"Liberalism can survive but it has to renew its social traditions", Nick Pearce
It will take more than protest to keep the creed alive, writes Nick Pearce
As 2016 comes to an end, liberalism will be given a place on the roster of the year’s notable deaths, slotted in somewhere between Harper Lee and Muhammad Ali. In the year of Brexit, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, liberalism has been declared dead and buried. “The liberal pageant is fading,” writes John Gray, the dystopian philosopher, and “all that really remains of liberalism is fear of the future.” He is not alone. All around us, a “post-liberal” era is being announced.
European liberalism joined forces with nationalism in the 19th century to give political expression to demands for autonomy and self-rule. Today, the two have mostly parted company, save where civic nationalists still seek liberation from larger nation states, as in Scotland and Catalonia. Nationalism now wears an illiberal face and it does so with pride. Authoritarian, conservative nationalists govern much of the world, including swaths of eastern Europe. Liberal politics is in retreat.
Yet the rush to read the funeral rites of liberalism is premature. It is a capacious and tenacious ideology with a rich, diverse history. The concept of liberty always at its core, it has worn numerous political and intellectual guises — from the classical defence of property rights and restraints on arbitrary power, to the expansive social liberalism that gave birth to the British welfare state, and also the emancipatory liberalism of civil rights movements worldwide. Even when politically weak, it has lent its ideas and energy to other movements. John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge gave the UK Labour party the intellectual tools with which to build Jerusalem after the second world war.
Nordic social democracy can be readily assimilated to the social liberal tradition, as can Rooseveltian American liberalism. Even continental liberalism can lay claim to its part in the success of postwar Christian Democracy.
With an ideological lineage of such range and influence, liberalism will not be so easily consigned to oblivion. But to thrive again it needs rescuing from its friends as much as its enemies.
The Liberal Democrats were reduced to an agenda of softening the edges of public spending cuts and constraining conservative Euroscepticism
In recent decades, it has been stripped of its philosophical and political power. In the quest for robust theories of social justice, liberal political philosophy grew ever more removed from daily struggles for improvement in the human condition. Liberalism lost sight of its insurgent roots in the fight against established orders and lost ground as politics focused after the financial crisis on questions of jobs, security and identity.
Meanwhile, the decline of the social liberal tradition left the field open for colonisation of liberal language by the Thatcherite right, which used it to pioneer the extension of markets, competition and new managerial regimes of regulation into public life and social relationships. Benthamite utilitarian liberalism has been recently revived but as a “science of happiness”, less often to liberate humans than to devise new means of governing them, furnishing justification for technologies to monitor moods and behaviour, corporate HR strategies and government by technocratic nudge.
The renewal of liberalism will start with resistance. Already in eastern Europe a liberal rearguard is being fought to defend democratic and constitutional rights, from Poland to Hungary. We can expect American liberalism, at its radical and rumbustious best, to stand its ground against attacks on constitutional norms, environmental degradation and incursions into the rights of minorities. In the UK, liberals of all parties are at the heart of opposition to hard Brexit. In these battles, particular as they are to different national political arenas, liberalism can throw off the caricature of unpatriotic rootlessness and self-righteous political correctness.Little wonder that, when they finally acquired some power by joining the UK coalition government, the Liberal Democrats were reduced to an agenda of softening the edges of public spending cuts and constraining conservative Euroscepticism. Theirs was a besieged version of liberalism, for which a heavy price was paid at the ballot box last year.
But liberalism will fail if protest is all it can muster. It needs to renew its social traditions and the alliances once forged with the working classes — to rediscover social liberalism’s emphasis on the interdependence of individual and community, the pursuit of human flourishing and the economic radicalism with which to shape capitalism in the common good. It must play its part in constructing a liberal politics of community to compete with that offered by nationalists: one that responds to demands for good jobs, decent housing and social respect, and which appeals to voters outside the cosmopolitan cities.
These are big tasks, made harder by the political weakness of the UK Labour party and its centre-left sister parties elsewhere in the world. But liberalism is a resilient, adaptive creed. We should not pronounce it dead yet.
The writer is professor of public policy at the University of Bath