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Liberal, but to a Degree

Ultán Gillen

Bourgeois Liberty and the Politics of Fear: From Absolutism to Neo-Conservatism, by Marc Mulholland, Oxford University Press, 416 pp, £37, ISBN: 978-0199653577

In Washington on November 6th, 2003, George W Bush addressed the twentieth anniversary celebrations of the National Endowment for Democracy, an organisation established at the behest of President Ronald Reagan as a weapon in the ideological battle against the Soviet Union. Reagan’s successor as president of the most powerful country the world has ever seen, a country that had achieved total victory in the Cold War with its socialist economic, political and military rival, was in a celebratory mood. As Bush surveyed recent history and the world around him, he sounded an unashamedly triumphant note, looking forward to the continuing success of America’s historic mission, “to promote liberty around the world”.

We’ve witnessed, in little over a generation, the swiftest advance of freedom in the two-thousand-five-hundred-year story of democracy. Historians in the future will offer their own explanations for why this happened. Yet we already know some of the reasons they will cite. It is no accident that the rise of so many democracies took place in a time when the world’s most influential nation was itself a democracy.

In the early 1970s, President Bush said, there were forty democracies in the world; by the end of the century, around a hundred and twenty. “I can assure you more are on the way.” He made clear that he was referring not just to the Middle East, namechecking regimes in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia that could not “hold back freedom forever”. The Middle East, he told his audience, must be a focus for American foreign policy for decades to come, with America aiding a slow process of change that would bring democracy to countries like Bahrain, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.

Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe ‑ because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty … Therefore, the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. This strategy requires the same persistence and energy and idealism we have shown before. And it will yield the same results. As in Europe, as in Asia, as in every region of the world, the advance of freedom leads to peace.

What conditions did Bush believe were necessary for the “advance of freedom”? Among them were technology as a means of spreading the idea of liberty embodied in the United States, and the realisation that only liberty truly unlocked the path to national dignity, strength and prosperity. More than this, however, was required: “Historians will note that in many nations, the advance of markets and free enterprise helped to create a middle class that was confident enough to demand their own rights.” Liberty and democracy then were fundamentally dependent upon capitalism, and the class that it called into existence, and with which it was most identified, was the middle class.

The neoconservative arguments in Bush’s speech – and especially this claim – are the themes which Marc Mulholland investigates in Bourgeois Liberty and the Politics of Fear. Bush’s speech, discussed in his book, must have seemed like manna from heaven to Mulholland for the clarity and confidence with which it stated that capitalism and the middle class it had created forged the modern idea of liberty, defended it, and would inevitably bring about the final victory of what Bush termed its “global democratic revolution”.

Mulholland’s approach, however, is just as heavily influenced by another model for understanding the relationship between capitalism, the middle class, freedom and democracy. Bush himself implicitly acknowledged the existence of this model in his speech when he noted that freedom could be lost as well as won: “The success of freedom is not determined by some dialectic of history.” Here he was in part warning against any complacency among the US elite that might be bred by Francis Fukuyama’s idea that the end of history had been reached in liberal capitalist democracy, and that its worldwide victory was assured following the fall of the Soviet Union. But he was also rejecting the Marxist model of history and its claim that the contradictions caused by economic development drive social and political change and would culminate in socialist revolution or the destruction of society.

Bush’s celebration of the revolutionary power of capitalism and the bourgeoisie was far surpassed by that of Marx and Engels, most famously in the Communist Manifesto, large parts of which are dedicated to describing how the bourgeoisie was in the process of revolutionising economic, social and political relations across the globe. For Marx, the creation of modern industry saw that bourgeoisie supplant the traditional economic elite. With economic came political power through the “modern representative state”, which was in fact nothing but “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”. But control of the state was not enough. Capitalism required the subordination of the whole of society in its interests. And not just one society, all societies.

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.

In less than a century, it had changed the world. “The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.”

The main point, however, of the Communist Manifesto was that the bourgeoisie was no longer the revolutionary class. Where once it beheaded kings and smashed aristocratic power through the New Model Army and the guillotine, it was now terrified of the rise of the proletariat. In consequence, it was allying itself with the reactionary aristocracy. Hence the opening lines of the Manifesto’s preamble. “A spectre is haunting Europe ‑ the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.”

