A Problem in Liberalism

I’ve never been a big fan of Liberalism (with a capital “L”), mostly because I think it’s political philosophy which prizes individuality over the community; I’m more of a Communitarian than anything else.1 So, given I’m currently rereading Jack Z. Bratich’s “Conspiracy Panics”, I’ve been struck by his discussion of Liberalism. Jack (nota bene: I once got drunk with him, so I feel comfortable talking about this on a first name basis) talks, in chapter 1, about Liberalism not as a theory but rather, a practice, and how Liberalism is meant to be the ongoing process of making us nice to one another without the need to enact tiresome legislation for that purpose.

Channeling Michel Foucault, Jack presents an argument to the extent that the purpose of Liberalism is to move political discourse away from the margins to the centre because, after all, that is the nice, sensible place for people to be, and it reduces the danger of extremism. It is also, qua Foucault, the reason why we are so worried about any form of extremism in our politics, whether it is hard right, hard left… Or even soft left or right. Anything off-centre is an extreme, something we should counsel against. We have seen this both in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and the UK where it comes to parties on the Left competing with Centre Right governments; you want to appeal to the centre because that is what nice Liberals do. What nice Liberals don’t do is direct their politics to the margins because the Centre is sensible and Liberals are sensible people.

As such, the goal of NZ and UK Labour, such Liberal counsellors contend, is one of two classic responses: educate the masses to make them sympathetic to the Centre (Liberalism) or other the margins and talk about them as extremists. The former means you are competing for the voting base the centrist party in power has already captured, whilst the latter means making enemies of people who would otherwise normally support you. So, act like National and the Tories and claim that the Greens and the Scottish National Party are a bunch of extremist ne’erdowells you would never countenance going into government with.

The problem, as far as I can see, for the Liberal project – if we accept this particular construal of that thesis – is that you need a well-educated, comfortably well-off populace for liberalism to succeed. I.e. if you want people to support sensible, centrist solutions, they need to be unsympathetic to extremist views by dint of being educated with Liberal political virtue and not being worried about how no one can afford to buy a house in Auckland these days. Yet the political practice of many Western, Liberal-leaning democracies over the last few decades has been to erode both easy access to welfare and to fiddle with the education system, often in disastrous ways. In effect, it seems like centrist governments are making it harder to sustain the Liberalism which made such centrism/Liberalism so popular.

So, it is with some interest that I read David Cameron’s new advocacy for stamping out extremism:

For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. It’s often meant we have stood neutral between different values. And that’s helped foster a narrative of extremism and grievance.

This government will conclusively turn the page on this failed approach. As the party of one nation, we will govern as one nation and bring our country together. That means actively promoting certain values.

Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Democracy. The rule of law. Equal rights regardless of race, gender or sexuality.

We must say to our citizens: this is what defines us as a society.

So, rather than sustain a populace immune to an extremism which questions these views via making the populace literate2 and comfortable, the Conservatives will impose their political virtues (which seem quite Liberal on the face of it, even though I know many people will say elements of the Conservatives are anything but Liberal) by edict.

Because that will work out just great. No one goes to extremes when they are being told just what kind of citizen they have to be, after all.

This seems like it’s a problem. You have a set of Liberal virtues which need to be upheld because you are in the Centre, but you have a society which is showing expressions of what you take to be extremism. You could forego the austerity and dismantling of the welfare state which is causing people to go to extremes (a bottom-up approach), or you could impose your political virtues (a top-down approach). Yet the great thing about democracy was that it was meant to allow people to express their dissent within the system, wasn’t it? Or, as Foucault might ask, is government more about stability than it is representation? Because if governments are about stabilising the Centre, then it’s easy to see why some people on the margins think they are conspiring to stay in power.

Notes

  1. Although, in truth, I am – like in most things – a pluralist who mixes and matches views
  2. That is, specifically educated for the virtue of the Liberal and thus centrist society.

About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.