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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 9/7/15

Five Principles for a Twenty-First Century Liberalism

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Message Anis Shivani

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Spiders in the attic
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Twentieth-century liberalism lives on in forms of the social contract that are outmoded for the twenty-first century's globalized, technological world. Liberalism today is entirely reactive, fending off attempts by conservatism to erode the social contract as it has been known to operate in the Western democracies since around the end of World War II. Neither conservatives nor liberals have a true vision for the future, although conservatives give the impression of being more visionary than liberals, since they at least have an active agenda they're pursuing. In this vacuum of ideology, there's great danger for neofascist movements to step in, as always happens when liberalism is on the run. Standing still is not a possibility, in a globalized world where individual economies are simply changing too rapidly and information is spreading too widely.

Who are the parties to the existing liberal social contract, and does it make sense to have the same relationship in a future where there is greater potential for the individual to be empowered? Social policy in the Western democracies accepts corporations as powerful entities, and the ebbs and flows of the business cycle as inevitable; moreover, individuals are imagined to have finite working lives, from their early twenties to their mid-sixties, after which they ought to retire on some combination of personal savings, corporate pensions, and state social security. In essence, the state functions as the reluctant mediator of financial uncertainties and risks between the individual and private enterprise. This minimalist role is under severe attack in all the Western democracies, and particularly in the U.S., as demographics alone make the old social contract difficult to sustain. Populations are declining, trade imbalances are pervasive and growing, and the old manufacturing industries are having a difficult time competing with lower wage economies.

The tripartite arrangement--the individual, the state, and private enterprise--is under unbearable strain, yet liberalism continues to hope that it can maintain its early Cold War-era modus vivendi, and that the illusion of perpetual growth (along with low inflation and high employment) will save the day for its social contract.

The world of the future will not abide such paralysis. The future is one of fully interconnected economies, a plane of flattened information psychologies and technological diffusion, a world where it is no longer possible to speak of individual countries behind safe borders. Many in the U.S. and Western Europe want to deny the coming of this completely globalized world. They want to pretend that events and changes in one country will not necessarily spread to others. It is a quarantined vision of the world, where the liberal state seeks to preserve the privileges obtained by a prosperous middle class in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. But that prosperity was artificial and unsustainable; it was predicated on the relative subservience of the newly decolonized nations. The old liberalism cannot function when the independent nations have come into their own; clearly, they haven't all yet, but the road ahead is clear. To seek to preserve the old liberalism is insidious in that it pushes the world in the direction of the past, when some countries had unfair technological advantages over others.

If indeed the old liberalism is no longer valid, what set of principles can take its place? How do we picture the citizen, what would be the foundations of the social contract, and what would be the function of the state?

The primary function of the state, everywhere in the world, ought to be to give up national autonomy, voluntarily and systematically, until the state is unable to exercise formalized tyranny over its citizens. The state today has too much power in some realms (a leftover from the outdated social contract) and too little in others; the balance needs to be corrected. It has too much power, for instance, in the tools of surveillance, which it can justify in the name of national security; but if the concept is replaced with international security, then the state would have less leeway to impose unilateral dictats restricting citizens' mobility and choices. The state has too little power, on the other hand, in empowering citizens to realize their full growth potential. This happens because it is often busy pursuing power for its own sake, for reasons of grandiosity, for lack of alternatives to exercise accumulated power.

Here are some fundamental principles around which the reordering of the social contract ought to take place:

1. Get Past Nationalism. Liberalism should make an absolute commitment to free movement of labor and capital. National borders should cease to exist for all practical purposes. Obviously, to make this possible, the poorer parts of the world will have to be elevated, and if states have one important function in the near future, it is to make heavy investments in infrastructure and productivity to bring Africa and the poorer parts of Latin America and Asia to the point where emigration becomes less of a necessity than a choice. Citizenship then can be of the world, and travel anywhere at any time, residence anywhere at any time, ought to be possible. Current regret in the U.S. about the loss of old industrial sectors to cheaper parts of the world suggests a possible resurrection of the old industries; this is utterly retrograde, and ought to be no part of the calculation.

Immigration needs to cease to exist as we know it; people should be able to move around from country to country, speak different languages, and experience different cultures, but the idea of expatriating one's whole body and soul to a different (generally richer) culture and remaining committed to that new place's nationalism, memorizing its mythology and shunning links with the old country, ought to become passe. When immigration as a conventional concept ceases to matter, so will its negative political ramifications. The entire world should be a single economic zone. The entire world should be a single human resource zone. Then only can human potential be maximized without friction. Labor will then at last have the chance to seek its highest value.

2. Lifelong Education. The concept of about a dozen years of preparatory schooling, followed by four years of college, and if desired a few more years of graduate school, ought to be abolished. This is a nineteenth-century notion of education, more suited to the training of industrial workers, the creation of the mass mind, the mobilization of the citizenry for nationalist purposes, including war and destructive economic competitiveness. Education ought to have no real beginning and end. This concept implies the destruction of the authoritarian structure of the traditional university. The university needs to be transformed so that the very idea of "professors" transmitting information to mostly passive "students" is eliminated in favor of learning that has multiple sources, bubbles from the bottom as often as it does from the top, and dissolves the distinctions between students and teachers. After a certain level of accomplishment, what's to prevent a student from becoming a teacher?

Learning in this vision is admittedly a competition for the popularity of ideas; those ideas that are obfuscating or don't meet the test of popular acceptance, will fall by the wayside. Will this be a dictatorship of the masses? Consider that what we have now is an undeclared dictatorship of the elite, and the idea is to remove the ideological compulsions that give rise to the unthinking mass. Education will saturate everything, everything will saturate education, and this will mean a fluid, organic, free-flowing democracy, rather than the morbid one all advanced nations currently experience. Education should not mold individuals to serve others, but should acquire a global sense of joy and pleasure, a movement of play and adventure it has lost.

3. Make Technology Work for People. Either corporations or the government take a hold of all new technologies and deploy them in the pursuit of profit-making or control of citizens. As soon as the liberating potential of a new technology begins to be perceived, it's dissipated in either of the two well-known directions. The state and the corporation have come to symbiotic agreement about the uses to which new technologies will be deployed. How can technology become the crucial aid to freedom rather than lead to its restriction? If further advances in the sciences (particularly in biology) lead to new forms of conceptualizing the human and new methods of production, then will these promote liberation from drudgery? Or will they again be used to narrow what we think is possible for humanity?

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Anis Shivani is a fiction writer, poet, and critic in Houston, Texas. His debut book, a short fiction collection called Anatolia and Other Stories, which included a Pushcart Special Mention story, was published in October 2009 by Black Lawrence (more...)
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