After Brexit and the victory of Donald Trump, the liberal world seems to lie in tatters: economic globalisation is in retreat while among the anti-establishment insurgencies many reactionaries and in some countries even neo-fascists are on the rise. In Britain, an alliance of left- and right-wing voters rose up against remote technocracy and free movement of labour that overwhelmingly benefit the metropolitan, socially liberal middle classes. In the USA, Trump enlisted the working-class the Democrats took for granted, and his triumph has shattered the American political consensus on free trade, immigration and the worldwide promotion of liberal democracy. Coupled with the triumph of patriotic strongmen in countries as diverse as India, Russia, Japan or the Philippines, Brexit and Trump are so far the clearest expressions of a global backlash against the ruling liberal establishment.
This backlash is also the harbinger of a tectonic shift away from the old opposition between left versus right and democracy versus authoritarianism towards a new divide between liberals, anti-liberals and post-liberals. Liberals merely want to reform the dominant model of technocratic globalisation, which anti-liberals reject in favour of populism and even fascism. Post-liberals, by contrast, seek to build constructive alternatives that combine greater economic justice with more social solidarity.
This Special Report is divided into three parts. First of all, an account of the rise and fall of the liberal world order since its inception in the early twentieth century, notably its achievements and failures after 1989. Second, an analysis of the contemporary backlash against liberal globalisation, and the ideological and other drivers that underpin anti-liberalism. Third, an outline of alternatives that build on the achievements of liberalism but take globalisation in a direction of greater economic, social and ecological resilience. Such resilience can be achieved by creating institutions that encourage and reward longer-term mutual benefit based on the practice of virtue and the common good in which all can participate. This can support a politics of positive civic identity in the face of new, dangerous divides – not least novel forms of fascism that are compatible with both democracy and capitalism.
1. Preface: A Post-Liberal Age?
The first round of the 2017 French presidential election not only saw the end of the left-right duopoly that dominated the Fifth Republic since its creation in 1958, as the centre-right and the centre-left candidate were both eliminated. It also produced a run-off between the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron who fuses economic with social liberalism and the Front National’s Marine Le Pen who is far-right on identity and immigration and far-left on the economy and welfare. After Remain versus Brexit in Britain, Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump in the USA, Alexander Van der Bellen versus Norbert Hofer in Austria and Mark Rutte versus Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, this is the latest vote opposing a liberal to an anti-liberal candidate. All these contests are an indication that the shape of politics is changing.
Since Brexit and Trump’s victory, the liberal world seems to lie in tatters: the advocates of economic globalisation are in retreat while among the anti-establishment insurgencies many reactionaries and in some countries even neo-fascists are on the rise – all those who worship unchecked power and appeal to the unmediated will of ‘The People’ in order to promote state absolutism and ethnic supremacism. This is emphatically not to dismiss the truly popular forces behind these two unexpected – though perhaps unsurprising – results: in Britain, an alliance of left- and right-wing voters rose up against remote technocracy and free movement of labour that overwhelmingly benefit the metropolitan, socially liberal middle classes. In the USA, Trump enlisted the working-class the Democrats took for granted, and his triumph has shattered the American political consensus on free trade, immigration and the worldwide promotion of liberal democracy (Pabst 2016a, 189-201; Pabst 2016b, 192-97). In each case, the economic losers of liberal globalisation won a rare victory over the Davos oligarchy with its creed of low wages, deindustrialisation, job-exporting trade deals, the deregulation of global finance, and endless war.
But at the same time, Brexit and Trumpism were also supported by groups of extreme neo-liberals who reject even the limited international political restraints on capital. They prefer protectionism, nationalism and perhaps war because this allows them to rip up environmental, economic and social protections. In ways that are reminiscent of the 1930s, some capitalists back the authoritarian statism of both the hard left and the radical right. Coupled with the power of strongmen in countries as diverse as India, Japan, the Philippines or Russia, Brexit and Trump are so far the clearest expression of a wider backlash against the ruling liberal establishment.
This backlash is also the harbinger of a tectonic shift away from the old opposition between left versus right and democracy versus authoritarianism towards a new divide between liberals, anti-liberals and post-liberals (Pabst 2016c, 33). Liberals merely try to reform the dominant model of technocratic globalisation that has contributed to a centralisation of power, concentration of power and commodification of everyday life. Contemporary liberalism radicalises classical liberalism by fusing free-market economics with social egalitarianism and identity politics – a combination perhaps best exemplified by Hillary Clinton’s doomed bid for the US presidency. In an age of economic and cultural insecurity, this liberal-progressive consensus is breaking down. The extremes on the left and the right are resurgent, and each rejects one side of progressive liberalism. The hard left wants to replace market fundamentalism with a statist economy that taxes tech companies in order to finance a universal basic income, whereas the radical right seeks to roll back social egalitarianism (including divorce and abortion laws) and multiculturalism in favour of nationalism and even atavistic ethno-centrism.
Post-liberals, by contrast, seek to move away from both liberal and anti-liberal models towards constructive, plausible alternatives that combine greater economic justice with more social solidarity. In the economy, post-liberalism signals a shift from rampant market capitalism to economic justice and reciprocity. In society, it signals a shift from individualism and egalitarianism to social solidarity and fraternal relations. And politically, it signals a shift from the minority politics of vested interests and group identity to a majority politics based on a balance of interests, shared identity and the embedding of state and market in the intermediary institutions of civil society.
This report is divided into three parts. The first part provides an account of the rise and fall of the liberal world order since its inception in the early twentieth century, notably its achievements and failures after 1989. In the second part, the report offers an analysis of the contemporary backlash against liberal globalisation, and the ideological and other drivers that underpin anti-liberalism. The third and final part charts an outline of alternatives that build on the achievements of liberalism but takes globalisation in a direction of greater economic, social and ecological resilience. Such resilience can be achieved by creating institutions that encourage and reward longer-term mutual benefit based on the practice of virtue and the common good in which all can participate. This can support a politics of positive civic identity in the face of new, dangerous divides – not least novel forms of fascism that are compatible with both democracy and capitalism.
2. ‘End of History’ Hubris: the rise and fall of the liberal world order
There is, let me assure you, nothing in nature more egocentrical than the embattled democracy. It soon becomes the victim of its own war propaganda. It then tends to attach to its own cause an absolute value which distorts everything else. Its enemy becomes the embodiment of all evil. Its own side, on the other hand, is the center of all virtue. The contest comes to be viewed as having a final, apocalyptic quality. If we lose, all is lost; life will no longer be worth living; there will be nothing to be salvaged. If we win, then everything will be possible; all our problems will become soluble; the one great source of evil – our enemy – will have been crushed; the forces of good will then sweep forward unimpeded; all worthy aspirations will be satisfied.
George Kennan (1960)
2.1. Liberal ascendancy
The beginning of the liberal world order is commonly traced to the post-1945 creation of a new set of multilateral arrangements – from the Bretton Woods institutions (the IMF and the World Bank) via the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Genocide Convention to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and later the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which subsequently became the World Trade Organisation (WTO). After two world wars and two great depressions (1873-96 and 1929-32), the aim was to tame the forces of nationalism and laissez-faire capitalism while at the same time avoiding the totalitarian state corporatism of the communist, fascist and national-socialist regimes. Thus was born the idea of ‘embedded liberalism’, which sought to constrain the sovereign power of national states and regulate the flow of free-roaming global capital (Ruggie 1983, 195-223; Ruggie 2003, 93-129).
The 1930s and early 1940s had seen a lethal mix of depression, tyranny, war, and genocide. After 1945, the world witnessed the creation of a US-led liberal order that consisted in a rules-based system in which cooperation between like-minded countries supplanted inter-state competition, multilateralism replaced the imperial balance of power and commitment to universal values overrode the sole pursuit of national interests. This order rested on the 1941 Atlantic Charter and the US-dominated institutions of Bretton Woods, NATO, GATT/WTO, which gave the United States special rights and privileges in exchange for providing security for its allies in Europe and Asia. It created an ‘international society’ of sovereign states that is more than an unstable balance of power (contra realism) but less than a unified world government (contra cosmopolitanism) (Bull 1996).
As one of two super-powers, the USA provided not just global public goods such as free trade and freedom of the seas but also an economic and security umbrella for old friends and former foes: loans to the UK, the Marshall Plan, and the creation of open-ended alliances with Western Europe and Japan. However, as Joseph Nye reminds us, the post-war system of embedded liberalism was limited in scope and success. It was originally confined to the Atlantic part of the world and failed to prevent the Cold War with the USSR that led to the ‘loss’ of China, Soviet expansionism in Central and Eastern Europe, the partition of Germany, a permanent standoff on the Korean peninsula, nuclear brinkmanship involving Turkey and Cuba, as well as the devastating war in Vietnam. Elsewhere the US-sponsored ‘free world’ included support for dictatorships as well as democracies and it served US self-interest as much as it served the interests of America’s allies old and new (Nye 2017, 10-16).
After 1989 liberalism became the dominant ideology, as the ‘end of history’ seemed to herald a global convergence towards Western liberal market democracy as the ‘final form of human government’ (Fukuyama 1989, 3-18; 1992). First the former Soviet bloc abandoned totalitarian communism in favour of democratic capitalism while China and India replaced central planning with the bureaucratic free market. Then Latin America was joined by much of Asia in embracing structural reforms and a gradual integration into the world economy. Bipolarity gave way to unipolarity with the USA as the sole superpower now in charge of upholding the new world order and spreading open markets, democracy, the rule of law, individual human rights and elected governments. Underpinning this order was the belief that open and transparent markets with minimal government intervention – combined with democratic rule – would generate prosperity, peace, and partnership.
For some time, this belief seemed to be borne out by evidence (Niblett 2017, 17-24). Economic reforms led to the spread of democracy: according to the independent and non-profit organisation Freedom House, the number of market democracies increased from 44 in 1997 to 86 in 2015, and this group of countries accounts for around 70 per cent of global GDP and 40 per cent of the world’s population. Moreover, liberal values also spread as the order expanded, including the notion that foreign military intervention is legitimate in cases where governments oppress their own populations or destabilise neighbouring countries. This led to the creation of the International Criminal Court in 1998 and the UN vote on enshrining the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) that enables foreign governments to intervene to prevent atrocities within in a sovereign state. Thus the liberal world order sought to combine the Westphalian principle of sovereignty with (supposedly) universal standards of human rights.
Today, America continues to provide key global public goods based on its economic and military might. Building on the ‘Washington consensus’ in place since the late 1970s, the US Federal Reserve secures some measure of financial stability by acting as a lender of last resort and using the ‘exorbitant privilege’ of the US Dollar that still enjoys the status of the sole world currency (Eichengreen 2010). The US Navy patrols worldwide waters to police the law of the seas and defend the freedom of navigation, while the US Army and the Air Force can be deployed from around 750 bases around the globe. In addition, the NSA has built a global network of surveillance via complex satellite infrastructure. Complementing its hard power is America’s soft power, including the most extensive web of embassies, consulates and missions, as well as bilateral treaties and the influence of the American ‘culture industry’.
In short, the liberal world order unwritten by the US has set the rules for the entire international community – an interlocking web of values, institutions, and relations that makes up the international system and encompasses maritime law, non-proliferation mechanisms, trade deals, and financial arrangements. Yet Brexit and Trump raise fundamental questions about the continuity and resilience of this order in the face of unprecedented opposition from outside and inside the Western world – including the extra-civilisational challenges of Islamic terrorism and the authoritarian rollback of democracy, and the intra-civilisational challenges of the financial crisis and the lack of public trust in the institutions of liberal democracy (Diamond 2015, 141-55; Foa and Mounk 2017, 5-15). These two challenges threaten the foundations of Western liberal democracy both in terms of the shock to the liberal system and the struggle of liberalism to provide a robust response.
2.2. Can liberalism cope?
The current crisis of the liberal world order is associated with one (or more) of the following challenges: (1) there are the costs of upholding the system that outweigh its benefits for the USA (President Trump’s position); (2) at a time when the US seems to be retreating (former President Obama’s notion of ‘leading from behind’), there is a global power shift towards countries such as Russia, China and India, which not only contest US leadership and Western values but also build parallel institutions such as the Eurasian Economic Union or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; this marks a challenge of Western norms of liberal governance and a rejection of any external interference in support of democracy or human rights; (3) the rise of non-state actors such as multinational corporations or terrorist organisations that undermine transparent markets, democracies, and fundamental freedoms (Nye 2017; Niblett 2017); (4) deep domestic unease with globalisation and rise of anti-establishment insurgencies that promise more protection and a greater emphasis on national sovereignty – as encapsulated by the Brexit motto ‘take back control’ and Donald Trump’s pledge to ‘make America great again’.
The defenders of the liberal world order contend that the current crisis is but a temporary setback in an otherwise broadly linear history of progress. Their argument is that liberalism and democracy are resilient and can cope with headwinds because liberal institutions adapt to popular concerns and can renew themselves. Democratic alternance between rival parties and candidates as well as a stable transfer of power are in fact the most effective way of restoring the legitimacy of the political system. Similarly, developed economies regain momentum thanks to models of growth and distribution of wealth that are consumption- and innovation-driven rather than being as dependent on export and investment as emerging markets or developing countries tend to be.
