Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Ideology of the Liberal Consensus

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[I got a little sloppy in my referencing here, but I believe all page numbers are supposed to refer back to the text referenced, The Ideology of the Liberal Consensus by Geoffrey Hodgson, which was a chapter out of a larger book: America in Our Time  ]

Joel Swagman
History 313
February 25, 2000

The Ideology of the Liberal Consensus

Godfrey Hodgson explores the culture of America in the 1950s in his chapter, The Ideology of the Liberal Consensus.  In his work, Hodgson explains what the liberal consensus was, how it was made possible, and what consequences arose from it.
The liberal consensus was a shared set of common beliefs and values among American citizens.  Fundamentally it was the belief in “the essential goodness and strength of American Society” (98).  This goodness was possible because of American free-enterprise, which was capable of providing for all of its citizens.  America was believed to be free from class struggles because of an economic system that was capable of providing for all.  It was therefore the duty of the United States to fight against world communism and bring to all the world the joy of American style free enterprise.
Characteristic of the liberal consensus was an agreement of the above points by all factors of American society.  There was no major dissent during this time.
As Hodgson makes clear, the age of consensus was an historical anomaly.  This presents the obvious question of how it was allowed to form.  One important factor is the strong fear of communism during the 1950s.  This allowed American society to be united against a common enemy, as if during a time of war.
Another factor was the acceptance of the ideas of John Maynard Keynes.  Although the depression was still a recent memory, Keynesian economics trumpeted the idea that capitalism could be controlled, and that the fiscal policy could flatten out the highs and lows of the business cycle.
Yet another intellectual idea which made the consensus possible was the idea of growth.  This was the idea that more wealth could be created by increased production.  Therefore, the best way to provide for everyone was not to redistribute the wealth, but to increase output so that there are more goods and services to go around, and everyone can have some.
Finally, the working class was not able to unify during the 1950s, and so no sense of class consciousness arouse.  Although Hodgson asserts that, contrary to the prevailing belief at the time, American society was divided into classes, the classes themselves were divided.  The working class was divided along “ethnic, sectional, and racial” lines.
So what effect did this consensus have?  The most obvious effect was that the Left during the 1950s essentially ceased to exist.  No one dared to support the communists, the socialist party withered, and a “liberal” at the time shared the same basic beliefs as a conservative, just with more concern for labor rights.

Secondly, the premises of the consensus turned out to be false.  The United States was just about to explode into social turmoil in the 1960s, and the great danger of monolithic communism turned out to be a myth.  As this error became apparent, the real dangers of the liberal consensus were shown, Hodgson claims.  The United States had faced “real dangers for too long without any fundamental debate” (119).

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