For Marx then, as early as 1848 the bourgeoisie was keen to swap its traditional political demands for greater liberty and representative government in return for security for its property against any challenge from below. This analysis seemed confirmed by the June Days during the French Revolution of 1848, when the bourgeois liberals in control of the new regime called in the army to attack the Paris bastions of social republicanism. Subsequent alliances between important elements of the bourgeoisie and military strongmen like Napoleon III and Bismarck provided further evidence, as did bourgeois support for imperialism and militarism in the decades after Marx and then Engels died. Lenin concluded that, in Russia at least, only the working class could be trusted to lead the struggle for democracy.

When the middle classes in much of Europe threw their weight behind the destruction of democratic regimes and fascism rather than risk the consequences of proletarian democracy, it seemed to Marxists that outside of the Anglo-American world, the bourgeoisie had abandoned democracy once and for all. After the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini, US support for fascist and authoritarian regimes across the globe emphasised the gap between the rhetoric of bourgeois liberty and the reality of the politics of fear. Property came first, liberty was merely a disposable luxury.

Mulholland describes the central theme of his book as the proposition that “the middle classes, while abstractly attached to civic and political liberty, tend to become more illiberal in reaction to the rise of the working class”. With the competing models of Marx and Bush in mind, Mulholland undertakes a sweeping assessment of constitutional history, class relations and political and ideological conflict across four centuries, from the struggles between Crown and Parliament in seventeenth century England to the aftermath of financial crash (or “Great Recession”). In offering an analysis of the success of bourgeois conceptions of liberty, forms of government and economy, he also offers a detailed analysis of the development of socialism and why the bourgeoisie’s Soviet rival failed. The title therefore fails to do the scope of the content full justice.

This is history of a sort rarely written any more (at least not by professional historians, as opposed to historical sociologists), and this book is an excellent reminder of what has been lost in the rejection of meta-narrative, the rush to microhistory, and the downgrading of political history. State finance lies at the heart of the analysis presented in Bourgeois Liberty and the Politics of Fear, and in particular the relationship between it and political legitimacy. The question of whether a state can raise sufficient funds through taxation and/or borrowing is crucial to its capacity to meet its obligations to its citizens and play a full part in the international community. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this proved to be the weak spot of those rulers with pretensions to absolute monarchy. Financial crisis provided the opportunity for those seeking more representative government in England in the 1640s and France in 1789 to seize control of the state. But it was the rise to global supremacy of Britain over the course of the eighteenth century that really seemed to demonstrate the superiority of constitutional government when it came to raising finance.

Following 1688, constitutional monarchy in Britain was on a firm footing. What had been the royal debt became the national debt, guaranteed by the political elite. Added to the creation of the Bank of England in 1694, the efficiency of tax collection, the absence of exemptions for the elite, and the growth of the state bureaucracy, Britain forged a formidable fiscal-military state which enabled it to fight wars more or less constantly, and almost always successfully. This would have been impossible were it not for the commercial strength resulting from the empire (hence Mulholland’s preference for the term commercial-military state, reflecting the extent to which British diplomacy and warfare reflected commercial interests).

Mulholland also stresses the importance of civil society to Britain’s economic and constitutional development. For him, an increasingly bourgeois civil society had found the means to discipline the state, to ensure that it followed policies reflecting bourgeois interests without overpowering civil society. This concept of civil society disciplining the state plays a crucial role in the entire book. It helps explain why Britain and later the United States were able to exploit their economic power so effectively, and rise to such dominance. It also plays a crucial role in his account of why capitalist democracy was able to see off the challenge from communism. The populations of these countries felt that the reforms introduced after World War II during the era of welfare states and Keynesian economics sufficiently reflected their interests and protected their liberties, so the alternative could not gain sufficient purchase to challenge the system from within.

