Contemporary liberalism has disdained the loyalties that work as society’s glue. Its failure has allowed populism to dominate politics
I have just read a book so good I want to read it again. But I also want to read (or write) a more complete version of it that is less solicitous of its subject and more concerned with the failures of modern liberalism — as evidenced by the recent success of UKIP and other populists across Europe. Edmund Fawcett’s Liberalism: The Life of an Idea (Princeton, £24.95) is an attempt to give form and shape to the elusive political idea that has dominated the Western world for almost two centuries. And to someone like me, half-familiar with many of the ideas in it, it is an intellectual page-turner made even more readable by its personal, sometimes quirky, style and its seamless mix of philosophy, history, biography and history of ideas.
There is an unresolved tension that runs through the book between liberalism’s restless refusal to be fixed and Fawcett’s aim to do just that. But although there is something unavoidably arbitrary about the author’s definitions he gets away with it, thanks in part to the subtlety and looseness of his framework.
Liberalism is currently the most elastic and confusing word in the political lexicon. There are four uses in common circulation, at least partly in conflict with one another (and that does not include the dictionary definition of liberal as an adjective meaning generous or broad-minded). First, there is probably the most technically correct, but least used, form of the word referring to the long history of political struggle to apply checks and balances to monarchical and propertied centres of power. Second, with the prefix economic it refers to the small-state, free-market economics of the 19th century revived in very different circumstances in the 1980s. Third, there is the “new” liberalism associated with state intervention to tame economic liberalism associated with the New Deal in the US. And finally there is the liberalism associated with the 1960s rights revolution and the gradual spread of the idea of equality of treatment and opportunity for those previously excluded from power — in particular women and ethnic minorities.
By chance the book is also structured around three “foursomes”. Fawcett selects four ideas to constitute the fluid core of the liberal idea: the permanence of conflict in a society, distrust of power, faith in human progress and respect for people whatever they think and whoever they are. He then discusses the evolution of the liberal idea in four countries (the US, Britain, France and Germany) in four different time periods: 1830 to 1880, emergence and rise to power; 1880 to 1945, coming to terms with democracy and almost imploding; 1945 to 1989, a second chance; and post-1989 reflections on contemporary liberalism.
The four core ideas are held together by one bigger liberal intuition: liberalism is the cheerleader of restless change whereas its two main rivals — conservatism and socialism — desire more fixed social orders. This is a source of great strength for liberalism but also condemns it to travelling light, to going with the flow and to being — in the caricature — no more than the agreement to disagree.
Fawcett tends to shy away from such judgments and claims to be merely identifying the contours of the idea rather than examining it. But his own bias is pretty clear. The son of a President of the European Commission for Human Rights, and himself a long-standing Economist journalist (where he was way to the left of the newspaper’s free-market consensus), he does not subject his own left-liberal values to critical scrutiny.
This is clear in the book’s final section which fails to grapple with the mixed legacy of the Sixties or notice the emergence of a pervasive but barely visible liberal ideology that reflects the interests and lives of a mobile, graduate, upper professional elite (to which I will return). That Fawcett is part of that club is evident from his belief that the EU should become a more powerful organisation for a post-national world.
Nevertheless, the book’s impressive historical sweep introduced me to several key figures in the history of liberal thought I had been barely aware of, especially in the French tradition. (I also understand better why liberals and socialists are more hostile to each other in France than in Britain, thanks to the “reactionary liberalism” of Guizot, Thiers and others.)
Fawcett shows how long-running many liberal disputes are, between, for example, Humboldt’s desire to mould better citizens and Constant’s desire to let people alone, between positive and negative liberty, between the national and the universal. And he is also good at pointing up how many of the great left v. right conflicts of the modern world — Keynes v. Hayek, Hoover v. Roosevelt — are actually arguments within liberalism.
His bird’s-eye view illuminates many unexpected things too: the extent, for example, to which the 1914-1945 crisis was a liberal one — the First World War was in part the outcome of decisions by Liberal governments (including in Britain and France) and the economic crisis was a crisis of liberal economics.
And there is early-20th-century liberalism’s continuing reservations about democracy and enthusiasm for colonialism. As Fawcett points out, they have the same root: “The liberal-imperial attitude to ‘backward’ peoples was little different from their attitude to unlettered, propertyless voters in their own countries . . . The ‘capacity’ of both needed bettering and it fell to liberals to conduct the reform.”
The book is scattered with useful pen portraits of Samuel Smiles (who turns out to have been a Chartist supporter), Abraham Lincoln, David Lloyd George (he could not see a belt without wanting to hit below it, according to Margot Asquith), Leonard Hobhouse, Gustav Stresemann, Michael Oakeshott and Lyndon Johnson (“probably smarter than John Kennedy”) to name just a random few.
And I lost count of the striking observations: high wages are the Keynesian equivalent of universal suffrage; Europe is Roman law, Christian inwardness and German equality; in between pre-modern unity and modern diversity came a bridge of toleration; with modernity “suffocating coherence” vanished.
There were two surprising absences. First, there was hardly any mention of Rousseau’s “general will” which fed into Jacobin and later Soviet notions of popular democracy, and against which liberal democracy has in part defined itself. Second, there was no mention of Europe’s luck in developing a state, initially above all in England, that was neither too strong nor too weak. Another definition of liberalism might be the politics found in such fortunate places; places that have allowed the evolution from “sociocentric” societies, which subordinate the individual to group and tradition, to more individualistic ones.
