The Liberty/Equality axis

Where are the polyarchists gone?
Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
18 January 2010

I was not expecting the failures of Copenhagen and of serious reform of the financial system. I suppose that I thought both of these would materialise in some less than ideal but still acceptable state. That they haven't is a moment to think about what failed and why. This a first, conceptual, step in that process.

I came up with this reductive matrix while travelling to Epping on the tube on Sunday morning (on my way to collect an old eBay'd pair of skis, hoping for more snow, you see...). As you move to the right in the picture, you care more about equality; as you move down in the picture, you care more about liberty. In openDemocracy speak, one might say that as you move to the right, you care about democracy and as you move down you care about openness.

Hierarchy -- the rule by a priestly caste -- has both traditionalist and progressive (egalitarian) forms. The Telegraph sits naturally in the top left corner, and something like the Fabian society is in the top right. Oligarchy -- the rule by a small number of competing/collusive castes -- is the mainstream. You run from the Times to the Guardian passing through the Economist depending on your preferences for progress and equality, but you are basically at ease with the game of the political class -- the competing oligarchs.

The polyarchists (borrowed from Zittrain's schema) are much more suspicious of concentrations of power and are very resistant to coercion. They exist in traditional forms -- romantic conservatives in the Ruskin/William Morris mold -- although where they are today is less clear. Blond's Red Toryism and Burke's "love of the little platoons" of society fits in this corner, I think. There is a celebration of the traditional and organic in this current. It is what Jerome di Costanzo has called "You the people" conservatism. Roger Scruton in some of his writing - for example on England or on Fox Hunting - seems to be in this bottom left corner. 

The most prominent of the polyarchists are the free market libertarians. More prominent in the USA than they ever really were in the UK, they are rugged individualists, usually strong on atheism, materialism, isolationism, property rights and state's rights; they find it hard politically to become bedfellows with the religious right: when their candidate Ron Paul got nowhere in the Republican primaries, many switched to supporting Obama. I have them represented by Reason.com in my schema.

Finally, the empty-ish space in the bottom right is for those who want to compromise neither on progress nor liberty---this is the "both free and equal corner". The bottom right corner can be thought of giving up the extreme individualism of the Reason.com crowd. What we do together not only matters, but is in many ways the most important part of our social existence. This the bottom right shares with the romantic conservatives but not with the free market libertarians.

I have occasionally toyed with the idea of replacing our strapline - "free thinking for the world" - with "reclaiming realism for idealists". There is something clearly idealist about resisting the pull towards oligarchy---it seems to fly so much in the face of every piece of "realism" we have about the world. But on the other hand, Copenhagen and the lack of banking reform comfort me that the oligarchy is on its last legs.

Expect that bottom row to fill out in the years to come.

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