Mulholland argues that as long as the bourgeoisie felt its economic interests and liberties were sufficiently protected, it did not feel the need to take the government into its own hands. Therefore, Bush’s identification of the middle class with democracy does not stand up to historical scrutiny. For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it was not democracy but constitutional government that the bourgeoisie desired. In other words, as long as government spending and taxation was subject to significant oversight by representative institutions, and economic progress was being made, the bourgeoisie would make its peace with the ruling elite without seeking to drive them out. Cooperation, not confrontation, was preferred.

In the late nineteenth century, the basic assumptions of bourgeois liberalism were called into question. The increasing ability of regimes to raise loans on the international market even where there was no representative government, as in Russia, increased the independence of the state from civil society. The rise of working class political movements dedicated to introducing socialism (of varying forms) caused many bourgeois liberals to embrace reaction. The decline in liberal electoral support reflected the strengthening of opponents to the left and right, and the crisis of bourgeois liberalism. In the age of empire, it seemed that the age of bourgeois liberty might be drawing to a close.

This did not, however, mean that bourgeois civil society was under the same threat, as Mulholland points out. In fact, governments wanted to develop strong bourgeoisies and secure their backing because they associated them with economic and thus military power. The French and other absolute monarchies in the eighteenth century had sought to create strong commercial societies to enable them to compete on the world stage without fundamentally challenging the domestic political status quo, but largely failed. Such a vision could now be realised. Bismarck, for example, introduced reforms and waged cultural war on the Catholic church and persecuted socialists in order to attract liberal support, with a great deal of success. Nationalism further served to secure a new bargain between bourgeois civil society and the state. However, Mulholland stresses that liberals did not in fact abandon reform, and continued to form alliances with sections of the working class movement in the decades before World War One, though at the cost of much bourgeois support.

The end of World War One saw the introduction of systems of what was often referred to by bourgeois thinkers as proletarian democracy (that is universal manhood suffrage, and perhaps with votes for women) across Europe, inspired by the vision of US president Woodrow Wilson. By and large, the bourgeoisie and those who controlled the civil service and army were suspicious of them, especially in Germany. It is possible that the cataclysm into which the militarism of the old regime had hurled Europe might have persuaded the European bourgeoisie that democracy was a suitable system were it not for the Bolshevik October Revolution of 1917. The Russian example and subsequent attempted socialist revolutions in Germany and Hungary saw the politics of fear take over. There was massive violence across central and eastern Europe in the years after 1918, which resulted in victory for the new regimes, which often were much more authoritarian than the formalities of democracy would have suggested.

Mulholland argues that where the bourgeoisie did embrace democracy in Europe, it tended to be of the Christian rather than the liberal variety. Christian democracy made it easier to embrace a corporatist vision of society. Meanwhile, Carl Schmitt and other intellectuals argued that the only means to secure bourgeois civil society from the threat of socialism was authoritarian government. Political freedom might be lost, but the fundamentals of the bourgeois order would be secured. When the Great Depression hit following the Wall Street Crash, the conditions were ripe for huge swathes of Europe’s middle classes to abandon a political system which they had never really embraced in favour of fascism. Having underestimated the ability of bourgeois civil society to discipline fascist states, fascist militarism led them to abject defeat.

The alliance that crushed fascism, Mulholland suggests, represented the communist vision of a popular front on an international scale. The tragic paradox of the 1930s, he suggests, was that communist attempts in individual countries to convince other political forces of their commitment to support liberal democracy against fascism through the popular front only had the effect of further alienating the very people they needed to convince – the bourgeoisie – from liberal democracy. Popular frontism converted “suspicious workers to parliamentarianism, [but] was not able to win new layers of the middle classes beyond those already prepared to work with the left”. Ultimately, only war secured acceptance of the popular front.

The Cold War saw the politics of fear overcome commitment to bourgeois liberty, especially outside Europe. Mulholland argues that this occurred in part because of communist behaviour in transforming coalition governments in central and eastern Europe into socialist states through what was termed “salami tactics” (taking over governments bit by bit, starting with the important ministries like the interior, defence and communications). However, he also argues that this only occurred after the US had insisted on the expulsion of Communists from governments in western Europe, despite their prominent role in the resistance to the Nazis.

