In the old days of Fleet Street, a columnist stuck for an idea could always rely on a famous French quotation:
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose“
Attributed to the 19th-century writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, it loosely translates as “the more things change, the more they stay the same”: perfect for a worldly-wise 900 words on why the latest brand new thing isn’t so new after all.
Now that the internet has turned comment journalism into a blood sport, world-weariness and using French words is, I regret, passé. And yet Karr’s epigram is as relevant as ever.
Last week, the MPs that formed the breakaway Independent Group announced the creation of a new party, Change UK. The irony, as many people have pointed out, is that the party’s purpose is to undo change – by keeping Britain inside the EU and by refloating the wreck of Blairism. Perhaps, as good Europeans, they should have called themselves Plus Ça Change UK.
Liberalism: the other God that failed
It’s not as if renewing New Labour is even a new thing to do. When Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair in 2007, he promised a “new kind of politics”. When, just three years later, Ed Miliband became leader, he dropped the ‘New’ from New Labour, but claimed to represent a “new generation” with “different ideas, different attitudes” and a “different way of doing politics.”
Five years later, the Labour Party was bored with that and turned to an old leftie, Jeremy Corbyn. But even he promised a “new kind of politics” – a “kinder politics”. By the start of this year, Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger and the others could take no more of their comrades’ kindness and left to form The Independent Group – recalling the events of 1981 when the ‘Gang of Four’ quit a leftwing Labour Party to form the SDP. Plus ça change…
Though we seem to be stuck in an unending cycle of confected newness, a genuinely new kind of politics is tantalisingly close to breaking through.
It comes in several varieties and therefore has different labels attached to it – ‘communitarian’, ‘Blue Labour’, ‘Red Tory’, ‘hard centre’, ‘post-liberal’. Some or all of these have caught the attention of the mainstream political parties. For instance, Tony Blair flirted with communitarianism, as did Ed Miliband. The Conservative Party had its ‘Big Society’ moment under David Cameron, with related ideas influencing the early part of Theresa May’s leadership (i.e. when she was still popular). However, in each case it soon became clear that the party establishments were only after a fresh semblance of ‘newness’. Once it all got a bit too challenging, the same old same old reasserted itself.
So is the post-liberal agenda an ideological mirage – a vague set of ideas that appear on the horizon of politics only to vanish as one gets closer?
I wonder if a map would help. If we were to triangulate from the familiar points of the political spectrum, might we find the post-liberal promised land? Perhaps, but the traditional Left-Right political spectrum (past its sell-by date anyway) is of no use. If post-liberalism fits anywhere along the line, it is somewhere in the middle. Blue Labour would be a bit to the Left, Red Tories a bit to the Right – but overall they’d occupy the space as, er, the liberals they disagree with.
Vanilla liberalism is past its sell-by date
Maybe we need to add another spectrum. The first is reserved as a spectrum between the economic Left and the economic Right – partisans of public ownership and state planning at one end and fans of the freemarket and laissez- faire at the other. The second spectrum is about social and cultural issues. This would run from support for constraints on individual action (e.g. drug laws, immigration controls) through to opposition to such restrictions.
The intersection of the two spectrums creates the familiar ‘Political Compass‘ chart, which is divided into four quadrants – representing the socially conservative and socially liberal tendencies of the economic Left and economic Right. At first sight this would appear to solve our problem. We can put liberals in the bottom right quadrant and post-liberals diametrically opposite in the top left. No more occupying the same space. Meanwhile we can put conventional conservatives in the top-right quadrant and their ‘progressive’ opponents in the bottom-left. Nice and neat.
But there’s a further problem. In fact, several further problems.
The first problem is that mainstream parties of the centre-Right and centre-Left aren’t quite as distinct from one another as they would seem. Basically, they are all liberals on economic and social issues alike – meaning that what they’re mostly interested in is individual freedom of action in both spheres. The main thing they disagree about is to what extent the state should get involved in order to facilitate that freedom of action. In general (though not in every case) the liberal Left favours a bigger, more active state, while the liberal Right a smaller, less interfering one. For instance, the former emphasises redistribution to give the poor economic agency; while the latter emphasises the right of people to keep the fruits of their own enterprise.
This is not an insignificant difference in perspective; until recently it was the defining issue of politics. However, it boils down to an argument over means not ends – the ultimate and shared objective is the maximisation of personal autonomy.
The second problem is something I’ve written about in more detail here. It’s to do with the mismatch between where most people place themselves on the political compass and where the political and cultural elites place themselves. The latter are heavily biased to the bottom-right liberal quadrant – though the leftier ones spill over into the neighbouring progressive quadrant. In some countries, especially America, the conventional conservative quadrant also claims a corner of the establishment – think Fox News and the Republican National Convention.