Crucially, the advocates of liberalism claim that the world order endures even at a time when US leadership is weakening and Western authority is in crisis. Although we are seeing the rise of both old and new ‘great powers’ and multiple pathways to modernity, no grand alternative to dominant liberalism seems to exist (Ikenberry 2009, 71-87). Multipolarity has failed to materialise as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) have all adopted capitalist models that depend on access to world markets for growth and development. Neither they nor any other countries have created blocs, exclusive spheres of influence, or closed geopolitical systems that could rival – never mind replace – the open, rules-based system organised around national state sovereignty and transnational cooperation (Ikenberry 2010, 509-21). While some power and authority might shift from West to East and North to South, liberal domination looks set to last for three reasons: first, the United States is one of the most powerful countries with a young population and a growing power to innovate, especially in robotics and automation; second, the Transatlantic alliance remains the only global military structure capable of projecting power worldwide; third, so far China is neither able nor willing to replace the USA as the sole global super-power, and the ‘rising rest’ want to integrate rather than overthrow the Western liberal order (Cox 2013).
In fact, China’s stunning economic performance since 1989 is part of an accelerated process of catching up with advanced economies, but so far the Chinese economy is only 60 per cent of the size of the US economy, and its population is rapidly ageing while the relaxing of the one-child policy has until now not produced the hoped-for reversal in the country’s demographic fortunes. In addition, Washington spends approximately four times as much on its military as does Beijing, and even the extensive modernisation of China’s army and navy will not lead to parity for many decades. Although the Chinese leadership is flexing its muscles in relation to the South and East China Sea, it will not be able to push the USA out of the western Pacific, never mind exercise global military hegemony. It is far from clear whether China’s model of state capitalism could ever compete with America’s vibrant innovation culture, buoyant demographics, and falling energy costs.
But more fundamentally, the claim is that China has embraced the liberal order precisely because it benefits from it, and further integration with the global economy will sustain the modernising strategy of the governing Communist Party. As the current debate over the future of globalisation and free trade suggests, China under President Xi Jinping is coming to the rescue of liberal economic system that is under threat from Donald Trump’s protectionist vision and his proposed mercantilism. In his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2017, President Xi acknowledged the problems associated with an increasingly global economy but he also defended this model, saying that “globalisation has powered global growth and facilitated movement of goods and capital, advances in science, technology and civilisation, and interactions among people”. China seems committed to a version of globalisation and state capitalism that is compatible with economic liberalism, even if Beijing continues to be opposed to political liberalism.
By contrast, Donald Trump in his inauguration address promised that “we must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength […]. We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American” (2017). So whereas Trump’s policies might undermine liberal globalisation and unleash economic warfare, Xi Jinping appears to support a model that has strengthened both China and the global status quo.
As a New York billionaire who rode to fame by perfecting the ‘art of the deal’, Trump might well turn out to exercise political power as a pragmatic businessman rather than a crazed ideologue. His commitment to increase defence spending and boost the capabilities of the US Navy suggests that he is not about to surrender the western Pacific to China. His preference for bilateral instead of multilateral trade deals will likely strengthen America’s bargaining position and yield greater power based on a policy of divide-and-rule. Trump’s determination to communicate directly with average Americans via his Twitter tirades might also help him to build domestic majority support for a recalibrated system in which US leadership serves national instead of foreign interests – bombing Syria to assert US authority rather than bringing about liberal democracy. Paradoxically, Trump’s illiberal approach could jolt the Western liberal world order out of its current complacency and reform the system before it either descends into anarchy or is replaced by an alternative Sino-centric order.
2.3. So what is going on?
However, the liberal claim that the world order has not fundamentally changed ignores the sheer extent of the current crisis. After the Brexit vote, a full or partial disintegration of the European Union is more plausible than at any point since the signing of the Rome Treaties sixty years ago. Across the EU, member-states face either break-up (the UK, Belgium, Spain) or anti-establishment insurgencies that threaten the existence of the Euro and the functioning of the Union as a whole. Neither national nor Community institutions have prevented the establishment of illiberal regimes in member-states such as Hungary and Poland – including an assault on the freedom and independence of courts, NGOs and the media, combined with growing ideological polarisation and a political witch-hunt of the official opposition. A slide into the extremism of the far left and the radical right is no longer unthinkable. An increasingly authoritarian Turkey may see its status of EU accession country rescinded and could even face expulsion from NATO (Kratsev 2016, 5-15).
The election of Donald Trump is so far the single greatest blow against the liberal world order. His political outlook seems to combine nationalist-libertarian ideas with a preference for populist-authoritarian leadership at home and abroad. The red thread that runs through his rhetoric over the past thirty years is an anti-liberal assault on the implicit bipartisan consensus at the heart of American politics: free trade, immigration and the US promotion of Western forms of democracy and human rights.
While the retreat from the Trans-Pacific Partnership might extend an olive branch to Beijing, the threat of protectionism could yet trigger a trade war with China. His comments on the obsolete character of NATO also raise the prospect of weakening the transatlantic alliance in favour of more transactional bilateral relations. More generally, Trump’s presidency could mark a rupture in the bipartisan support of US foreign policy for the past seventy years. Undermined by bad trade deals, short-changed by free-riding allies and dragged into endless military campaigns, the US under Trump could refuse to expend blood and treasure propping up an international system that he reckons will continue to weaken America.
Indeed, both on the campaign trail and in the early stages of his term in office, Trump has claimed that trade deals such as NAFTA and the now-cancelled TPP destroy American jobs and move employment to lower-wage countries that manipulate their currency. While the US spends billions of dollars of taxes paid by ordinary Americans in order to finance its worldwide security umbrella, free riders in Europe and Asia get rich by shirking their responsibilities for burden-sharing. The inability of other powers to sort out instability in their own backyards forces the United States to step in and intervene militarily – leaving behind a mountain of debt (a staggering US $1.3 trillion in the case of Afghanistan alone) and a tainted reputation. Seen in this light, it is no surprise that Trump and his team reject the raw deal they think America gets and that they want to create a new international order – more of a balance-of-powers order based on national interest rather than a liberal order based on supposedly universal values.
None of this is particularly new in US politics. In 1992 Pat Buchanan ran for the Republican nomination promising a mix of mercantilism and greater geopolitical restraint. Half a century earlier, Senator Robert Taft – who failed to become the Republican nominee in 1940, 1948, and 1952 – advocated American isolationism before World War Two and thereafter opposed President Truman’s policy to expand trade. His anti-communism did not stop him from opposing containment and the creation NATO because it would over-commit America. Trump’s penchant for President Putin and other strongmen is also, as Thomas Wright has argued, “reminiscent of Charles Lindbergh, once an American hero, who led the isolationist America First movement. In some areas, Trump’s views go back even further, to 19th-century high-tariff protectionism and every-country-for-itself mercantilism” (Wright 2016).
What drives the Trump administration is anger about the bad deal the country supposedly gets from the liberal international order upheld by US hegemony since 1945 and especially after 1989. The new president is opposed to the military alliances that are subsidised by American taxpayers, the trade arrangements that export jobs and import immigrants, as well as the promotion of liberal democracy that antagonises fellow ‘great powers’ like Russia while harming America’s national self-interest. Anti-liberalism on economic, social, and geopolitical issues seems to be the common ground with Vladimir Putin. Both believe that their countries have not benefitted from the liberal model of globalisation, which is why Trump wants to roll back free trade and immigration while Putin is trying to opt out in favour of parallel structures – starting with greater protection from global forces for the national economies of neighbouring countries that join the Eurasian Economic Union (Sakwa 2016). The leaders of Russia and America are also united in rejecting the ‘open-border progressivism’ of liberal governments across the West and want to put national greatness ahead of minority demands.
While many politicians and pundits will dismiss it as an alliance of reactionaries (à la Lindbergh and Hitler) or a new Populist International that also includes Britain’s UKIP and France’s Marine Le Pen, the aim is seemingly to get America’s allies in Asia and Europe to pay their fair share for the US security umbrella and to tone down the level of vitriol in order to avert an escalation with Moscow that might end in war – though the recent bombing in Syria could yet get out of hand. Judging by Trump’s actions in the first few months after inauguration, his victory will likely mark the slow demise of the post-1945 liberal order that has been in retreat since 9/11 and the 2008 financial crash. What might replace it and what happens next is anyone’s guess. Will it be more global anarchy and a slide into direct confrontation between the USA and China? Or else some new order based on non-liberal institutions and rules, perhaps akin to a nineteenth-century type ‘great power’ concert in a new guise with an implicit recognition of spheres of influence? Either way, the tectonic plates have already shifted and the unfolding earthquake is only just beginning to engulf the West and the rest.
2.4. How did we get here?
The key to understanding why liberalism faces the greatest threat to its domination since the rise of totalitarianism in the 1930s is the nature of the current crisis – liberal overreaching and the inherent contradictions of liberalism’s tendency towards empire. Up to a point, the defenders of liberal world order recognise the tension between the US role in the international system as Liberal Leviathan (John Ikenberry) that upholds the rules-based structure and provides public goods, on the one hand, and the forces of reactionary nationalism in America that undermine the liberal order and threaten to consume the global public goods, on the other hand (2011).
However, one can go further than that to suggest that liberalism is so hubristic that it ends up cutting off the branch on which it sits. First there was liberal hubris after the end of the Cold War. Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis captured the conceit that Western liberal market democracy is the final form of government to which all parts of the world will ultimately converge. As Ivan Krastev puts it, “The Western model was the only (i)deal in town” (2016, 6). For the advocates of the liberal order, the post-1989 world was one in which borders would formally endure even while losing much of their real relevance. Robert Reich, Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, described the new model of political economy in the following terms: “There will be no national products or technologies, no national corporations, no national industries. There will no longer be national economies. At least as we have come to understand that concept” (1992, 2; original italics). So when the Soviet bloc imploded and free-market capitalism replaced bureaucratic state capitalism, the embedded liberal model morphed into a new global order that promoted globalisation, mass migration, and military intervention in the name of supposedly universal liberal values.
So while progressives and neo-conservatives talked of a liberal world order and a new American century in the wake of the Cold War, the end of communism inaugurated in reality ‘the new world disorder’, as Stanley Hoffmann and Ken Jowitt argued in different ways (Jowitt 1991, 11-20; 1992; Hoffmann 1998). The events of 1989 and 1991 were not primarily an hour of triumphal victory of one ideology and system over its rival but rather an epoch of crisis and trauma as a result of the implosion of the Soviet system. Contrary to the borderless utopia of liberal progressivism, critical voices like Hoffmann and Jowitt envisioned the redrawing of borders, the reshaping of national identities, an escalation of previously frozen conflicts, and paralysing uncertainty rather than post-ideological clarity. What liberalism’s short-lived hegemony concealed from view was the resurgence of old ethno-national and religious identities (Juergensmeyer 1993; 2000) and the rise to power of alternative worldviews with a claim to universal validity – in particular capitalism (compatible as much with liberal democracy as with illiberal authoritarianism) and Islamism. With the weakening of national states by globalisation (Cooper 2007), movements of contestation and rage sprung up across the world – from the new social movements and Al-Qaeda in the late 1990s via Occupy Wall Street after 2007-08 to the Arab Spring and ISIS since 2010.
Faced with threats to democracy from Islamism, the war on terror and the destructive power of finance in the post-Cold War era, liberals failed to heed not just Hoffmann’s and Jowitt’s scepticism but also the prescient warning by George Kennan (whom I cited that the beginning
of this part of the report). It is perhaps unsurprising that the advocates of the liberal world order have therefore been in denial about their own role in the crisis of the international system which has been in place since 1945. What started off as a rules-based system organised around cooperation between sovereign states and the embedding of markets in institutions morphed after 1989 into a US-led world order, which promotes free-market globalisation, mass migration, and military intervention in the name of supposedly universal but in reality Western liberal values.
At every point liberals gave in to the siren calls of hubris. After 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria exacerbated the threat from Islamic fundamentalists while shredding the West’s moral standing. The financial crash of 2008 destroyed the US-created ‘Washington consensus’ of free-market fundamentalism, yet the liberal elites rewarded greed and failure by bailing out banks while workers lost their jobs and communities struggled with in debt. 2016 was the year when the ghosts of liberal capitalism came back to haunt the establishment. For the first time since the Second World War, Brexit and Trump have given the economic losers a political victory over the economic winners and ejected liberals from power. Together Brexit and Trump have buried once and for all the idea that the liberal model of globalisation ushered in the ‘end of history’ – the conceit that the Western brand of market capitalism is the only valid model because it produces more winners than losers.
Gone with it is the post-1945 promise of progress for every generation. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, the American middle class, once the largest class and the very meaning of the ‘American Dream’, is the majority no longer. In Britain, the government’s social mobility commission chaired by the former Labour MP and Blair minister Alan Milburn found in its annual ‘state of the nation’ published in November 2016 that the Thatcher generation growing up during the 1980s and the millennials are the first cohort since 1945 to start their career on lower incomes than their parents.
In short, Brexit and Trump are insurgencies against this dogmatic liberalism and its advocates – the progressive modernisers on the left and the right who brought us a creed of low wages, deindustrialisation, job-exporting trade deals, the deregulation of global finance, and endless war.
