essays

Dec 1, 1980

‘Advanced Liberalism’ as Managed Capitalism

“[The] nineteenth-century liberals created a state-managed capitalism.”

“The Identity of English Liberalism.” Politics and Society 9, no. 1(1979):1–32.

The author takes issue with the conventional view of English liberalism: “that during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries liberalism blossomed from a sectional ideology into a dominant mode of consciousness and that it achieved ascendency because its separation of the economy from the polity, together with its sanctification of individual property and other private rights coincided with the development of productive forces.” The conventional view goes on to attribute the political eclipse of late nineteenth-century liberalism at the polls to its inability to define a program of social reconstruction that would adapt capitalism to “an epoch of state intervention and social welfare.”

Eccleshall dissents and accepts the recent British New Left and analysis of Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn. This view maintains that English classical liberalism, constitutionally born in the 1688 Glorious Revolution and favoring men of property, never dislodged the premodern conservative ideology of social hierarchy and deference, which prevailed over the liberal ethos of individual rights and liberties. Yet, paradoxically, late liberalism attained a maturity (in theory and practice) at the close of the nineteenth century at the moment of the Liberal party’s electoral collapse. This new, reformulated liberalism then “permitted dominant groups to abandon the aristocratic heritage” of conservative Whiggism for a more authentic “liberal ethos.” This late nineteenth-century liberalism promised to secure the rights of individuality to all classes while evolving an ideology of “managed capitalism.” Today, this new, socially aware liberalism is the dominant English ideology shared by all major parties. Contrary to conventional views, the new cross-party liberalism did not fail to keep pace with the changing socioeconomic realities.

Classical liberalism contained inherent theoretical ambiguities resolved by post-classical liberalism (in the latter half of the nineteenth century). Classical liberalism’s “Achilles heel,” maintains Eccleshall, was its overemphasis on individual autonomy or private judgment at the expense of social harmony and public goods. The free market distributed wealth unequally along class lines and thus prevented social harmony. The state, to correct the political disunity and inequality generated by the market, “was required to exercise a more positively coercive function than the liberal doctrine allowed.” The weakness of the older liberalism meant that a conservative Whiggism of the dominant classes ruled. The market was subordinated to the Burkean conservative view of society as a corporate organism controlled by propertied members.

Eventually, however, English liberals became pioneers in purging the conservative Whig ideology from their system. These nineteenth-century liberals created a state-managed capitalism. The policies of this “advanced capitalism” though applied under the auspices of the twentieth-century Conservative and Labour parties had, in fact, been nurtured by the adaptive liberal ethos.

The author, covering the relevant scholarly bibliography, traces his version of liberalism’s historical evolution from the sixteenth-century Levellers to the nineteenth-century liberals Mill, Green, and Hobhouse. In this evolution the older, classical liberalism’s tension between individualism and social cooperation or unity, gradually was transformed to the “advanced liberalism.” This new liberalism, espoused now by all English parties, is characterized by social consciousness and state intervention to secure “a one class community.” Thus the liberal ethos came into its own maturity after electoral liberalism waned.