Can we tame democracy's demons?
However, when the Voter Study Group asked the American public to place themselves on the chart, a very different distribution was revealed. There were a load of people in the progressive quadrant and unsurprisingly most of them voted for Hillary Clinton. There were another bunch of voters in the conservative quadrant – almost all of whom voted for Donald Trump. The liberal quadrant was mixed but there were very few people in it – and most of those tended towards the centre of the chart. But the real surprise was the much larger number of people in the fourth quadrant – those who were neither economically nor socially liberal. In 2016, Trump won significantly more of these votes than Clinton, which proved crucial in the swing states that won him the Presidency.
It is remarkable that such a large and important group of voters have no elite institutions to speak for them – no newspapers, no broadcasters, no think tanks, no mainstream political parties. It’s therefore unsurprising that in country after country we’ve seen populist movements sweep in to claim them for their own.
Which brings me to the third problem – which is that identifying post-liberalism with the fourth quadrant associates it with populism, especially national populism. Furthermore, by defining this quadrant against social and economic liberalism, the conclusion that some people will draw is that post-liberal is just a euphemism for anti-liberal. And yet to any fair-minded person it should be obvious that Blue Labourites such as Maurice Glasman and Red Tories like Phillip Blond are not of the same ilk as Donald Trump and Matteo Salvini.
What, then, separates post-liberalism from crude populism?
Let’s start with what liberalism means in this context. It is not mere support for individual liberty, because almost everyone (except those on the furthest fringes of politics) could sign up for that. Rather, liberalism is the belief that the maximisation of individual liberty is the main and perhaps only purpose of politics. It’s not that liberals don’t believe that other things are important in life, but that they see these things as matters for the individual, and free associations of individuals, not politics.
Post-liberals, like liberals, are pro-liberty; but unlike liberals they do not believe that the maximisation of personal freedom is the be-all-and-end-all of politics. Other things are important too – like family, community, nation, fairness and beauty – and therefore there are balances to be struck and conflicts to be resolved as an essential part of the democratic process. Post-liberals therefore believe that individuals have rights and duties. Moreover, duties aren’t just about obeying the law as a mechanism for arbitrating conflicts between individual freedoms; people also owe a duty to the common good, which can be defined and justified on grounds other than the maximisation of liberty.
For instance, we should defend free speech not only because it is an important freedom, but also because truth matters and people should be able to speak it (even if they don’t agree on what it is). Another example is environmentalism – the main reason why we should protect an endangered species is not because our children and grandchildren should have the opportunity to see it, or because it plays an important role in ecosystems we rely on, but simply because we have no right to destroy it. Consider animal welfare: the reason why we should punish cruelty to animals is not primarily because it upsets people, but because to inflict suffering on a sentient being is objectively evil.
There are very few absolute liberals. To varying extents, most accept the idea that duties exist alongside rights and that freedom, while precious, isn’t everything. However, post-liberals would go further – recognising a growing imbalance between the goal of furthering liberty and the other things on which a good society depends. Indeed, they diagnose it as the primary cause of our 21st-century malaise. ‘More balance!’, not ‘more freedom!’, is the post-liberal rallying cry.
Five reasons why populism isn't up to the job
Therefore, we need to re-draw the political compass – instead of economic and social spectrums that run from liberal to illiberal, they should run from ‘maximising liberty’ to ‘balancing liberty’. This pushes the worst of the populists – those with undeniably totalitarian, anti-democratic tendencies – right off the chart. However, that still leaves post-liberals sharing a quadrant with the less extreme kind of populist, which for reasons I describe here is far from ideal.
The solution is to add a third spectrum to the chart – one that clearly distinguishes post-liberalism from populism. To my mind, it should revolve around the principle of human dignity – which is the idea that every person, without exception, is of infinite worth and must be treated as such. It is, therefore, incompatible with collectivist ideas that instrumentalise the individual in service to some group identity; and also at odds with atomistic individualism – because we can only achieve our full personhood in relationship to others. Though of infinite worth, we are, in this life, finite in our capacities. As such, we cannot owe the same duty of care to all – and therefore owe more to those relationally closest to us, starting with our families and extending outward to community and nation.
However, what we can do without limit is to recognise and respect the dignity of all people, no matter how close or distant our relationship to them. There are no good reasons for not doing so – just the dark motivations of prejudice and the cynical politics of divide and rule. It is on this spectrum that post-liberalism can be distinguished from populism, lifted not only into another quadrant, but onto a higher plane.