Contemporary liberalism is even more corrosive than that. Liberal economics reinforced social liberalism with its celebration of diversity and emancipation through ever-greater freedom of choice. Never did the political mainstream consider how the promotion of minority interests might affect the rest of the economy, society, or the globe at large. Instead, liberals privileged individual happiness over social solidarity while entrenching power and wealth for the fortunate few (Rothkopf 2008; Mount 2012; Freeland 2013). For all the important advancement in terms of equality and non-discrimination, progressive liberalism alienated more socially conservative voters who are predominantly indigenous but also include many ethnic minorities. Far from being an endangered species, these voters represent a majority as most people choose a fairly traditional family structure, value their settled ways of life and are generally sceptical about the pace of change.
By tearing down trade barriers and borders, left- and right-wing progressives built a world of mobility and permanent revolution that overwhelmingly enriched a new establishment dominated by a certain professional class (Frank 2016; Kotkin 2014). This class is composed of a ‘tech oligarchy’ of hedge-fund managers, techno-scientific experts and self-made billionaires who pose simultaneously as free-market champions and liberal humanitarians, driven as they are in equal measure by supposedly ‘enlightened’ self-interest and a sanctimonious pretence of moral superiority (Weiss 2012). Treating with contempt both the traditional base of the left and the natural constituency of the right, the liberal modernisers have patronised or simply ignored those who neither supported this version of liberal politics nor benefitted from its effects – those for whom free trade, open borders and cosmopolitan multiculturalism have meant greater economic hardship and unnerving cultural comprises.
Liberal ideas have not suddenly gone from triumphalist to extinct, and many liberal institutions will endure. But liberalism cannot escape its own inner contradiction between market anarchy and technocratic state – thereby fuelling the flames of anger to which one response is populist nationalism – as long as it fails to recognise the nature of the current crisis. It is neither merely cyclical because it is not just a periodic setback in an otherwise linear history of progress. Neither are we facing the terminal crisis of an entire system that is about to implode. Marx’s prophecy of capitalism’s collapse has not and likely will not come to pass. Rather, we are witnessing a new kind of crisis because liberalism goes against the grain of humanity and erodes the cultural foundations on which it rests.
Linking together the different strands of the liberal tradition is the premise that individual rights and freedoms are more fundamental than mutual obligations or the common good. Liberals look to the central state together with the free market as the ultimate arbiters to protect individuals from one another. But this conceals from view the collusion of state and market against society and the intermediary institutions that compose it. Those institutions include professional guilds, trade unions, religious communities, volunteer organisations, civic networks and other forms of human association that are self-governing rather than privatised or nationalised. It is precisely the impersonal forces of market-states that those left behind by cosmopolitan globalisation are now rejecting.
2.5. The roots of liberal imperialism
The seeds of liberal hubris were sown not in 1945 but after the end of the First World War in 1918. While the imperial powers France and Britain were greatly weakened by four years of unprecedented bloodshed and destruction, the other old empires of Tsarist Russia, Austro-Hungary, the Ottomans, and Germany collapsed altogether. Newly independent countries across Central and Eastern Europe as well as the Balkans and the Middle East retained ties to Paris and London but found a new champion in the United States of America, which became the leading economic and geopolitical power.
Paradoxically the liberal order – which had begun as an anti-colonial project in 1776 and as a republican alternative to imperial monarchy (especially after 1789 and 1848) – morphed into a novel kind of imperialism led by America. The US President Woodrow Wilson, on his visit to London on Christmas Day 1918, declared in front of the assembled court of St James that the old order embodied by Britain was over and that America represented a new dawn that would make the world ‘safe for democracy’. In the process, the US elevated the Westphalian principle of national self-determination into the overriding criterion of the international system and
the prime test of state legitimacy, rather than dynastic inheritance or imperial rule. Here indeed was a ‘seismic shift’ in European history. Yet the principle of nationalism was an artificial construct, almost an anthropomorphic fantasy. Consider some of its cognate terms – national consciousness, national will, self-determination: in each case the nation is treated as analogous to an individual human being. […] In short, [the aim of the US is] to recast the world in America’s self-image (Reynolds 2013, pp.15 and 37).
In other words, Wilson’s conception of international politics views national states as liberal egos writ large. This conception rests on liberal norms of individualism and voluntarism that are deeply rooted in American political life and have been exported by successive administrations, which promote national ends by imperial means (Northcott 2004; Pfaff 2010). From Wilson to the neo-conservative vision for a New American Century, the United States replaced the balance of power and national interests (the settlement established by the 1815 Congress of Vienna) with a hegemony of fantasised universal values and global interests – a conception according to which American values and interests are synonymous with those of the rest of the world.
Curiously, the United States has always denied that it is in the business of building an empire – arguing, instead, that independent America came into existence precisely to throw off the shackles of British colonial rule and to fight imperialism everywhere. As the former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously said in an interview with Al-Jazeera, “We don’t seek empires. We’re not imperialistic. We never have been” (quoted in Maurer 2013; see also Kinzer 2007). However, Karl Rove – a long-standing adviser of President George W. Bush – was rather more honest when he declared in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion that “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality” (Suskind 2004). Whether apocryphal or not, this statement encapsulates the peculiar liberal fusion of realism with idealism and the refashioning of the world in the image of liberalism.
The historian Niall Ferguson rightly remarks that “the United States is the empire that dare not speak its name. It is an empire in denial, and US denial of this poses a real danger to the world. An empire that doesn’t recognise its own power is a dangerous one”. This is manifest in the protracted crisis of the liberal values-based foreign policy that was so dominant under Bill Clinton and Tony Blair’s ‘humanitarian’ interventionism and the neo-conservative crusade in Afghanistan and Iraq (Ignatieff 2003), but whose roots stretch back to the liberal imperialism of Woodrow Wilson and nineteenth-century British liberals like Palmerston who view democracy and liberalism as compatible but failed to recognise the oscillation between the sovereign will of the individual and the sovereign will of the collective, which erodes the social bonds underpinning civil society on which the institutions of democratic rule and the market economy rest.
2.6. How liberalism undermines Western civilisation
One can go even further to argue the West’s hegemonic power is weakening precisely because its underlying liberalism has progressively undermined the very foundations of Western civilisation. Part of the liberal appeal was the promise of progress, but liberalism unleashed the forces of science and technology while divorcing modernisation from the pursuit of substantive shared ends. In this manner, liberal ideology became increasingly associated with subjugating both nature and society to individual volition and with releasing the collective ‘will to power’. A few prophetic voices warned against such voluntarism and the subversion of virtues. Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Devils and Joseph Conrad in The Secret Agent anatomised the secular extremists who embraced nineteenth-century positivism and nihilism in pursuit of a revolutionary vanguard whose origins go back to the Jacobins, the first exemplary inflictors of modern ‘terror’ (Gray 2003). And they also saw that this apparently shocking minority is, in reality, symptomatic of a wider terroristic tendency. Dostoevsky’s dictum that ‘without God, everything is permitted’ rightly indicated that ethics would be increasingly subordinated to politics, and politics to the iron law of power – the sheer strength of individual self-assertion and collective mobilisation, exemplified by mass conscription and total war since the French Revolution, Bonaparte and Bismarck (Bell 2008).
As the historian Christopher Dawson argued in 1942, it is surely no coincidence that in the run-up to the two world wars, Western civilisation “suffered such a total subversion of its own standards and values while its material power and wealth remained almost intact, and in many respects greater than ever” (p.7). Unlike ancient despotism that had deployed brutal physical coercion, the positivist and nihilist ideas that many nineteenth-century liberals celebrated used the resources of modern psychology and mass propaganda to enlist both body and soul. The new liberal creed of progress, equality and emancipation displaced Greco-Roman and Christian values of the dignity of the person and the freedom of association around shared substantive objectives, which – as Nietzsche himself remarked – “prevented man from despising himself as man, from turning against life, and from being driven to despair by knowledge” (quoted in Dawson 1942, 9). Thus the ambivalence of liberalism lies in the tendency to release human energy and foster individual freedoms while at the same time failing to guide the forces it unleashes on an international as well as national scale.
Instead of the culturally amalgamated organic society of nations, which once composed ‘Christendom’, liberalism has supported an artificial state system wherein membership is defined exclusively in terms of central sovereign power without any reference to the national character of the societies in question. When in 1918 Woodrow Wilson elevated the ‘self-determination of people’ into an absolute principle (which still governs the inter-state system to this day), he did not so much defend popular sovereignty or the consent of the governed for all the nations. Rather, he encouraged the process of empire-breaking and state-building that inaugurated liberal hegemony and led to new wars. Wilson also called for the creation of an international organisation – the League of Nations – based on the equal rights of each participant member. This, as Dawson noticed, amounted to the recognition of every de facto state as a de iure nation (or identifiable ‘people’) and treated a multiplicity of incommensurable political systems all alike – as though they were individuals writ large who are endowed with equal rights and a common nature.
Over time, according to Dawson, the liberal destruction of the medieval society of nations in favour of an inter-state system left peoples and societies exposed to two competing, yet mutually empowering, forces:
The modern world is being driven along at the same time in two opposite directions. On the one hand the nations are being brought into closer contact by the advance of scientific and technical achievement; the limits of space and time that held them asunder are being contracted or abolished, and the world has become physically one as never before. On the other hand, the nations are being separated from one another by a process of intensive organization which weakens the spiritual links that bound men together irrespective of political frontiers and concentrates the whole energy of society on the attainment of a collective purpose, so as inevitably to cause a collision with the collective will of other societies. … What makes the danger of war so great today is … the death-grapple of huge impersonal mass Powers [sic] which have ground out the whole life of the whole population in the wheels of their social mechanism (Ibid, 52).
The simultaneous interdependence of national societies and the sundering of social, cultural and religious ties that bind together people within and across state borders suggest that liberal hegemony faces a metacrisis, as I indicated earlier. This is in contrast to a mere systemic crisis, which would be to do with external threats to the inter-state system (say from a rogue, revisionist state), or the internal failure to secure a proper balance of power between sovereign states with rival interests. For, instead, as I have argued, it is the founding liberal assumptions for international order that are eventually being shaken through their own operation. Alongside the revival of political Islam, this is the real reason for the growing anarchy in international affairs.
This profound cultural malaise has affected the West’s ability to shape the contemporary world. US military might and European economic expansion can scarcely hide the absence of any substantive accord among Western powers. As the US and European response to the ‘Arab Spring’, events in Ukraine and now ISIS shows, there is a strategic void. The twilight of the West in the sense of the unquestioned hegemony of the Atlantic community could now be upon us (Coker 1997). Compared with the era since the discovery of the New World or even the recent Cold War past, the West today looks bereft of ideas, deeply divided and incapable of acting as a force for good Amid ever-greater global interdependence and volatility, Western countries now oscillate between market anarchy and coercive state control. They eschew global leadership and lasting involvement abroad in favour of managing risks from afar (Beck 2002; 2009; Coker 2009). Across the West, there is a growing populist backlash against the dominant forms of globalisation and calls to retreat to narrow national self-interest led by insurgent parties – above all the forces behind Brexit and Trump.
The Anglophone liberal empire is still the globe’s most potent coalition, but its hegemony is unravelling because it lacks a coherent intellectual vision and the necessary cultural-social cohesion. For today we have, instead, a distinct shift back to a more nakedly interest-based foreign policy and, above all, to ‘great power games’ and spheres of influence – a dynamic that accounts in large part for the beginning of a deep freeze in Europe in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis and continual conflict in the Near East (Hast 2014). Thus we are witnessing the return of a post-Westphalian geo-politics, albeit in a mutated form, that revives and accentuates its inter-imperial dimension in terms of geo-economics and a global ‘culture war’ between Western liberalism and its adversaries (Teschke 2003).
3. The Global March of Populists and Neo-fascists: contemporary rejections of liberal globalisation
3.1. The new ‘Populist International’
Across the world there are protest movements and insurgent parties that challenge the divide between the political left and the political right that has dominated since the French Revolution. Examples include the following: the Front National and La France Insoumise in France; the Scottish National Party and the UK Independence Party in Britain; the Alternative für Deutschland and Pegida in Germany; Golden Dawn and Syriza in Greece; the Danish People’s Party; the Sweden Democrat; The Party for Freedom in the Netherlands; the Freedom Party in Austria; the True Finns; the Tea Party in the USA and now of course the ‘alt right’ around Trump. Whatever their important ideological differences, the new populists are all staunchly anti-establishment and purport to speak for the voiceless, the angry, and the disaffected – an appeal to both working- and middle-class people who feel alienated from the mainstream parties, left behind by globalisation, and do not want to lose their national identity.
The mainstream parties are struggling and many are losing power. In Spain, there are now four – not just two – parties vying for power, and the same is true for Germany (the centre-right CDU/CSU, the staunchly right-wing AfD, the SPD and Die Linke). In Greece, the socialist party PASOK has gone from winning 44 per cent of the vote in 2009 to 4 per cent in 2015. In the USA, the anti-establishment insurgency of Bernie Sanders nearly beat Hillary Clinton to the nomination, while Donald Trump eliminated 15 rivals among the Republicans and won the presidential election that was Clinton’s to lose. Nor is this shift from mainstream to insurgent parties or candidates limited to North America and Western Europe. In Latin America, the democratic socialists who have been in power for the past twenty years or so are losing ground: in Argentina they have already been evicted from power, while they are struggling in Venezuela and Brazil. Similarly, in Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Turkey outsiders are fighting the establishment, often polarising and radicalising national politics – such as Jobbik in Hungary or Right Sector in Ukraine.
