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Is the Age of Liberalism over?

Our contributors reflect on 150 years since the death of J.S. Mill

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May 1, 2023

In this oppressive era of hushed voices, furtive glances and underground resistance, it is little wonder that John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty has become an inspiration and a recourse for a new generation. Since its publication in 1859, Mill’s brief on behalf of liberty of speech, opinion, expression and action has become a rallying philosophy for those experiencing conditions of constraint, limitation, and oppression — whether political, social, religious, academic or interpersonal. A century and a half after his death, Mill’s argument on behalf of an “atmosphere of freedom”, limited only when words or actions result in harm, is the governing philosophy of the liberal order.

Yet while Mill’s text was written as a defence of the requisite conditions for a liberal society, today it is self-described conservatives who are most likely to invoke its arguments. If it was the free-thinkers in the Victorian era who were likely to be “canceled” by religious traditionalists — the source of most immediate concern for Mill — today the situation is the opposite. Conservatives and “classical liberals” of various stripes today regularly invoke Mill as a refutation against the oppressiveness of the progressives. One of America’s more prominent religious conservatives, the Catholic legal theorist Robert George of Princeton University, has become among the most prominent of Millian free speech defenders. “[We should] go back to John Stuart Mill,” he characteristically suggested last year. “Having legal protection for free, robust discourse in place is one thing, and it’s a very important thing, and it’s, as I say, a necessary thing, but it’s not sufficient. In addition to those legal norms protecting free speech, we need to build a culture of free speech.”


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However, it is far from clear that Mill would be pleased by these new admirers of his work. Indeed, there’s good reason to believe Mill would be deeply gratified by the new progressive hegemony his arguments have produced. Mill’s case on behalf of liberty was not, as today’s conservatives and libertarians mistakenly believe, an argument for freedom of expression as an end in itself, but rather, a means toward a further end: regime change. The regime he hoped to overturn was the custom-bound society of Victorian England, as well as the traditional civilisation of the West more broadly, particularly its classical and Christian inheritance. The regime he hoped to usher in was none other than the progressivism that now dominates the major institutions of the West.

Throughout his text, Mill is clear that liberty is a means of displacing what he called “the despotism of custom”. Robert George is correct that Mill’s concern was less the narrowly legal defence of free speech, expression and action, and more a worry about the spectre of social conformity. Mill begins his text by arguing that an earlier generation of philosophers and political actors had secured formal liberalism — limited government and political representation of the demos. He observed that formal liberty was ultimately useless in a society that remained bound by traditional opinion — the social “tyranny of the majority”. His aim, then, was to secure the social conditions of liberty, aligning an increasingly liberal political order with what were less liberal civic, social and private domains.

Social conformity for Mill took a particular form: the untoward social dominance of the many over a small minority of people who were marked by distinctive features of “individuality”. The oppression he decried percolated from the bottom-up, an informal but nevertheless pervasive way of life that was reflected in society’s customary practices. In Mill’s Victorian era, such customs included what might still be categorised as “manners and morals”, regulating informally but powerfully everything from dress to forms of address, table manners to social comportment, expectations of church attendance to avoidance of visible vices. Of course, it also involved social conformity to traditional sexual roles and behaviour, distinguishing between men and women, exerting strong pressure toward marriage, and dispersing the norm that marriage was the necessary institution in which children were born and sheltered, provided for by the man and typically raised primarily by the mother. This web of social expectations constituted a form of “despotism”, and for Mill, its source and most powerful enforcer was everyday people. His philosophy was an argument of how to liberate the unique, inventive, free-thinking few from the oppression of the herd-like, tradition-bound, narrow and unadventurous many. Liberty was the means of moving the social order from one that was conservative to one that was liberationist.

Indeed, Mill is clear that what he seeks is a society that is progressive. Customary societies — the “greater part of the world,” in fact — have “no history”. Here, Mill meant not that nothing happens in such societies, but that in tradition-bound settings, the future extensively resembles the past. By “history”, Mill means progress: a society of constant change, disruption, and transformation. For Mill, humans do not have a fixed nature, but rather are defined for the capacity to change and transform in unexpected and unpredictable ways. Humans are, he states, “progressive beings”, but their capacity to realise their potential for transformation can only be developed in progressive — and not customary — societies.

For Mill, progress only occurs when the distinctive genius, originality and adventurousness — the “individuality” — of rare individuals is liberated from the oppressiveness of the masses. In traditional societies, such unique individuals are thwarted from engaging in “experiments in living”. It is not sufficient to have formal rights to liberty, including free speech and freedom of expression: because of the “despotism of custom”, and the growing political influence of ordinary people, such individuals will need both active political protection from the masses, and, better yet, eventually enjoy political control.

