It seems like liberal democracy has got a bad name at the minute. Some of this is very likely the fault of its most avid practitioners, who all got a bit bewitched by Hayekian / Miltonian laissez faire economics, served us up the 2008 crash and have since, dazed and confused, retreated to a safe distance avoiding any meaningful attempts at regulation that might prevent future crises.
And yes, it’s healthy to be angry at the casino capitalism and the technocratic political class who endorsed its hegemony. I’ve been there. The anger has been cathartic. However, of late, one can’t help but worry that there’s a serious chance of throwing the baby out with the bathwater in how we respond to this.
The edifice of classical liberalism is built on John Stuart Mill’s (and others) model of individualism. The right to privacy, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and general civil liberty should be guaranteed provided Mill’s ‘harm principle’ is not invoked. When paired with a government with limited power, the individual is free in his / her Jeffersonian ‘pursuit of happiness’. Now, we can all surely agree this is a good thing for the individual citizen? If we don’t, perhaps we need to look at the middle ages when unaccountable monarchical and clerical power held sway, or alternatively to any of the theocracies currently extant in our world. Do these places look like societies you’d want to live in?
It took the events of the 30 years war and the treaty of Westphalia in 1648 for Europeans to initially realise a level of tolerance in religion was likely a good thing. Since then we’ve seen the embrace of Enlightenment values pertaining to gender, race and sexual orientation. The expanding circle of the moral zeitgeist has reduced much discrimination and suffering in our society. Go see Steven Pinker’s ‘Better Angels of Our Nature’ for a much more thorough history. These advances in moral and ethical thought and action are all gains of social liberalism. And for left of centre persons such as myself, I feel we have to admit that the economic underpinning of this moral progress was capitalism. At Bretton Woods, a mere few miles from where I write this, the post second world war political and economic consensus was drawn up, and the general realisation was that keeping a lid on violence was likely to be aided and abetted by the creation of a prosperous middle class with social mobility. Voila, the second half of the twentieth century.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s / early 1990s, socialism and ‘the left’ in general, including social democracy, took a considerable ideological hit. The philosophical underpinnings of state planned and run economies were tossed on the fire overnight and capitalism declared the outright victor. The abuses of totalitarian socialism only helped to bolster the canard that any state interference in the economy was evidently a bad thing. Capitalism, intoxicated on the fumes of ideological supremacy, took some anti regulatory steroids, swelled in size and then ultimately drunk the Kool Aid that caused the crash of 2008. Backing up the crony capitalistic system was the use of the philosophical tenets of social liberalism in an economic setting. Limited state power, rugged individualism and reduced regulatory oversight.
And so, we’re left with the conundrum. Liberalism is Janusian, its social aspect has benefitted us greatly, its neoliberal economic aspect, not so much. Into this fray we see a void that liberal democrats everywhere have retreated from. Their gods have failed and human nature abhors a vacuum. The extreme elements of the left and right have seen fit to colonise this territory and present us with equally simplistic, and subsequently seductive, solutions to our problems. On the right, the charge of cultural decadence coupled with prurient anger at social liberalism tells us we’ve reaped the whirlwind like some modern Rome with the Barbarians at the gates. If only we could make ourselves ‘great again’, harking back to an era that never existed, when women, gays and minorities knew their place. On the left, the equally vociferous argument for completely tearing up capitalism and instituting some Trotskyist proletarian utopia whilst blaming all the worlds ills on ourselves is in the air. The irony of such views being peddled by keyboard warriors on social media using modern consumerist goods is too delicious to not point out. In tough times however, against this pincer movement, modern liberalism has little chance. ‘The centre cannot hold…..the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ Yeats’ words neatly sum up the worst of the demagogues now lining up to take advantage of the crisis in liberalism. Trump, le Pen, Galloway et al.
So why care? Anyone who grew up in the 20th century and benefitted from the social stability and advantages of western democracy should be suspicious of views to consign liberalism to the dustbin. Yes, it is imperfect as recent experience shows, but compared to other political systems, it is infinitely preferable. The political experiments of absolute monarchies, theocracies, totalitarian fascism and communism should disavow us of any inclination to embrace any aspect of their ideologies. Liberal democracy is worth defending.
Economic neoliberalism has certainly let us down. It has presided over gross economic inequality, reduced social mobility and stands poised to poison the planet. And yet, any serious appraisal of it demonstrates that it isn’t true liberalism – it has caused the very societal and individual ‘harms’ that Mill invoked as reasons in support of state intervention. Hayek himself even recognised that harmful externalities to markets should be regulated by government intervention, in particular environment damage. The laissez faire economic doctrine, like any religion, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in light of 200. If socialism means anything nowadays, perhaps it should be to save capitalism from its worst excesses. There has to be a sensible role for government in our lives, our experiences to date should move all of us to build a better liberalism, not to consign it to history. There is room for conservatism here, in keeping the hard won social gains and tolerance the old system has given us and also space for radicalism in reshaping how our states oversee our financial systems.
Antonio Gramsci said ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’. This feels prescient. We have a duty to oppose the political extremes and defend liberalism. If we don’t, we should know all too well, like Goya, that ‘the sleep of reason produces monsters’.