In response, mainstream parties seek to occupy and expand the middle ground. They desperately try to tack both left and right in order to head off the far-left or far-right opposition. However, as the establishment converges towards a centrist liberal position, the extremes are growing in strength. The far-left Syriza party has won twice in Greece and is governing in coalition with a nationalist-conservative party. Brexit and Trump might just be the beginning, with the far right in the ascendancy in France and Italy (where elections will be held by Spring 2018). And that is not to mention the power of strongmen in countries as diverse as Russia, China, South Africa, the Philippines or India: what is linking together the popular support for Presidents Putin, Xi Jinping, Zuma and Duterte, as well as Prime Minister Modi is that they oppose a liberal elite (domestic or international, or both at once) and purport to stand up for ordinary citizens who feel that liberal globalisation is synonymous with a system rigged in favour of insiders.
What are the driving forces of this populist backlash? How can we explain the current revulsion against liberalism?
3.2. The death of liberal progressivism
Donald Trump’s election represents primarily the failure of Hilary Clinton’s brand of progressive politics. Her courting of Wall St, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood celebrities alienated the forgotten men and women (the one memorable phrase in Trump’s victory speech) of America’s industrial working class. Whereas Barack Obama carried places such as Wyoming River Valley in north-Eastern Pennsylvania and Youngstown in Ohio, Clinton’s neglect of the Democrats’ working-class base came back to haunt her as the industrial ghost-towns across Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa went with Trump. It was not simply white men but also a majority of white women – those without college degrees – as well as about 30 per cent of Latinos and around 8 per cent of African-American voters who together with the Republican core support ensured Trump’s triumph. Clinton won about 3 million more votes, but they were concentrated in areas such as New York state and California that consistently vote Democrat.
The reservoir of resentment that the Trump movement has tapped into is closely correlated with the contempt in which the leadership of the Democratic Party holds working-class people. In the former heartlands along the Rust Belt and in the south, Clinton and her clique on the Democratic National Committee led by John Podesta are viewed as arrogant, snobbish, uncaring about ‘ordinary people’, and mostly serving the interests of their friends at Google and Goldman. There was a palpable sense that the Clinton campaign did not care about the party’s traditional base it took for granted. Her ideology betrayed the very people it purported to represent. Clinton’s liberalism of the ‘professional class’ is empty, and this void is now occupied by Trump’s insurgency.
The seeds were sown in the late 1960s when the Democrats first embraced a progressive politics defined essentially by social liberalism and economic liberalism. Social liberalism led not simply to the championing of minority rights, as in the civil rights movements that transcended the existing divides between colour, creed, and class. The post-1968 new left embraced a particularly divisive form of identity politics – the minority interests of students, feminists, public sector workers, and the liberal professions of the middle class. Connected with this was the new economic liberalism, which abandoned the idea defended since the 1929-32 Great Depression of creating an industrial democracy and instead embraced financial capitalism. Henceforth the Democrats ceased to hold Wall St to account and they stopped investigating corporate monopolies or the de facto collusion between the Federal Reserves and big banks (Stoller 2016). Fast forward to the early 1990s when Bill Clinton’s ‘new center’ aligned the party with liberal market globalisation in which transnational ties progressively replace national bonds. Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, described this new model of political economy in the terms that I have already cited: “There will be no national products or technologies, no national corporations, no national industries. There will no longer be national economies. At least as we have come to understand that concept” (1992, 3).
Thus the Clintons’ version of progressive politics rests on the idea of a capitalist culture that privileges mobility and permanent change over national sovereignty and more settled ways of life. From this perspective, patriotism, tradition, and people’s sense of belonging are subordinated to cosmopolitanism, modernisation, and abstraction from embeddedness. To dismiss even half of Trump supporters as “a basket of deplorables” speaks volumes about the arrogance of leading Democrats and their disdain for working families. Plenty of condescension and little empathy fuel the flames of rage that are engulfing America.
It is worth dwelling for a moment longer on the case of the Democrats in order better to understand the reasons for the failure of liberal progressivism. Benefitting from the post-Cold War peace dividend, Bill Clinton not only balanced the federal budget but also adopted a new economic model based on job-exporting trade deals and the deregulation of Wall Street. When the 2008 financial crash hit, both the working and the middle classes struggled to make ends meet as their jobs were threatened and communities struggled with debt, but the Democrat establishment failed to understand their pain. Obama’s stimulus package helped to save the car industry but equally it bailed out the banks without demanding structural reform, leaving in place a system dominated by both ‘big business’ and ‘big government’. Another example of this complicit collusion is Obamacare, which on the one hand has extended health care coverage to many millions of previously uninsured people, yet on the other hand represents a government subsidy of vast health care corporations. A mutualised model with many more health care cooperatives linked to community hospitals and a more personal care system is the radical alternative to a nationalised or privatised model (or the worst of both worlds) that was never seriously considered. None of this justifies Trump’s pledge to repeal parts of Obamacare, but it highlights yet another missed opportunity to challenge America’s oligarchy.
Beyond the failure to build an economic settlement that works for its traditional working-class base (not just the old elites on Wall St and the new classes in Silicon Valley), the Democrats also lost popular trust because they engaged in identity politics. Starting in the late 1960s, the party began to embrace a utopian ideology of diversity that in reality adopted the values of students, middle-class feminists, ethnic minorities, as well as east and west coast college-educated elites (Stricherz 2007). For all the important advancement in terms of equality and non-discrimination, this liberal progressivism alienated more socially conservative voters who are predominantly white but also include many African-American and Latino communities (some of whom voted for Trump). Thus the Clinton and Obama presidencies tore down trade barriers and borders, building a global model of mobility that overwhelmingly enriched elites – especially a new ‘professional class’ (as already discussed in section 2.4.). But in the meantime the leading progressives in the Democratic Party ignored and even despised those who neither supported this politics nor benefitted from its effects – those for whom free trade, open borders, and cosmopolitan multiculturalism meant greater economic hardship and unnerving cultural comprises. This suggests that culture is as at least as fundamental as the economy.
3.3. Identity liberalism in question
The other reason for the defeat of liberal progressivism is its approach to cultural questions. Compared with the emphasis on self-organisation and mutual solidarity in the case of the civil rights movement, the Democrats’ embrace of the abstract values of ‘diversity’, ‘emancipation’, and inclusivity has promoted an identity politics that is no less divisive than Trump’s atavistic nativism because it is a ‘coalition of the fringes’ that excludes the white working-class and sections of the middle class who resent identity politics for everyone else but them. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans in their current configuration have a positive conception of place and belonging around which new alliances can emerge that overcome the old identity politics of the ‘culture wars’.
Trump’s victory is only in part the result of a ‘white-lash’ against the establishment obsession with certain minority rights and diversity to the detriment of the majority. The other elements is the Latino, African-American, and even female vote that cannot be explained away by media bias or lack of education. What these different groups are most of all bitter about is liberal indifference or even hostility to a sense of belonging and the enduring importance of family, community, and locality. Trump drew support not simply from moral cave-dwellers (the xenophobes, racists and sexists who are much emboldened by his election) but much more significantly from working- and middle-class people who feel forgotten and resent their exclusion from Washington politics.
The fundamental problem with liberalism is that it has taken an identitarian turn. Since the late 1960s, it has tended to celebrate the diversity of difference at the expense of civic ties that bind people together above the divides of class, colour and creed. As Mark Lilla has suggested, “in recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing” (Lilla 2016). Such a politics lacks in emphasis on commonality and is unable to capture popular imagination about the nation’s shared destiny. Already in the 1960s and 1970s, Christopher Lasch argued that liberalism was becoming increasingly associated with a move away from the family and mutual obligation towards a culture of narcissistic self-absorption and political retreat into the private sphere of subjective self-expression (1969; 1977; 1979). The 1980s, far from witnessing a revival of civic spirit, saw the rise of yuppy greed and self-gratification whose social excesses was inextricably intertwined with their economic excesses. A bunch of weed-smoking hippies morphed progressively into a generation of middle-aged, cocaine-fuelled financial speculators who have alienated the rest of the population.
Even in narrowly electoral terms, identity liberalism has not worked very well. In the case of Britain’s EU referendum, the Remain campaign merely appealed to a series of groups who were thought to have little in common other than worrying about their wallet. In the USA, the Clinton campaign appealed explicitly African-American, Latino, sexual minorities, and women voters but had nothing to say to white working class and those with strong religious convictions. As a result, as Ross Douthat has remarked,
identitarian liberalism is taking fire from two directions. From the center-left, it’s critiqued as an illiberal and balkanizing force, which drives people of good will rightward and prevents liberalism from speaking a language of the common good. From the left, it’s critiqued as an expression of class privilege, which cares little for economic justice so long as black lesbian Sufis are represented in the latest Netflix superhero show (2016).
As Douthat explains, identity liberalism has been so influential and endemic (especially among the left) precisely because it is partly a reaction against the abstract formalism of procedural liberalism – ground-rules of fairness instead of a substantive conception of justice. Neither strand of the liberal tradition will regain popular trust and win majority support, since
people have a desire for solidarity that cosmopolitanism does not satisfy, immaterial interests that redistribution cannot meet, a yearning for the sacred that secularism cannot answer […]. A deeper vision than mere liberalism is still required — something like “for God and home and country,” as reactionary as that phrase may sound. It is reactionary, but then it is precisely older, foundational things that today’s liberalism has lost. Until it finds them again, it will face tribalism within its coalition and Trumpism from without, and it will struggle to tame either (Ibid).
In short, what is at stake is a politics that can reach beyond either individual or group identity to articulate a vision of national renewal that can mobilise new alliances around a sense of shared belonging – the family, work, places people inhabit, and love of country.
3.4. The end of economic progress
A significant element of the appeal of anti-establishment insurgencies is that mainstream parties failed to fulfil their promise about prosperity. Across advanced economies, hard-working families are experiencing more and more economic uncertainty and cultural insecurity (Lowles and Painter 2011; Bouvet 2015). Their incomes are declining, their jobs are disappearing, and their identity is under threat – from global capitalism (and its aggressive liberal culture), from mass immigration, and from forces such as Islamic extremism and terrorism. All this is fuelling a popular revolt against the establishment.
The standard analysis in terms of the political left or the political right does not explain this situation very convincingly. Nor do standard left-wing or right-wing responses solve the profound structural problems precisely because they are part of the same liberal logic – more state or more market. Why have average working people in advanced economies such as the USA or the UK lost out? Why are their incomes declining and their jobs becoming more precarious? Both the left and the right claim that this is the price we must pay for the advantages of globalisation and technological change. In other words, the benefits of progress are bigger than the costs. For example, industrial and manufacturing production – steel, chemicals, cars, etc. – can now be done more cheaply either by lower-paid workers abroad (or cheap migrants) or by computer-driven machines – including robots, digitised production, artificial intelligence and automation (Mason 2015; Srnicek and Williams 2015). In response to this supposed necessity of globalisation and technological change, the political left wants an interventionist state that raises taxes on the rich and the tech companies, and redistributes the revenue to the poor while also investing in more university education. The political right rejects all this because it believes that wealth will trickle down: if government is limited, public spending lower and taxes and regulation are minimal, the economy will boom and everyone will be better off.
The problem is that both are wrong in their analysis and in their policy solutions. Taxation and regulation has not solved inequality, as Thomas Piketty has demonstrated in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Piketty 2013). Nor does the economy generate enough jobs that pay people enough to feed themselves and their families. Just look at the explosion in the number of people who depend on food stamps in the USA or on food banks in the UK – working families, not the unemployed.
The fundamental reason, as the US economist and former labour secretary Robert Reich has argued is “the increasing concentration of political power in a corporate and financial elite that has been able to influence the rules by which the economy runs” (2015). We have a rampant form of corporate finance capitalism that works for the 1 per cent, but not for the 99 per cent. It pays exorbitant salaries to the top managements and huge bonuses, even when their businesses are not growing or going bust – as big banks like Lehman Brothers or multinational corporations such as Enron or WorldCom. This system is economically dysfunctional and ethically bankrupt, leading to a situation where – to quote Reich again – “the fracture in politics will move from left to right to the anti-establishment versus establishment”(Ibid).
Here are some examples that show what this means in reality. First of all, the ratio of highest to lowest incomes in companies has grown exponentially, from 30:1 or 40:1 to 300:1 or even 450:1. Secondly, the top 1 per cent in the USA own about 30 per cent of total national wealth, compared with less than 15 per cent forty years ago. Thirdly, the poorest own nothing and they now have no support networks – no extended family, no community, and no local government to help. Fourthly, university education is no longer providing a route towards secure employment and prosperity, as wages for university graduate are declining and graduate-level jobs becoming precarious. A university degree still gives people a better chance, but it cannot change a more fundamental development: the middle class now earns a lower share of total national wealth than before, while the proportion that goes to the super-rich and the super-super-rich continues to grow.