So he wrote: “There needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them” [emphasis mine]. Mill recognised that ever-more democratic societies would likely be not just socially dominated, but politically dominated, by the backward views of ordinary people. The main project of On Liberty, as well as his work Considerations of Representative Government, is how to secure, in the first instance, the political dominance of the progressive element of society, and thus ensure that the traditionalism of the social order first be restrained, subsequently sequestered, and ultimately transformed in a more progressive direction.

The great obstacle to the emergence of a progressive elite was the pervasiveness of ordinary opinion — the “conservatives” for which Mill had such withering disdain. Mill had nothing but contempt for the backwardness of ordinary people, a view that to this day remains a hallmark of self-described “progressives”. Society, he bemoaned, was governed by the “mediocrity” and “low state of the human mind” of the “masses”. He hoped that a small group of “eccentrics” would arise and, perhaps by persuasion of the “more highly gifted and instructed One or Few”, would exercise authority over the masses.

Yet, as a potential backstop to the difficulty of persuading such a mediocre mass, he also commended a system of plural voting in which those with higher attainments of education would be given more votes. Of less importance than the mechanism of progressive dominance was that there be some means of avoiding their being politically swamped by the masses — what can be done today, for instance, by media control and dominance of the education, suffices for what Mill hoped plural voting might achieve. Above all, the demos must be prevented from thwarting progress.

In place of the despotism of custom, Mill proposed the despotism of progress. Only when we understand that, for Mill, liberty is a means to progress, and not a good in itself, can we grasp some of the more seemingly jarring arguments contained in On Liberty. At the very opening of his text, Mill acknowledges that his argument for extensive liberty is meant only for societies that are already shifting in a progressive direction, such as England or the United States. Most nations, as he later acknowledges, “have no history” — in other words, they are not yet on a path of progress, and thus are not yet suited for liberty.

In such cases, he writes on the sixth page of a text titled On Liberty, “despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided their end be improvement, and the means justified by effecting that end”. These words are often excused by Mill’s partisans as the time-bound prejudices of a man shaped by his years working for the East India Company — and doubtless, they reflect a widespread sentiment. But they were, and remain today, a view endemic to a progressive mindset, particularly among those who believe themselves to be more progressed, and therefore entitled, to govern despotically over those who are deemed deplorable.

On Liberty, then, is shrewdly mistitled. Had Mill wanted to highlight its more fundamental theme, it would rather have been titled On Progress. Liberty was never its main object; rather, liberty was the mechanism that would transform a traditional, bottom-up social order into a top-down progressive liberal regime. His text sought to align the extant liberal political order, based in theories of radical individual autonomy, with a yet-unrealised progressive social order dominated by those at liberty to engage in ever-more radical “experiments in living”.

Mill stated that the liberty of a progressive society constitutes a temporary, intermediary condition. “As mankind improve[s]” — that is, as we progress, and become more “progressive” — “the number of doctrines which are no longer disputed or doubted will be constantly on the increase: and the well-being of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of truths which have reached the point of being uncontested.” Those who believe that the homogeneity of viewpoint in modern institutions such as universities constitutes a betrayal of Millian principles have not been reading their Mill.

For he is no ally of today’s so-called “conservatives”, who look to him for assistance in securing minuscule platforms in an otherwise dominant progressive academy or wider progressive social and political order. What they fail to understand is that the academy, as well as society as a whole, has been transformed in perfect conformity to Millian ambitions: institutions dominated by progressive elites who impose their social radicalism upon the rest of society. The charges that such “liberals” are hypocrites for failing to live up to the ideals of the university, or that they are “illiberal”, are therefore non-starters — progressive dominance is, in fact, the realisation of exactly the vision for society first articulated by Mill. Today’s “conservatives” pick up On Liberty and believe they are holding a shield against progressive despotism, but what they have found is a sword that progressives no longer need and now have readily discarded.

Rather than look to Mill, those seeking to resist today’s progressive totalitarianism should, as Orwell recommended, “look to the proles”. Just as Mill effected a “regime change”, we should look to do the same by aligning ourselves with the instinctive traditionalism of the demos that Mill deplored. In either regime, some theoretical condition of “true liberty” is purely fictional and not an aim requisite for a flourishing society. We will either have today’s “despotism of progress” or the “restoration of good custom”. In the hopes of encouraging the latter, it is time for a revolution against the revolution.