In western Europe, the bourgeoisie embraced compromise with workers’ aspirations through social democracy. Outside Europe, the US and its allies tended to prefer backing authoritarian strongmen. This dragged them into war on more than one occasion, most famously in Vietnam. Nowhere was the clash between the formal commitment to democracy and the primacy of capitalist economics more evident than in Chile, where the democratically elected government of the Marxist Salvador Allende (who had ignored Soviet warnings to act to strengthen his control over the armed forces) was overthrown in a CIA-inspired military coup, and thousands of people tortured and disappeared.

Chile also became the testing ground for the neoliberal economic theories of Milton Friedman, which were in the process of conquering much of the right, and would triumph with the Reagan-Thatcher axis. Mulholland presents the victory of neoliberalism as representing bourgeois civil society striking off the constraints forced on it by the postwar compromise. The lionisation of small property-owners, and the selling-off of public housing stock and nationalised corporations to create more of them, helped to transform public consciousness. So did the rise of consumerism, the decline in traditional industries (whose destruction was aided by the likes of Thatcher), attacks on trade unions, and the shrinkage of the traditional working class. Developments within the economy lay behind the electoral and ideological success of the neoliberals.

It was internal dynamics that led to the collapse of the Soviet system. The analysis offered by Mulholland stresses that the Soviet Union and its allies consistently privileged the traditional working class in heavy industries, a process aided by the disproportionate amount of spending on military goods. However, the failure to shift production away from these areas towards the consumer goods desired by their populations caused economic crisis by the late 1980s, when growth had slowed to 1 per cent per annum. “The plans worked, it is simply that – from 1970 – they were misconceived.” A new intelligentsia and skilled labour force had also emerged – often embedded within the governing parties – that increasingly realised that compared to its western counterparts, it was being significantly underpaid. When added to resentment at Soviet domination of other states and a general desire for more democratic control, the socialist states collapsed without many being prepared to defend them. The USSR had failed to embed a proletarian civil society capable of disciplining the state, and had fallen as a result.

It was the confidence acquired from the collapse of Soviet socialism that fostered the neoconservative programme outlined by Bush in his speech to the National Endowment for Democracy. It was a confidence that proved misplaced. US military power could not achieve what was expected of it, the politics of fear reemerged in the war on terror, and the neoliberal economic model came close to collapse, only being rescued by the sort of massive government intervention the model abhors.

In his conclusion, Mulholland argues that “as a broad picture”, it can be argued that “the liberalism of the bourgeoisie, therefore, is directly and inversely proportional to the independence and militancy of the working class”, but only with extensive qualification. In his eyes, neither Marx nor Bush is entirely correct. The bourgeoisie has proven more committed to political liberty than Marx expected, but a lot less committed than Bush would like to think.

As the concluding paragraph of Mulholland’s book notes, the professional middle classes themselves are now under threat from the consequences of neoliberalism, a situation summed up by the fact that the education sector is in the top three users of zero-hours contracts in the UK, where universities are twice as likely to use them as other employers. The Communist Manifesto’s prediction of the proletarianisation of the intellectuals is perhaps coming to pass. Only a massive expansion of credit, a shift to two-income households and developments in technology have sustained people’s belief that their living standards are and have been consistently improving. Should that feeling give way to long-term despair, it is far from clear that the bourgeoisie’s commitment to existing political institutions would hold. Mulholland’s judgment that “the balance struck between bourgeois liberty and democracy can only be considered partial and provisional” is undoubtedly true.

Bourgeois Liberty and the Politics of Fear presents a powerful analysis of some of the major questions that have shaped politics, government and society across the globe over centuries. It demonstrates the continuing vitality of constitutional and political history, as well as the importance of a materialist conception of history and of class as a category of historical inquiry. The book is the product of an enormous range of reading of both primary and secondary sources, which have been used to develop original and compelling arguments. There is much in the book, such as its analysis of anti-imperialism and Communism in Asia, that deserves more attention than this review has been able to give. Its arguments are certainly open to challenge but there is no denying their force. Anyone who wishes to understand the world we are in and how we got here ought to read this book.
24/03/2014
Ultán Gillen is a senior lecturer in European History at Teesside University. His research focuses on revolution and counter-revolution in the era of the French Revolution and Napoleon.

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