Moreover, markets are not becoming more competitive. Instead, we are seeing more and more private monopolies or cartels that fix prices and extract rents – excess profits that go to the top managements and the institutional shareholders. For examples, intellectual property rights – patents, trademarks and copyrights – are now much more important but in the hands of a small number of big businesses. This has created huge profits for multinational corporations such as pharmaceuticals, hi-tech, biotechnology, and many entertainment companies, which now preserve their monopolies longer than ever. It has also meant high prices for average consumers.
In addition, other corporations benefit from what is called monopsony – the power to dictate prices to suppliers. As a result, businesses now have substantial market power, including those owning network portals and platforms (Amazon, Facebook and Google) as well as the largest banks. Moreover, finance now dominates capitalism in ways that are dangerous for markets and people. The capitalist system so much depends on creating abstract wealth that it is increasingly unable to generate productive capital and genuine goods serving human needs. One indication is that global finance uses other people’s money to trade almost exclusively with itself: taking deposits and lending to industry accounts for only 3 per cent of assets on the balance sheets of UK banks, while international foreign exchange trading is nearly 100 times the volume of commerce in goods and services. The total exposure under derivative contracts is estimated to be $700 trillion – a multiple of the total value of global GDP.
All this has led to an explosion of easy credit and thereby private debt. In turn, this weakens the position of individuals and families, while workers’ rights are under threat from transnational businesses. They make employment conditions worse for people by threatening to outsource unless workers agree to lower wages.
Given these changes in the structure of capitalism, it is no surprise that corporate profits have increased as a portion of the total US economy, while wages have declined. Those whose income derives directly or indirectly from profits – corporate executives, stock-market traders and shareholders – have done exceedingly well. Those dependent primarily on wages have not. In short, all the profit goes to the top of the economy while all the risk goes to the bottom of society. This system is neither economically nor politically viable. Popular alienation and anger is already fuelling the anti-establishment revolt, which liberal democracy is not mitigating but instead reinforcing – as the following sections suggest.
3.5. The rise of oligarchy
There is a drift of liberal democracy toward effective oligarchy. First of all, this concerns political parties that represent the vested interests of individual donors or small groups (Mair 2000; Barnett 2000). An indicator for the emergence of cartel democracy is the nature of party funding and the influence of wealthy donors, especially in the United States – whether on policy, on the selection of candidates, or the wider direction of the party. The increasingly close ties between politics and business elites confirm that power in the modern state rests largely on clientelism, with private patronage dictating public policy without any effective parliamentary accountability or popular participation in the process (Clapham 1982; Boggs 2001).
Secondly, there is the tendency of democratic representatives to compose an interested party in itself. Typically, political parties in government tend to act on issues that concern their own factional support, or else issues that concern the factional support of their opponents, which they may address in order to outflank them. But governing parties prove relatively impotent when it comes to matters that concern the whole of national or international society such as the migration crisis, environmental degradation, poverty, infrastructural investment, or reforming cartel capitalism. This is because, even though the neglect of such issues is detrimental to each and every one, they are rarely the most immediate and pressing concern of any individual or group.
Paradoxically, the sustaining of a balance of oligarchic interests by representative government for ostensibly democratic reasons renders increasingly difficult the active representation of the manifest consensual ‘general will’ of the people as a whole. As the late Peter Mair observed, there has been a transformation of both the goals of Western political parties and the way in which they govern: since they view the accession to power as “not only a standard expectation, but also an end in itself”, political parties have ceased to be socio-cultural movements but, instead, “have become more office-seeking agencies that govern – in the widest sense of the term – rather than represent; [that] bring order rather than give voice” (2006, 47-48).
The rise of a new oligarchy is not confined to ruling parties but can extend to the entire executive. There is the exponential growth of executive legislation (often rubber-stamped by a parliamentary majority beholden to executive writ). And then there is growing power of the judiciary relative to the legislature. The liberal slide into oligarchy is differently reinforced by an arriviste aristocracy of lawyers and judges who are becoming part of the ‘new class’ operating without honour. The judiciary seems unable to resist the temptation to aggrandise its jurisdictional power and either to help the executive to impose uniform laws, with too little respect for circumstance, or else to compose these laws for themselves out of a questionable claim to be checking inflated governmental authority.
This is particularly true of the judiciary across Europe, including Britain (and often in conjunction with the judicial activism of the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights), and even more so in the USA with the Supreme Court, which in the 1954 Cooper v. Aaron case simply stated that the ‘US Constitution says what we say it says’. Some British judges are now suggesting – with seeming contradiction – that it is the process of law itself that sovereignly authorises the sovereign power of the Crown (Loughlin 2013, 112-16). US federal judges can exercise executive functions and deploy tax-raising powers – as in Kansas City where a federal judge took charge of the municipal school system and doubled local property taxes against the express will of residents who, according to state law, had to be consulted and voted no.
Thus, democratic representation suffers at the hands of the ‘judicial aristocracy’ because, as Tocqueville pointed out, the latter has, in the end, a much greater affinity with the executive than with the people and privileges public order over all other considerations: as Tocqueville writes, “the greatest guarantee of order is authority. One must not forget, moreover, that if they [lawyers] prize freedom, they generally place legality well above it; they fear tyranny less than arbitrariness, and provided that the legislator takes charge of taking away men’s independence, they are nearly content” (de Tocqueville 2000, part 1, chapter 8, p.253). And where the action of judges provides a check on inflated governmental power, it can unwittingly foster a litigious culture that privileges the powerful and wealthy and undermines equal access to justice.
The lack of accountability and popular participation is compounded by a process of ‘self-corruption’ whereby an elected executive claims the legitimate authority to exceed its own mandate. It does so in the face of circumstances, which could not be anticipated by that mandate and which the electorate cannot vote on. Recent examples include counter-terrorist legislation after 9/11 or the bailing out of both banks and states. In each case governments act predominantly in the interest of small groups, such as the agencies of the ‘deep state’, institutional investors, and global bond markets. Arguably, this represents an oligarchic defence of the bases of oligarchic control – whether an emergency response to a threat or an opportunity to extend power (or both at once).
This oligarchy takes the form of ‘old elites’ and ‘new classes’ (Lash 1995; Piccone 2008). The former include long-standing political dynasties and captains of industry. The latter encompass new networks such as the ‘Tech oligarchy’ in Silicon Valley, the advocates of ‘capitalist philanthropy’ and an array of technocrats in governments – including a new managerial armada of accountants and auditors. Both ‘old elites’ and ‘new classes’ use the procedures of representative democracy to increase their power, wealth, and social status. In this process, an unrepresentative executive – together with a growing moneyed oligarchy and an overweening judiciary – often disregard the more informal manifestations of citizens’ interests.
With the collapse of popular participation, the executive has been free to suspend core constitutional provisions as part of the global war on terror. This tendency of liberal democracies to operate in a permanent ‘state of exception’ evokes parallels with the collapse of democracy in the 1930s. As the late Sheldon Wolin rightly remarked:
Democracy [then] signified not an active citizenry but a politically disengaged and alienated “mass”, whose support was useful for conferring legitimacy on dictatorship and extending its control over the population. An artful combination of propaganda flattered the mass, exploited its antipolitical sentiments, warned it of dangerous enemies foreign and domestic, and applied forms of intimidation to create a climate of fear and an insecure populace, one receptive to being led. The same citizenry, which democracy had created, proceeded to vote into power and then support movements openly pledged to destroy democracy and constitutionalism (2008, 53).
Faced with the authoritarian roll-back of young democracies (as in Poland, Hungary, and elsewhere) and the slide of old democracies into oligarchy, the spectre of the interwar period is once more haunting the wider West. Amid the rise of populism and the resurgence of nationalist forces, democracy faces an existential crisis, which unqualified liberalism is exacerbating.
3.6. The rise of demagogy
All democracies face the permanent threat of illiberal, populist forces that seek to destroy individual liberties paradoxically in the name of free speech – as in the case of far-right racist groups or religious fundamentalists. However, liberal democracy itself can be a catalyst for populism and demagogy. First of all, there is the tension between substantive values and procedural standards. A key dilemma facing any democratic system is that it constantly needs to balance two competing demands: respecting majority will and commanding popular assent on the one hand, while protecting individuals and minorities from oppression on the other. To do so, democracies have historically tended to combine formal rules and procedures with certain foundational values – such as liberty, equality and fraternity in France, or life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the US.
The problem is that when rival values clash, say individual freedom and equality for all. In that instance, contemporary liberalism suggests that people can only ‘agree to disagree’ and settle for abstract, formal standards such as ‘negative liberty’, i.e. the absence of constraints on the individual except the law and private conscience (Berlin 1969, 118-172). The principle of ‘negative liberty’ implies that liberal democracy should promote maximal freedom of choice over any shared substantive ends such as the common good. This occurs regardless of whether this conception of liberty undermines ‘common decency’ (George Orwell), that is to say, the quest for mutual recognition more than for total equality or absolute emancipation. In this manner, the liberal privileging of impartial standards may amount to the imposition of preferences that do not command popular consent and thus cannot be described as genuinely democratic. That is because, at the hands of liberalism, liberty comes to mean negative freedom, equality becomes debased and amounts to sameness, tolerance turns out to be intolerant of non-liberals and emancipation is a form of forced liberation from social bonds that liberalism considers either oppressive or devoid of meaning.
Second, the relative liberal indifference to substantive values can lead to a situation where the tendency to exploit fear and manipulate opinion becomes an endemic feature of liberal democracy. Liberal politics often revolves around supposedly guarding against alien elements: the terrorist, the refugee, the foreigner, the welfare-scrounger and those deemed deficient in ‘entrepreneurship’. In consequence, a purported defence of democracy is itself deployed to justify the suspending of democratic decision-making and civil liberties, as with post-9/11 counter-terrorist legislation that suspend core constitutional provisions and values of liberality – including fair detention, fair trial, right to a defence, assumed innocence, habeas corpus, good treatment of the convicted, and a measure of free speech and free enquiry (Agamben 2005, 1-40). Declaring a state of emergency is a constitutive characteristic of modern states, and liberal democracies are no exception when it comes to making exceptional powers permanent. This has a deleterious effect on public trust in the institutions of democratic systems.
Third, democracies can also manipulate opinion, and demagogy seems to be a direct consequence of the democratic primacy of procedure over substance and the liberal approach to questions of truth: either liberalism reduces truth to the evidence of modern science and technocratic rationality, or else it bans truth from the court of public discussion and prefers procedural ground-rules of fairness. Even if truth can never be fully known and will always be contested, politics without some measure of substantive truth is sophistry, as ancient Greco-Roman philosophers like Plato and Cicero warned. Today, liberal democracy seems caught between the truth of technocrats and the post-truth of anti-establishment insurgents.
Ever-greater use of techniques derived from Public Relations and the advertising industry reinforces democracy’s tendency towards demagogy. The ‘culture’ of spin, media stunts, focus groups and seemingly endless electoral campaigns has turned politics into a spectacle of general mass opinion (Barnett 2000), 80-99). This mass theatrics can be described as a form of manipulative populism – promising ever-greater freedom of choice but “the conditions under which choices are made are not themselves a matter of choice” (Bauman 2008, 72). In response to the manipulative populism of the ruling elites, western democracies witness the periodic emergence of anti-elite populism by insurgent movements, as with Berlusconi and now Trump.
Nor can this simply be dismissed as a new or temporary threat to democracy. In the 1830s, Tocqueville warned that America might be the freest society on earth where paradoxically there is least of all public debate and most of all a new form of ‘tyranny’ of social conformism to majority tastes and preferences. In democracies, everything can be debated publicly (incl. the personal, private sphere) except the dangers of liberal democracy itself.
Here it could be validly objected that there are numerous safeguards, including a more effective separation of powers, a more entrenched rule of law, greater individual rights and freedoms as well as more equality. And do not the free press and the internet guard against this supposed slide into demagogy? While the participatory potential of social media for democracy is real, the expansion of new technological capabilities can exacerbate the tendency to algorithmic self-regulation and simultaneous openness to both surveillance and remote-manipulation (Morozov 2011; 2014; Bartlett 2014).
Even more so than the real world, the virtual cyberspace lacks a robust and readily implementable ethos of self-discipline and reciprocal practice. For this reason, it tends to favour fleeting tastes and a self-referential culture that lends itself to the sort of mass surveillance illustrated by the NSA spying scandal (Democracy has certainly helped to uncover the extent of systematic snooping, but is it successful in rolling it back and reinstating civil liberties?). Thus the exponential expansion of the internet within democratic discourse provides opportunities for free self-expression and greater scrutiny as well as social control and demagogic politics.
Indeed, hacking, leaks and ‘fake news’ have supplanted investigative journalism and robust debate. The swiftness with which the Facebook/Google duopoly has not just mastered algorithmic targeting and thus accumulated advertising revenue but also gathered information and disseminated created news is changing the nature of online media, turning it from a fourth power (in addition to the three branches of government) into a fifth column (as with Russian hackers). This is clearly facilitated by Google’s search engine optimisation and fake news inputs facilitated by Facebook. For the chiefs of both companies to protest that they are just a tech distributor and not a media corporation is untenable. And as media corporations they have to abide by a certain ethos of impartiality, otherwise they are tools in the new fusion of press with propaganda and politics.