But in the book’s conclusion, as mentioned above, there is a bigger missed opportunity to examine the failings of contemporary liberalism. Fawcett touches on the post 9/11 debate about the balance of liberty and security but ignores the much more important gap that has opened up between the secular, liberal baby boomer worldview and the political and psychological intuitions of the ordinary citizen.
The liberal baby boomers tend to be universalistic, suspicious of most kinds of group or national attachment, and individualistic, committed to autonomy and self-realisation. Such liberals care about harm to people and about justice but, as the American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has pointed out, they don’t “get” what most other people also get — loyalty, authority and the sacred.
The liberal baby boomer worldview is increasingly dominant in all three political parties and much of the media (with the notable exception of the Daily Mail, which is involved in a Kulturkampf against it). Modern liberalism, far from being a content-less set of techniques for reconciling different points of view, imposes the worldview of the mobile, graduate, upper professional elite on the rest of society. And the rest of society often doesn’t like it — hence the rise of populism across Europe. To take just one current example: modern liberalism in its embrace of large-scale immigration, its enthusiasm for judge-made human rights law and for “non-discrimination” between EU citizens, ends up minimising the distinction between national citizens and outsiders.
What one might call the communitarian/evolutionary psychology critique of liberalism remains liberal (elsewhere I have called it post-liberal) but assumes people are moral particularists not universalists, and they care about the citizen/non-citizen distinction. That means agreeing that all humans are equal but they are not all equal to us; our obligations and allegiances ripple out from family and friends to stranger-fellow-citizens and only then to all humanity. Charity begins at home, even if it doesn’t end there. That’s why we spend 25 times more on the NHS than development aid.
This critique also places enormous value on a “social glue” that modern liberalism takes for granted or disdains as antediluvian, associated with ethnic exclusivity. But the glue is in fact a product of modern societies. It has been moulded over centuries, in part by liberal politics, to create a sense of interconnection and mutual regard between citizen-strangers that now also happily co-exists with racial and gender equality.
A well-functioning, open national story, one of the most important vehicles for social glue, is not some projection of the tribe onto modern societies but rather a priceless unifying asset in more diverse, individualistic societies. It is the erosion of national citizenship in the name of universal values — through the human rights movement or “ever closer union” in the EU — that is reigniting “Golden Dawn” tribalism. And it is the lack of social glue in many low-trust, authoritarian, poor countries that makes it so hard to create the public goods and public co-operation that we once took for granted in Europe: welfare states, redistribution of resources, low corruption.
If modern liberalism is too disdainful about myths of lost intimacy, and too thoughtless about social glue, it is also wildly idealistic about choice and freedom. We are not “blank sheets” who choose our values at a political supermarket. Liberals tend to only value what is chosen and thus underestimate the intractable “given-ness” of so much of human life: age and gender, the era and society one is born into, even to some extent (according to modern science) one’s intelligence and temperament.
Freedom does not already exist inside individuals ready to burst out once the constraints have been removed; it has to be nurtured within the bounds of human nature and those givens. This is what the Sixties revolution did not understand. Or rather the Sixties consisted of two movements closely entangled. There was the rights revolution for women and minorities that represented a leap forward in freedom and equality. But there was also a more “emancipatory” impulse to reject obligation and tradition that fuelled a surge in various social pathologies, from crime to the breakdown of the family, that we are only now recovering from.
Compared with traditional societies modern societies have a low moral and political consensus and, to many modern liberals, therein lies our freedom. Conventional liberalism does not like the idea of the common good because — in all but basic things like peace and physical security — it does not know how we can arrive at it in diverse, societies with many conflicting interests and ideas of the “good”. It fears that like the “general will” it will end up being imposed by those who think they do know what it is.
Liberalism does have a big point here. But, of course, modern liberalism is not just a technique for reconciling conflicts: it also smuggles in a very clear view of the good society. It has a bias towards universalism and individualism, it places a relatively low value on stability and continuity, indeed it is ambivalent about the idea of community, which is something to be celebrated in the abstract but escaped from through geographical or social mobility in practice. The idea of the good life turns out to be something that looks very like the life of today’s metropolitan upper professional — say Nick Clegg. But this is not how everyone wants to live. Modern liberalism does not have sufficient space for the more communitarian virtues of belonging, security and solidarity. It speaks to only one part of human nature, which is not necessarily an obstacle to its success — after all the Christianity of the Sermon on the Mount hardly goes with the grain of human instincts either.
Any workable political philosophy requires the taming of some human traits through morality and institutions, and every philosophy stresses some things at the expense of others. But as Isaiah Berlin argued, people actually want many of the same things: security, recognition, love, meaningful work, sufficient wealth and freedom to live a good life in the many ways that can be conceived.
The free-floating, self-realising individual of modern liberal philosophy does not help us think coherently about how we live, especially for the least successful in our “two-thirds” societies with their affluent majorities.
Actually existing people are rooted in communities and families, often experience change as loss and have a hierarchy of moral obligations. Too often the language of contemporary liberalism ignores the real affinities of place and people. Those affinities are not obstacles to be overcome on the road to the good society; they are one of its foundation stones. People will always favour their own families and communities; it is the job of a realistic liberalism, a post-liberal politics, to reconcile such particularist feelings with fluid, open societies in which people expect high degrees of individual autonomy. Modern liberalism’s failure to achieve that reconciliation has left a large Nigel Farage-shaped hole in our politics.