09 January 2007

Political Primer: Institutions and Reactionaries, Conservatives, Liberals & Radicals

It helps me to understand politics from the perspective of institutions. I would argue that all political struggle has to do with what we institutionalize or not. From that perspective, here's a way to look at four groups: reactionaries, conservatives, liberals, and radicals. I'll use the church in the 16 to 18th century to illustrate each group.

Reactionaries felt that things had gone badly because society had strayed from the true church. For them, the Inquisition and the return to theocratic rule over wayward kings and princes would help to restore social order. Burn a few witches and philosophers to appease God and all would again be well.

Conservatives wanted to preserve the church but not necessarily return to its early state of complete illiteracy and crackdown on science and witches. They were quite happy with the church as the dominant institution but still saw a role for stronger states, and a modicum of commerce and science - just not any commerce (e.g., charging usury) or science (e.g., notions like the earth circling around the sun) that contradicted church teachings. Further, they didn't particularly trust the masses, preferring to see the power of the church retained in the hands of the elite (e.g., the pope).

Liberals wanted to transform the church, make it subordinate to the state. Put it in its place and it would no longer be a catalyst for killings or archaic practices in regards to business and commerce. And they wanted to disperse the power of the church, not trusting the elites and preferring the misjudgment of the masses to the abuse of power by the elites, best represented by Luther's cry: "we are all priests."

Radicals, finally, wanted to do away with the church, seeing it as a source of evil with a history of oppression, forcing Europeans to live in ignorance and squalor.

Four groups, each defined by their relationship to the dominant institution. Reactionaries wanting to return to a time when the institution in transition returned to its previously clear domination and clear rule by elites; conservatives wanting to stop change and maintain order by maintaining power among the elites; liberals wanting to encourage a dispersion of power outwards and to subordinate the institution to the community; and, finally, radicals who simply wanted to be rid of this anchor to the past, feeling that along with its domination, its reason for being had passed.

This perspective has helped me, a liberal, to understand American politics of today. The conservative movement is really a coalition, all wanting to preserve the power of the dominant institution; where they break down is in their agreement about which institution is (or should be) dominant. One sector, the social conservatives, seems to believe that the church is the institution that should be protected in its earlier (or at least current) form, decrying attacks to its authority and pronouncements on social standards. Another sector, the patriots, seems to believe that the state is the institution that should be protected in its earlier form of powerful military and high-waving flag. Finally, the business conservatives seem to believe that what needs defending is the American way of life as exercised through its corporations. All share in common a notion that the institutions need defending from the individual.

By contrast, the liberal seems to believe that the individual needs protecting from the institution. Perhaps the simplest way to see this contrast is in the issue of crime or welfare. The conservative is afraid that the individual will abuse the institution, cheating the state of money that he or she doesn't deserve, or abusing rights. The liberal is afraid that the institution will abuse the individual, ignoring his or her needs and rights.

It seems as though the real question is whether we're prepared to adopt fluent and changing institutions in order to accommodate individuals or whether we're planning to force individuals to conform to institutions. It's always a dance and any society needs to do both. The question is, Who is leading?

Some reading this would say that American conservatives actually want to shift more power to the individual and less to the institution. That, of course, depends on what one accepts as the dominant institution. Many conservatives want less state intervention, less state power, but the reason for that is because they trust markets and corporations more than they trust elections and governments. For them, the underdog is the corporation and the dominant institution is the state. But if the corporation has become the dominant institution, then the definition of conservative applies as it does in the example of the church: conservatives want to maintain the power of the corporation, allowing it to work with fewer encumbrances, regulations, and taxes. And, to complete the picture, they are perfectly content with the status quo of powerful elites running those corporations, a privileged few who get disproportionate benefits.

The alignment that would be very powerful is the alignment between liberals of every sector. By the definition given, many “conservatives” are actually liberals in terms of church, state, and even bank but are truly conservatives only in the matter of the corporation. If they were to see the parallels between these institutions, see how one constant through the history and progress of Western Civilization is the diffusion of power from elites to the many, they could likely be persuaded to consider a more liberal view of the corporation, working for reforms that would match the power over corporations with the composition of owners (via both equity capital as represented by stock and intellectual capital as represented by employee involvement).

Liberals who have reversed themselves in terms of state power, seeing a strong state as the one viable option for countering a strong corporation, might also find a common ground with conservatives within this perspective. The point is not to tradeoff power between corporations and governments; the one leads to abuses that lines the pockets of politicians and the other to abuses that lines the pockets of senior executives. Better to diffuse power to the grassroots in every forum, subordinating these institutions to the community rather than vice versa.

We have before us a possibility for a period of enormous social innovation – a period of history when society becomes as pliable as our technology. Accomplishing this will require a myriad of changes. One change that is essential is that we all become liberals, forcing our institutions to emerge, disappear and change as best suits individual and community goals.

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