achieving greater equality. For that reason, you wouldn’t expect to see a Labour member willing to trade (for example) a rise in VAT for a reduction in the number of speed cameras, or a regressive budget for a refurendum on the voting system. For Labour supporters, the two don’t balance each other out.

Of course, as a result, there’s was often an inclination among Labour politicians (Straw and Blunkett spring to mind) to dismiss civil liberty concerns as frivolous indulgences. Sure enough, there may not be large percentages of working class voters clamoring for prisoners to have the right to vote, but that denial was still aimed aimed predominantly at members of that class. Moreover, there were many occasions where Labour’s lack of an instinct for liberty led to situations of material injustice, too: denying asylum seekers the right to work, instituting a prohibitive tax rate for the lowest earners and attempting to reform welfare into an increasingly bureaucratic & labyrinthine system of conditionality.

As the party moves forward, Labour needs to be careful not to dismiss liberty as an indulgence of rich people, but a right of all people, and work to maximise its promise of liberty wherever possible. This needn’t mean betraying or disavowing its class conscience; merely refusing to use that conscience to justify its more statist instincts.


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  1. Did you see the analysis at Heresy Corner?

    I weighed in myself. But I can’t comment here because I have just had my tea & am in no fit state for the next couple of hours :)

    • Didn’t see the Heresy Corner thing, which is odd considering I’ve spent most of the past 2 days hitting ‘refresh’ in Google Reader to avoid work.

      Agree with the tone of your comment though. Whilst Labourites do enjoy shaming Lib Dems, it’s not on grounds as identity-driven as sex, but class. Labour believes it is the One True Party of the working class and has trade unions to back up its case. Insofar as Labour supporters think liberty is important, they think Lib Dems raise its importance to that which is above its station. That makes it a ‘fetish’. I wouldn’t read much more into it than that, but that in itself is pretty interesting to write & think about.

  2. Speed cameras and the voting system are not even seen as civil liberties issues to balance against egalitarian concerns by Labour voters, I’d imagine.

    Similarly and relatedly, I think a lot of Labour supporters don’t necessarily believe that the Liberal Democrats excessively champion liberty per se, but that they are inclined to exaggerate the threats to it, understate its resilience and fixate on negative liberty issues, as well as appointing themselves as the purest defenders of a priceless and fragile edifice, the slightest damage to which instantly despoils it and is the most damning of mortal sins. i.e. both have somewhat different – yet overlapping – notions of liberty, and, to the extent that they overlap, Labour supporters disagree with the extent to which the cause of liberty is threatened or furthered by particular measures. Some of this disagreement between the two sides is philosophical, some simply tribal. New Labour’s perspective was undoubtedly coloured by ‘working class conscience’ and ‘being in power’ elements.

    Whether either side of this ‘debate’ over appropriate emphasis is right can get pretty tiresome but I don’t think the Labour side comes from a simple, illiberal utilitarian urge to weigh liberty against equality, or believe that a stronger/bigger state is necessarily a better state, or that the cost to liberty of its gaining strength isn’t very important. But mileage undoubtedly varies; ’tis a big(ish) movement.

    I’m not sure how the lack of an instinct for liberty led to – or rather didn’t prevent – the New Labour u-turn over taxes on the poor, or the bureaucratic labyrinth of welfare. I think I see where you’re going: towards much of the solidarity/anti-residualism vs ‘tax freedom’ debate that flared over the Lib Dem 10k plan during the election campaign. But in many cases it’s a straightforward failure of political/bureaucratic calculation and/or egalitarianism. I’m not sure it makes sense to suppose an instinct for liberty might have better avoided such moves. I mean, it could, but so could an instinct for egalitarianism, or an injunction against ideological blinkeredness in general, or awareness of the dangerous psychological consequences of being in command of the ship of state too long, etc.

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