3.7. The rise of anarchy
Contemporary liberal democracy is associated with greater freedoms and opportunities by extending individual rights and by replacing inherited status with natural equality before the law. There is much gain involved but also loss, notably the progressive erosion of the social bonds and civic ties on which vibrant democracies and market economies depend for trust and cooperation. Democratic politics is connected with greater equality of opportunity and higher social mobility but by the same token it seems linked to fragmentation and dissolution. Paradoxically, democracy – especially under the influence of neo-liberal capitalism – can engender societies that are simultaneous more atomised and more interdependent: as Michael Sandel put it already in 1984, “in our public life we are more entangled, but less attached, than ever before” (1984, 94).
Different models of liberal democracy tend to oscillate between the sovereign power of the executive and the sovereign power of citizens qua freely-choosing individuals who are removed from the constraints of interpersonal relations and who entertain predominantly contractual ties with one another. The problem is that this has the effect of undermining human association and the political role of voluntary, democratically self-governing intermediary institutions such as professional associations, trade union, or universities. Without the mediating function of intermediary institutions, democracy risks sliding into an anarchy of competing individuals who pursue their own self-interest without regard for reciprocal recognition and mutual benefit. The ensuing conflict is either regulated by the ‘invisible hand’ of the market or policed by the ‘visible hand’ of the state (or both at once). The real alternative is not just greater democratic representation but also a stronger element of participatory and associative democracy at the local level.
In the final instance, the primacy of the state and the market over human association can lead to a democratic system that instills a sense of ‘voluntary servitude’ – a form of subtle manipulation by ostensible consent whereby people subject themselves freely to the will of the ruling oligarchy. The institutions of the central administrative state and global ‘free market’ regulate the ‘naturally given’ (but in reality merely assumed) anarchy, which is exacerbated by the lack of associative ties. Pierre Manent puts this well: “democratic man is the freest man to have ever lived and at the same time the most domesticated […] he can only be granted, he can only give himself, so much liberty because he is so domesticated” (1998, 181). As Tocqueville anticipated, liberal democracies that privilege mass opinion and self-interested representatives at the expense of education into virtue and bonds of association can produce forms of tutelary power:[…] the supreme power extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannise, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd. […] servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind […] might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people (2000, 650).
Nor can this simply be dismissed as an old threat to democracy. Just as Tocqueville warned in the 1820s that America might be the freest society on earth where paradoxically there is least of all public debate and most of all a new form of ‘tyranny’ of social conformism to majority tastes and preferences, so too in liberal democracies today apparently everything can be debated publicly (including the personal, private sphere) – except the potential dangers of liberal democracy itself.
Here it could be validly objected that there are numerous safeguards, including a more effective separation of powers, a more entrenched rule of law, greater individual rights and freedoms as well as more equality. However, contemporary democracy is often prone to deploying spectacle and subtle forms of propaganda. Of course this is not the same as in dictatorial regimes. Compared with twentieth-century totalitarian rule, democratic politics wields more indirect power, working through influence on people’s minds and more effectively securing control via uniform tastes and opinions than does an extrinsic imposition of force. In other words, my argument is not that democracy is becoming the same as dictatorship but rather that liberal democracy can mutate into novel forms of illiberal authoritarianism.
In the face of the liberal slide into a new form of democratic despotism, it is now once more the hour to recall the classical tradition, which tended to predict just such a slide of democracy into tyranny. It recognised that no polity can avoid the interplay of decision by the ‘one’, advice by the ‘few’ and assent by the ‘many’. Democratic tyranny is the oppressive rule of the ‘one’ and the ‘few’ that follows upon the spurious claim to rule only in the name of the ‘many’.
In other words, modern ‘representation’ remains, properly understood, a ‘mixed system. It contains both ‘aristocratic’ and ‘monarchic’ elements, even though it has a proper bias to democracy. Normally, the former means groups of ‘wise men and women’ and the latter has to be in some fashion literally embodied in one person, as it still is today, throughout the world, in the mode of presidential and prime ministerial functions. Liberal democracy’s neglect of aristocratic and monarchic elements of the mix has helped to foment democratic crisis, since any non-purely direct democracy paradoxically requires them for its functioning and even for the encouragement of informal and participatory democracy as opposed to a merely formal one. On this view then, strictly speaking, ‘representative democracy’ is a misnomer because ‘the few’ and ‘the one’ are involved as well as the ‘many’. Any mandatory conception of democracy tends ironically to empower an oligarchic and manipulative executive speaking in the name of the people, whom they really manipulate. Trump maybe is both a reaction against this and a writing of it large. The US system has always been too oligarchic and has always provoked a populist resistance to this. The republic is in danger of Caesarian reversal.
4. Common Good Politics? Alternatives to the liberal world order
4.1. After left and right: the possibility of a common good politics
The sway of both social and economic liberalism is today being qualified by the intrusion of political polarities that do not readily fit into a left-right spectrum. These new polarities concern variously populism versus technocracy, nativism versus multiculturalism, rootedness versus mobility, sovereignty versus federation, bio-conservation versus techno-scientific trans-humanism, or realism versus idealism. More conceptually, we can suggest that such and similar polarities concern the interpersonal versus the anonymous, the virtuous versus the amoral, the local versus the uniformly global, natural sociability versus artificial sociability and, above all, the primacy of society versus the primacy of the economy and the polity.
The neglect of the social is the neglect of the substantive. People may be free and equal in theory and even before the law, but in practice, the grossest inequities and inhibitions of the freedoms of the many pertain. During the period of neo-liberal hegemony, the gap between the wealth of the super-rich and the often falling incomes (in real terms) of the majority has widened, while rights to free time, work breaks and worker organisation have narrowed. In a more concealed way, the pressures of frenetic work have left most of us too tired to explore real exercises of freedom in creativity and adventure. Yet it is increasingly apparent that liberty and equity cannot be rendered fully substantive by a programme of liberal statist equalisation that has always proved to engender a new tyranny exercised by an elite of state functionaries and party cadres.
Instead, alternatives to the liberalism of the left and the right suggest that a more universal flourishing for all can be obtained when we continuously seek to define the goals of human society as a whole and then to discern the variously different and in themselves worthwhile roles that are required for the mutual achievement of these shared aims. The respective freedoms of these roles and their rewards will be variegated: not literally equal in terms of wealth, power or command and yet equitable and so capable of sincere general acceptability. It can even be the case within such a post-liberal approach to justice that – as Aristotle suggested – rewards of honour and prestige for some may be balanced by unexpectedly high material rewards for relatively humble but crucial contributions (Eudemian Ethics, EE VII, xi, 6, VII, x, 10-13; Gallagher 2012, 667-701).
Yet contemporary liberalism argues that appeals to goodness ignore the diversity of incompatible and incommensurable values in the complex societies of our late modern age. This means that we can only ‘agree to disagree’ and put in place some ground rules of fairness, for anything else would violate the sacrosanct principle of negative liberty. But, if anything, the reverse is true. It is precisely negatively open and indeterminate freedom, the ‘general will’ and utility maximisation that are the enemies of pluralism and tolerance, because they impose a single, homogeneous and uniform set of standards on everybody: mutually self-interested contract instead of real mutual agreement; an often assumed collective volition to the detriment of free association and aggregate utility instead of the diverse but coordinated flourishing of both persons and groups.
By contrast, faith in the common good promotes the plural search for shared ends. For the common good is not the total mathematically measurable good, an aggregate of privately owned items, but is, rather, concerned with the truest goods that we share together, such as intimacy, trust and beauty, whether momentarily with strangers or continuously with friends (Zamagni 2010, 63-93). But a sense of the common good shared by an entire culture is embedded in practices of honour and reciprocity. Such an ethos can only develop over time, through the habitual formation of tradition, the educative exercise of wise leadership and the prudential adaptation in practice by all of previous example.
Indissolubly linked to the vertical need for virtuous leadership is the other aspect of a general ‘moral economy’ of the entire social order, which is horizontal mutual obligation or the principle of solidarity. European socialism was first grounded in the notion of solidarity among labour and it regarded all human beings as workers in one crucial aspect of their humanity, which is the capacity for artifice and free creativity. As Maurice Glasman has said, in line with Catholic Social Thought, “It is with respect to work that we see the personal origin of all of human society and culture, the manifestation of individual and unique character” (2014, 255-70). Yet work as the free expression of personhood requires learning from the past and induction into inherited lineages of good craft, as well as an initial submitting to guidance if one is eventually to guide in one’s turn (the self-cancelling aspect of verticality). It requires equally patient relating and sympathetic cooperation with fellow workers and clients (along the horizontal plane). A traditionally socialist affirmation of solidarity and mutuality therefore requires a linkage with certain Burkean thematics if it is not simply to fade back into the current hegemony of liberal notions of isolated freedom of choice.
However, what is currently in the ascendancy is not such a rich post-liberal politics of the common good, but rather a virulent anti-liberalism that often takes the form of nationalism, atavistic ethno-centrism and even neo-fascism.
Insurgent anti-establishment forces, such as the hard left and the radical right, are deeply divided over open borders, migration, multiculturalism and globalism versus nativism. But they do share a certain anti-liberal outlook. First of all, both are opposed to key characteristics of economic liberalism and clamour for more national sovereignty to protect countries from the forces of globalisation. They combine protectionism with more welfare and they view national elites as being in collusion with multinational corporations at the expense of ordinary citizens.
Secondly, the hard left and the radical right also argue for much more central state intervention that undermines the freedom to associate and build intermediary institutions. Thirdly, both make use of demagogical, fact-free manipulation of emotion and appeal to the supposed will of ‘The People’ in ways that are reminiscent of 1930s authoritarianism. And, fourthly, both promote a plebiscite populism that locks politics into a dialectical movement between empty theatrics and the power of oligarchy old or new.
There is thus a double convergence at work in much of Western politics: just as the main parties converged around variants of individualism, so too insurgent populists are converging around variants of statism. Neither the progressive liberal centre nor the reactionary anti-liberal extremes can be mapped according to the old binary opposition of left and right because both view politics as oscillating between two alternative poles: the isolated individual with her rights and liberties versus the collective power of the state either to secure or override them. What is missing is the mediating role of human association – all the intermediary institutions of civil society that give people agency, including professional associations, profit-sharing businesses, trade unions, universities, ecological groups and devolved government.
Connected with this is the populist hostility not to elitism but to pluralism. As Jan-Werner Müller writes, “Populists claim that they and they alone, represent the people. […] The claim to exclusive representation is not an empirical one; it is always distinctly moral” (Müller 2016). That is why authoritarian leaders claim to represent not all their citizens but only the ‘true’ people. Therefore, it is populism’s exclusionary vision that makes it just as illiberal as much of contemporary liberalism, to which we must add the assault on individual rights and freedoms that is wholly anti-liberal. The alliance between neo-liberal capitalism and atavistic ethno-centrism suggests that certain forms of liberalism are complicit with neo-fascism.
There are also signs that politics is moving in a post-liberal direction, rejecting not only the economic and social liberalism that has been dominant for the past four decades but also the resurgent anti-liberalism that is its mirror image. What is post-liberalism? In the economy, it signals a shift from unfettered liberal market capitalism to economic justice and a greater reciprocity of profit and social purpose. In society, it signals a shift from rampant individualism and top-down state-enforced egalitarianism to social solidarity and more fraternal, reciprocal relations. And politically, it signals a shift from the minority politics of vested interests and exclusive group identity to a majority politics based on a balance of interests and shared social identity. Linking post-liberalism together is an emphasis on the embedding of state and market in the intermediary institutions of civil society that give people agency.
In Britain, it was first the Red Tory and Blue Labour factions challenged the progressive-liberal consensus by arguing that it intensified an imbalanced finance capitalism, a remote central bureaucratic state and a more atomised society lacking in a positive conception of belonging (Glasman 1996; Blond 2010; Blond and Glasman 2010; Geary and Pabst 2015). Both had some intellectual influence on David Cameron’s Big Society narrative and Ed Miliband’s vision of One Nation Labour, but in each case the party leadership retreated to variants of progressive liberalism as the default mode.
The Brexit vote marks the end of a period in British politics characterised by modernisation and the triumph of a liberal consensus. The fusion of 1960s social liberalism with 1980s economic liberalism that defined the governments of Tony Blair and David Cameron does not seem to apply to the new Prime Minister Theresa May who is moving the Tories in a post-liberal direction, committed to greater economic justice and more social solidarity.
Both before and after becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May’s positioning reflects a certain post-liberal outlook. She has emphasised the bonds of family, community and citizenship, and the role of government as the ultimate guarantor of societal cohesion. For example, she insists that “we [the Conservatives] don’t just believe in markets, but in communities. We don’t just believe in individualism, but in society” (2016a). This marks not just a distance from Mrs Thatcher who famously declared that “there is no such thing as society”, but also from David Cameron whose ‘Big Society’ fail to accord the state a positive role. By contrast, May argues that the crucial role of government is to ‘nurture those relationships, networks and institutions’ that make society work (2017). Does her apparent post-liberalism represent a paradigm shift compared with the 1979 neo-liberal settlement now in crisis? As the Guardian columnist Martin Kettle suggests,
These are still early days, but May’s speeches, both before and after becoming prime minister, are unified by post-liberal thinking […] Brexit is in part a revolt against a set of characteristics of modern liberalism. We have a new political agenda that no political party can afford to ignore. Whether we consider ourselves liberal or not, we increasingly inhabit post-liberal times (2016).
While May’s version of post-liberal conservatism might turn out to be a lot of warm words, she does appear to be in tune with a series of apparently paradoxical, yet logically consistent popular demands for fiscal discipline but also greater economic fairness; more devolution of power to people but also a more active role of government; encouragement of small business but also a national industrial and investment policy designed to rebalance the British economy away from over-dominance by finance. There is no inconsistency here if it is understood that this is not a call for a return to a top-heavy state but for stronger social participation and a more social market, in the forging of which the state has an active but essentially strategic role to play. Thus May is determined “to reject the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right and to embrace a new centre-ground in which government steps up – and not back – to act on behalf of us all”, as she put it in her Conservative Party conference speech on 5 October 2016.
What is perhaps most striking is her apparent break with four decades of economic liberalism. Her attack on financial elites and tax-dodging multinationals in her conference speech, her promise to tackle the pay gap between managers and employees, her embrace of industrial policy and her championing of workers’ rights in the service sectors and the nascent ‘gig economy’ represents potentially a decisive break with four decades of market fundamentalism.
Against the seemingly inevitable forward march of globalisation and the triumph of market selfishness over shared prosperity, she wants to deploy an active state and legal system to help shape an economy at the service of society: “We don’t hate the state, we value the role that only the state can play”, and “it’s time to […] employ the power of government for the good of the people” (May 2016a). In a radical extension of the Northern Powerhouses initiative, she favours stronger local and regional self-government (here echoing the radical Tory legacy of Joseph Chamberlain promoted by May’s joint chief of staff Nick Timothy) and also a strategic role for central government to invest in housing, research and development and high-tech manufacturing.
May’s aim is apparently to replace Thatcher’s and Osborne’s trickle-down economics with a form of distributism by raising wages and sharing assets – not old-style top-down redistribution through tax-and-spend. This suggests that she could be the first Conservative leader in nearly forty years to reject Gladstone’s ‘Whig conservatism’ with its emphasis on the unfettered market and self-help in favour of an updated version of ‘High Toryism’ with its focus on national unity, mutual assistance, unconditional support of the truly needy, and a measure of protectionism. For example, she has indicated that her government might step in to protect strategically important sectors such as steel and pharmaceuticals and, if necessary, prevent the sale of yet more British family silver to asset-stripping foreign corporations. That seems to have influenced her decision to include a government veto in all future foreign involvement in UK critical infrastructure investment as part of the delayed approval of the deal involving France and China on a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point.
The key difference with the early post-liberalism of the Big Society and One-Nation Labour is that May is prepared to underpin her commitment to greater economic justice and social cohesion with an appropriate political economy. What makes May’s approach more post-liberal than the earlier attempts is that it does not so much intend to offer mere compensation for the side-effects of globalisation as to provide fundamental reforms which would begin to change the nature of the market itself by aligning the executive with the long-term interests of the company, its shareholders, employers and consumers. If implemented, political economy would begin to transcend the old binary oppositions of state vs. market, individual vs. collective, self-interest vs. altruism and open vs. closed by emphasising certain common goals such as greater popular participation, more involvement of groups, shared prosperity based on strategic cooperation and a better balance of interests between the national and the global.
However, her apparent decision to back a hard Brexit, so leaving her free to pursue one-nation post-liberal conservatism at home, could run into contradictions. Already, indeed, her preparedness to sacrifice the free market to protected borders is running into opposition from the libertarian right-wing of her party who are perfectly happy about free movement of both labour and capital, but wish for even more deregulated trade than membership in the EU will allow.
At the same time, unrestricted free trade on the global market without regional customs tariff agreements as provided by the EU is likely to hurt the very workers that May claims to defend when she speaks of an “economy for the many, not the privileged few” (2016b). They seem for the moment to be appeased by promised restrictions on low-paid immigration from central and eastern Europe, but may become less so when (as is likely) these restrictions fail to materialise and long-term collapse of market confidence in the UK leads to inflation and a further fall in living standards. Moreover, a likely desperate recourse to the most uninhibited global exponents of financial and business practice could prove incompatible with the forging of a social market at the domestic level. Nor, given the forward march of globalisation, is it easy to achieve this in one country acting alone rather than in association with others (as for the EU and other trans-regional structures such as Nafta, Mercosur or the emerging Eurasian Economic Community).
And on the other hand, while there is a role for selective and temporary state protection for certain sectors such as the car or the steel industry, it is worth remembering that protectionism, in understandable reaction to the unequal predations of ‘free trade’, has almost always reinforced inter-state conflict and fails to match the operation of capital at the global level where more targeted political cooperation is needed to encourage a model of globalisation which works for all. An organisation like the EU, establishing privileged trade access under agreed rules between a group of nations offers precisely the ‘third way’ between free-trade and protection that tends to promote international pacification.
Meanwhile, May’s domestic programme does not seem consistent. Although rightly motivated by a desire to give better opportunities to bright children in poor areas, her commitment to building more grammar schools could prove in practice at odds with the Tories’ ‘equal life chances’ agenda. It might be better to focus on offering both more academic opportunities for the gifted and more vocational training for the majority within the current structures. In the longer term any return of grammar schools should be accompanied by the creation of technical schools and selection for either at age 14 rather than age 11. Unless vocational qualifications soon bring higher economic success and more social esteem, May’s promise to “build a country that works for everyone” (Ibid) will sound increasingly hollow.
Furthermore, social mobility is too limited an ideal. It is admirable, but needs to be supplemented by a recognition that most people will not prove clear winners. A problem with mere meritocracy (as the Brexit vote shows) is that it breeds a dangerous resentment amongst the many who carry out necessary but unglamorous tasks, and remain valuably rooted in one place. These people also deserve adequate, comfortable provision and a sense of dignity and respect consequent upon appreciation for their service. In this way unity and solidarity imply a more Burkean organic model that transcends fair competition, which is not thereby denigrated. A genuinely post-liberal perspective would involve a search for a restored sense of belonging for all, for more holistic fulfilment in work (in resistance to the creeping proletarianisation of intellectual labour) and for the combining of work with the needs of family and community (Milbank and Pabst 2016, 283-310).
This idea of a balance of interests at the service of the common good also points the way to a more ethical economy. Instead of offering mere compensation for the side-effects of globalisation (like so much of Western social democracy), a post-liberal approach focuses on injecting social purpose into economic profit. The point is to provide fundamental reforms, which would begin to change the nature of the market itself by aligning the executive with the long-term interests of the company, its shareholders, employers, consumers and members of the local communities where businesses operate. This would go beyond mere representation of workers on company boards, which is nevertheless important and welcome. There is growing evidence to suggest virtuous entrepreneurship, if undertaken with integrity and not just for instrumental purpose, can help increase profit and remuneration precisely because it promotes innovation and productivity through employee retention, job satisfaction and participation in the workplace.
In short, the test of May’s post-liberalism will then be whether she can truly avoid either liberal economism or liberal statism by forging such social market or ‘civil economy’. But either a purely buccaneering approach to foreign relations or a xenophobic soft-fascism would be likely to ensure a backsliding in either respective direction. Ultimately the British destiny cannot be separated from an attempt to forge, through or beyond the EU, a new and more accountable mode of European unity.
4.4. Common Good Politics
Liberal democracy has an anti-democratic core and thus contains the seeds of its own erosion and its slide into oligarchy, demagogy and anarchy. If so, then democracies require not only non-democratic elements such as the rule of law (a principle on which we do not vote) but also a greater role for non-formalisable, non-legal judgement on what is good and right for society as a whole. That in turn involves a sense of shared mores and ‘common decency’, i.e. a shared horizon of common purpose. Ultimately, democracy needs a balance of the consent of ‘the many’ with the advice of ‘the few’ and the executive decisions of ‘the one’. More ‘mixed government’, not more liberalism, is key to safeguarding and strengthening democracy. Otherwise liberalism is increasingly associated, not with peace and prosperity, but instead with war, economic exploitation and the decline of both local and high cultures.
A mixed constitution begins by acknowledging that the liberal tradition is not all bad. But ever-more individual rights prevent a proper balance between personal freedom and social stability. True human happiness and shared wellbeing depend on mutual duties about which liberalism has little to say. The same goes for moral and social virtues – courage, generosity, gratitude, loyalty, fraternity – that nurture the way we live in society. Appeals to emancipation and social justice ring hollow because liberal ideals too often overlook the relationships with our family, friends, colleagues or fellow citizens, which provide substance to otherwise vacuous values.
The bonds sustaining us as social beings have been eroded by the liberal fusion of market monopoly with state power. A renewed mixed constitution is an attempt to renew the social realm and embed both economic and political institutions in the civic ties that
make society work. While liberals are stuck in the sham debate over “more market or more state” in a quest for freedom or utility, what is needed is a greater balance of interests among social groups at the service of the common good.
This priority of society over politics and the economy reflects a human desire for mutual recognition. Recognising each other’s role and contribution to society matters more to most people than getting increasingly rich or exerting domination over others. George Orwell called this the “common decency” of people. Liberalism assumes that we are naturally selfish, greedy, fearful of others and therefore prone to violent conflict. In reality, humans are capable of vice as well as virtue, and the right institutions can encourage virtuous behaviour. A politics committed to family, decent work, a fair return for workers, contribution, duties linked to rights, and love of one’s country can renew notions of earning and belonging – earning not only an income but also respect and appreciation for the contribution we all make to the society to which we belong.
This would require a more developed public philosophy of the common good. Polanyi for example hoped that we might achieve yet a balance between community and contract through a fluid recognition of the importance of reciprocal free association and just political distribution. This could be done in a manner that would respect group feeling and the common good, and yet also advance the authentic creative reach of individual liberty – given that it lacks any real scope of being pursued in isolation. Indeed the logic of mutual honour is fundamental to the constitution of human culture itself.
Rescuing a talented few from an abject human morass is hardly a radical objective, even if lowly born talent should rightly be recognised and encouraged to succeed. Rather, whole families and communities need to be nurtured. Against then the impersonalism of liberal institutions and policies, post-liberals shift the emphasis to the “whole person” – the unity of body, mind and soul, embedded in a social order that is more basic than state or market and to which these necessary realities may be referred.
Against the abstract universalism of liberal ideology and its preference for the global and the virtual, post-liberals argue for the honouring of place. With the advance of history, of course, diverse communities get evermore entangled with each other. Yet the circumstance only augments a need to newly construct a complex, entangled and shared identity, which never altogether loses touch with its origins. Indeed both the political and the economic, as such, spring from the social, embedded in relationships of mutual trust and collective endeavour.
Organic constitutional pluralism then supplements the other nineteenth-century liberalism. Key to such is the role of constitutionally protected corporate bodies that mediate between the individual and the corporate centre, for example associations and intermediary institutions such as manufacturing and trading guilds, cooperatives, ethical and profit-sharing businesses, trade unions, voluntary organizations, universities, village colleges and ecological groups. A properly conceptualised pluralism defends the idea of group personality that is the paradoxical blending of personhood and association. Linked to this pluralist organicism is the re-invention of “constitutional corporatism” in a more plural guise against both market individualism and state collectivism.
Persons then as such, unlike liberal atomic “subjects” who are supposedly primary and yet in both theory and reality interchangeable, are at once “more” and “less” than the social whole. Less because persons only exist in relation and more because it is the very relational position of the individual which gives him or her their unique identity. At the same time all of such can only be sustained and mediated by a complex of overlapping partial societies or intermediate organizations that compose “civil society”.
Such relatively independent associations therefore at once remind the state of the excess of personal freedom over its own totalizing thrust, and yet equally temper the personal tendency to autonomy with a liveable concrete reminder of wider society in an amenable microcosmic guise. In the wake of the manifest failure of the liberal consensus adhered to then on all sides, it is clear that we should search for an alternative politics and social ethos. This would not just be about linking rights to responsibilities but also about solidarity and subsidiarity. In these ways, the real alternative to liberalism involves both greater economic egalitarianism and an updated social conservatism, freed of oppressive and unjustifiable prejudices against women and minorities
4.5. Common Good Economics
For over three hundred years, Anglo-Saxon and French economic theory has largely followed liberal presuppositions such as foundational self-interest and the separation of contract from gift. But certain Italian economists, standing in a more classically humanist and Christian tradition, have thought in more associationist terms. Here it is salutary to compare the thought of Adam Smith with that of his near contemporary, the Neapolitan philosopher-priest and ‘civil economist’ Antonio Genovesi.
For Adam Smith, economic production and trade based on contract is sundered from mutual sympathy. It is here that Genovesi offers a completely different economic model, which explicitly involves reciprocity and the convivial. Public faith as such is not so much the aggregation of private trust (or individual fate) as a kind of universal sympathy that includes genuine love for the common good. In this way one can see how for the Italian civil economy tradition the market itself remains more social and more directly mediated by interpersonal relationships. The operation of both the ‘visible’ and the ‘invisible’ hand is not seen in purely mechanical terms but rather as an interpersonal network that constitutes ‘civil life’.
Smith in fact follows the Huguenots like Mandeville (noted for his Fable of the Bees) in Holland in producing order from the amoral disorder engendered by fallen human depravity. By contrast, Genovesi followed the more Catholic humanist philosopher Giambattista Vico, in the eighteenth century, building up public goods on the basis of intentional private desires. In practical terms this means that a good economy must allow for a complex mix of self-interest and concern for others. Crucial concepts then which distinguish Neapolitan (Genovesi) and Scottish (Adam Smith) political economy are reciprocity and civil virtue within the market domain as such. Reciprocity shifts the emphasis form the cash nexus to the social nexus. For Genovesi, society is not primarily about the division of labour and the harmonious balancing of self-interest in the marketplace (as for Smith). Rather human beings have shared needs that can only be satisfied through mutual assistance. We cannot make ourselves happy without making others happy. If human beings are naturally political, social and gift-exchanging animals, they need to cultivate habits of personal and communal living that sustain the polity, society and economy. Both the civil economy and the Catholic Social thought, traditions then, insist on the difference between the market and the capitalist distortion of such.
We also need something like the traditional Italian sense of locality, comprising city and commune as a relatively self-sustaining economy in accordance with economic application of the subsidiarity principle. This should include, for them, the local owning and organizing of energy companies, geared wherever possible towards renewables, in order to undercut giant private companies (which would be either mutualised or broken up). Such enterprises would increase the appeal of staying on the land in order to achieve a more stable agriculture and to sustain the rural beauty which is ultimately our cultural lifeblood.
Today it is possible to restore the primacy of land and craft in an extended ecological sense of a primacy of nature as a whole, of humanity taken as part of nature, wisely governing over it in order to perfect it through further beautification and intensified flourishing. Such a primacy would uniquely guard against the siphoning off of real benefits for overly abstract urban purposes with a consequent leaching away of the meaning of nature. It is by embracing a specifically rooted vision of the common good that the West can address the meta-crisis of capitalism.
However, people will claim that this is not possible because the debt burden means we must ruthlessly retrench public provision, while withdrawing all restraints on market systems. At this point it is necessary to outline a series of approaches that could transform a cartel based capitalism into a functioning and just market economy – starting with the issue of debt. If the sums in the dual-entry books do not yield a positive amount, an entire economy and society will define itself in terms of lack. But to accept this scenario, according to the nineteenth-century political philosopher Thomas Carlyle, is to remain in deluded denial of the natural and artificial abundance that lies all about us. We then ignore the underlying reality of continued great wealth provided by labour and technological ingenuity. We succumb to “enchanted wealth” by virtue of our fascination with abstract quantification. Yet the debtors may have already turned that amount owed to creditors into more actual positive wealth. By another, gift-exchange logic, indebtedness could be seen more as a positive personal and social bond, whose essence is a grateful promise to make a counter-payment in the future. In fact, in civil economic terms, like primordial gift exchange, both profit and risk are shared more equitably among stakeholders; lenders and borrowers, producers and consumers. Here we can learn from Islamic finance.
A post-liberal common good economy requires an ethical as well as economic negotiation of wages, prices and profits among owners, workers and shareholders and consumers. For they would all be given the opportunity to acquire a real political and economic stake in every enterprise. In fact, from a civil economy perspective, the post-war Keynesian and neo-liberal welfare settlement represents two sides of the same coin. Both, albeit in different ways, rely on a strong state at the expense of intermediary institutions. In effect then, there is an ever greater case for mutualising social security. If we are to escape from state indebtedness, a crucial component of capitalist logic as we have seen, the healthcare system should be run as a mutual trust, accountable to its members, with a greater role for healthcare cooperatives. In the interests of an integral and holistic approach health and social care should be combined.
The civil economy model can be summarised as follows. Overwhelmingly it ties economic profit to ethical and social purpose, and seeks to ethicise exchange. In the same spirit, it replaces the separation of risk from reward with risk and profit sharing models. In both respects, it publicly requires an economic pursuit of honourable practice and genuine benefit rather than just abstract wealth and power, altogether in pursuit of the common good.
4.6. A Common Good International Order
Liberal politics, both nationally and internationally, rests on the idea of ‘asocial sociability’: human beings are naturally self-interested vis-à-vis other human beings, but this eventually engenders some kind of competitive order. So Kant for example views warfare as an evil necessary to regulate the original violence that is supposedly our fundamental human condition. Therefore a truly alternative account would reject the claim that international society is fundamentally anarchic- a global ‘war of all against all (Hobbes) because the most primary ties, bonds, and connections between human beings are not confined to national borders. They are transnational reflections of universal human attributes: language, cultural customs, music, art, literary modes, fashion in manners and dress, as well as religion.
The real alternative to either chauvinist nationalism or abstract cosmopolitanism is to re-envision the international order in terms of covenant and commonwealth. Peoples, sometimes under religious inspiration, may covenant with each other in the interests of mutual benefit and genuine wealth construed as improved and shared material and spiritual wellbeing for all. Such covenants of reciprocal sharing could apply within the UK or across Europe and the British Commonwealth as well as in other parts of the world. They might take the form of voluntary agreements among participating nations to meet minimum standards of the sharing of risks, rewards and resources in both the economic and social realms, and also to meet shared standards of both solidarity and subsidiarity. Such a novel approach to globalisation would be a way to revive and re-think the West (including Russia) and the entire world as something like multinational associations where social and cultural ties shape identity more than individual entitlements and contracts.
Such a post-liberal world order was perhaps first envisioned by Edmund Burke – the ultimate progenitor of the British “cultural theory” of International Relations who emphasised traditional association:
In the intercourse between nations, we are apt to rely too much on the instrumental part. We lay too much weight upon the formality of treaties and compacts. We do not act much more wisely when we trust to the interests of men as guarantees of their engagements. […] Men are not tied to one another by papers and seals. They are led to associate by resemblances, by conformities, by sympathies. It is with nations as with individuals. Nothing is so strong a tie of amity between nation and nation as correspondence in laws, customs, manners, and habits of life. They have more than the force of treaties in themselves. They are obligations written in the heart. They approximate men to men, without their knowledge, and sometimes against their intentions. The secret, unseen, but irrefragable bond of habitual intercourse holds them together even when their perverse and litigious nature sets them to equivocate, scuffle, and fight, about the terms of their written obligations. […] There have been periods of time in which communities, apparently in peace with each other, have been more perfectly separated than, in later times, many nations in Europe have been in the course of long and bloody wars. The cause must be sought in the similitude throughout of religion, laws, and manners. At bottom, these are all the same. The writers on public law have often called this aggregate of nations a Commonwealth. They had reason (2014, pp. 253-334, quotation at pp. 316-17).
By contrast with the liberal conception of nations as individual egos writ large that are driven by will not intellect, Burke accentuates the primary of association over the sovereign power of the individual. In other words, he inverts the modern priority of rights and contracts by arguing that the mutual moral obligations of interpersonal relations are more primary than abstract, formal and procedural standards imposed for either state-administrative or market-commercial purposes. One might in this light say that, ever since humans walked round the globe, both the global and the minutely local are more primarily linked than the more restricted modes of political and economic maximisation lying in between so beloved of liberals.
So in qualification of a Hobbesian fear of a violent ‘state of nature’ he shifted the focus back onto the social nature of mankind and the idea that human cooperation precedes contractual arrangements within and across nations. Precisely in the absence of a single sovereign who wields power, the glue that most of all holds together societies both nationally and internationally is ‘an antecedent common culture’ which is more primary than the rights of individuals and sovereign states. Culture so configured rests on a shared ‘cosmic, moral constitution’ that is metaphysical in nature because it links immanent values to their transcendent origin and outlook. Moreover, beyond even natural law, one can ultimately appeal to the principle and practice of love or charity, which complements both power politics and natural law, and which relates the dignity of all persons to their shared transcendent origin and finality. The anthropological basis for this appeal lies in the human capacity for virtue, including the social virtues of courage, generosity, loyalty, kindness, and sympathy, which humans across different cultures have practiced as part of diverse types of association – the social body that lies at the heart of the body politic.
The adoption of such an ‘associationist’ model of IR would promote a plural search for the shared common good and substantive ends that can mediate between the individual and the collective will and thus help bind together members of diverse bodies and polities. Thereby, one can refuse the liberal view that the incommensurability of rival values either necessarily requires (an internationally unforthcoming) central sovereign power to arbitrate conflict or else leads to a fragile and uncomfortable international modus vivendi. Taken together, a commitment to the common good and constitutional corporatism by global powers could in theory transform the dominant model of neo-liberal globalisation. The focus on shared substantive ends can correct the fixation either with instrumental and transactional relationships (merely national or international corporate interests) or with procedural ties (commitment to common rules and regulative bodies) towards the reality of shared cultural and social bonds that matter more in an increasingly globalised world. Similarly, the emphasis on ‘mixed government’ can, globally applied, redirect the debate away from either national-republican or global-cosmopolitan arrangements to more mutualist models of subsidiary federalism and multinational associations based on constitutional rule, embedded institutions, uncorrupted law, and the re-balancing of power.
Moreover, the liberal alternative of a global embrace of liberal capitalism is all too likely to leave most of the Global East and South in permanent subordination and penury, given that economic and regional inequity is built into the logical workings of capitalism. Therefore, the West cannot simply and arrogantly return to an exacerbated version of liberal progressivist illusion – though the ‘Hegelian’ possibility must remain that the entire globe, including Islam, could succumb to this illusion in the end and, so, to the permanent economic depression of some and to the materialist illusion of most. This would be a dismal and, in reality, a regressive prospect. History has truly moved on and disclosed something unexpected, but true, to our gaze. If we are prepared to recognise this, then we can begin to try to craft a post-liberal global approach that would seek to ensure that integral and substantive social loyalties can live alongside each other in peace, which means also in terms of those substantive – and often pan-religious – loyalties that they can discover they share in common.
The long-term spectre of barbarism has returned to haunt all world civilisations. And now this ghost demands of them the seemingly impossible – to recover their own interior identity and to engage externally in commonwealth-creating projects. But only the impossible may be remotely realistic.
5. Concluding Reflections: a positive politics of belonging amid dangerous divides
Liberalism, in the final analysis, threatens to collapse back into the materialism that is one half of its dualist worldview, evacuating the ungrounded dualism that is its other half. Starting in the nineteenth century, liberalism tended towards a procedural formalism and a cultural vacuity, which were challenged by the materialist philosophies of Nazism, Fascism, and Communism that sought to re-construct positive liberty on a non-religious, supposedly scientific basis. And following their eventual collapse in the twentieth century, liberalism has insisted on its own latent materialism. Not only has the soul disappeared, but also the subject and along with it the citizen and ultimately the idea of humans as social and creative beings.
Where the new fascists pander to the politics of fear and exclusion of the alien (immigrant or refugee), mainstream politics needs to develop a politics of hope, which addresses popular concerns about loss and insecurity, and offers a positive vision of patriotism and international solidarity. The politics of virtue promotes individual fulfilment and mutual flourishing, though always mediated by local inheritances and specificities. Nor could resurgent nationalism and new forms of racism stand in greater contrast to it. Not only is neo-fascism chauvinist and immoral, but it is also nostalgic since it seeks an exaggerated version of recent modernity.
So the worldwide revulsion against liberalism is a sign that we have entered post-liberal times. Yet Brexit, Trump, and other anti-establishment insurgencies in the West are profoundly ambivalent insofar as they do not simply push back against global market fundamentalism and progressive social engineering. They also fuse anti-liberal with ultra-liberal ideas. Some insurgents want to undo socially liberal reforms, such as abortion or certain minority rights, while cracking down on immigrants in a raging fit of atavistic ethnocentrism. There is also an ultra-liberal creed at work in the worship of the Hobbesian sovereign state and the invocation of ‘The People’ in ways that are neo-totalitarian. Connecting anti-liberal with ultra-liberal ideas is a cult of mere will, which is unmediated by civic institutions or highbrow cultural traditions – a kind of will-to-power in a novel guise.
There remains a clear need for a broad popular movement in shaping a politics of the common good – a movement that can overcome the binaries that divide Western countries and increasingly the whole world: young versus old, owners versus workers, natives versus immigrants, city versus countryside, faithful versus secular. Instead, resistance must be based on the primacy of positive liberty and a substantive vision of true human flourishing. At the heart of its primacy lies the sense that human beings – as integral, if bizarre, rational and political animals, uneasily poised between bios and techne – are all heroic cultural labourers, who work because they are guided by a vision of the further realisation of the good.
Therefore, any viable alternative has to focus on cultural identities, but reach for ones more linked to noble aspirations than to fearful prejudice. A plausible, constructive post-liberalism is about discerning the positive goals that human beings can share in common and which alone allow them real flourishing and a deeper freedom. Instead of rewarding vice (as in liberalism), we need to renew institutions that encourage virtue. In increasingly heterogeneous societies, greater social and cultural cohesion requires a plural search for the common good. The new politics of belonging that liberals have neglected requires a positive conception of identity, combining civic patriotism with an internationalist outlook. By replacing liberal value moralism with virtues of humility, courage, generosity, loyalty and fraternity, we can renew statecraft and diplomacy in a quest to build a more equitable world order.
Reader in Politics and Director of the Centre for Federal Studies, School of Politics and IR, University of Kent, UK
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