10 November 2016

Liberalism isn't the problem, progressivism is

Liberals and liberalism are being given a hard time in the wake of Donald Trump's victory and Britain's Leave vote in the EU referendum. But is it really liberalism and the liberal outlook which is at stake here and which really stands accused? I am not so sure.

Largely, this is about the way words, terms and labels mean different things to different people and get mixed up in interpretation. On the most basic level, the term 'liberal' means something very different in common American parlance from what it does in the classical British or European sense - complicated by how the American version has worked its way into our consciousness and practice on this side of the pond.

In America, being 'liberal' is largely interchangeable with being 'progressive', which is an historical term that aligns us with a version of historical progress, so that our politics are part of a general progression of life from not-so-good to a lot better. That seems fine and good, except that it claims knowledge of this progression. There is a form of absolute knowledge at work here, since it assumes we know where we've come from, where we are, and where we're going - and that where we're going is a good thing. Anyone who gets in the way of this progression is therefore ignorant, irrational and going against history and all that is right in the world. Their wrongness is not a simple judgement call, but an absolute judgement, based on knowledge - of the 'facts', 'the evidence' or 'expert opinion' you might say.

This way of thinking and being is antagonistic to classical liberal conceptions of freedom and tolerance and scepticism. After all, why should we allow people to speak and act in ways that obstruct the rational and righteous progression of history? If we know, fundamentally, surely they must be stopped and prevented? Tolerance stops here, for to tolerate wrongness like this would mean tolerating the intolerable. Freedom stops here, since having wrong opinions is obstructing the freedom of people to live in that better world we know is coming.

This way of thinking is endemic in our public life and has been for some time. One of Stalin's monikers was 'Leader of Progressive Mankind', but seemingly everyone in the mainstream of politics is progressive nowadays. The way our elites talk about free markets, economic growth and globalisation is steeped in the language of progress - though there is never any utopia over the horizon as there was in the original Marxist version. It's just the habit we are in and that almost all our institutions are integrated into.

In musing upon such things, the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott said back in the day that, "What may now be meant by the word 'liberal' is anyone's guess."

He saw so-called liberals enforcing a world - their world - upon the rest of the world through forms of rationalism that claimed to know and know best. Nothing much has changed in that respect.

Liberalism certainly has its problems and issues, not least how it can be led astray like this. But I tend to prefer the version expressed by the philosopher Bertrand Russell here:

“The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.”

Needless to say, Russell's conception is a world away from the liberalism that people are defending and attacking in the wake of Brexit and Trump's victory. Being liberal is not about holding back from dogmatism now, it is about being dogmatic - and attacking those who do not share the same dogmatism. It is not about being cautious with knowledge, it is about claiming absolute knowledge of the state we've come from, the state we're in and the state that will come. In this sense, liberalism has become its opposite.

Certainly, liberalism in its classical sense is much too limited to provide us with absolute guidance about what we should do in our personal lives or in political life - and neither should we expect it to. But it should at least guide us towards avoiding absolutism, towards respecting the views of others who disagree with us, towards tolerance and understanding the limits of our own understanding - towards humility.

That is why I still count myself as a liberal and as someone of the liberal-left. I am liberal as well as of the left. This may be a very different liberal-left to the form that has been dominant in our public life and that is now getting a kicking, but I won't be giving up this version of liberalism any time soon.

Phantasy Quintet by Ralph Vaughan Williams

2 November 2016

On post-referendum regret

I was a Leave voter, and I won. However, since that heady early morning of 24rd June when David Dimbleby announced that Britain was leaving the European Union, reality has dawned.

The £ has fallen sharply; bankers and business groups have despaired and threatened to leave the country; there has been a massive jump in ‘hate crime’; the world and especially our former European partners are horrified at us for having chosen isolation and xenophobia over openness and tolerance. Now we are stuck here with all this uncertainty, not knowing what that ugly word ‘Brexit’ means, while our government is clearly clueless and doesn’t know what it’s doing.

It’s a new dawn, a new day – and the new reality we’re living in certainly isn’t comfortable or pleasant.

That’s the story anyway.

Some of it is true. The new reality does come with discomforts and difficulties, and the fractious nature of our politics on the subject of Brexit is pretty unpleasant. But the idea constantly pressed by ardent Remainers in the newspapers and TV and radio studios, that I didn’t know what I was voting for, is entirely bogus. I voted for change, knowing full well that with change comes uncertainty. That’s the whole point of it. Deciding to do things differently comes with difficulties; change requires people to put some work in – to make it work.

This is what happens sometimes in a democracy. The voters – the people – decide that they want to go on a new course. It happened in 1945 when the people of Britain decided the old elites who had run the war had to go, despite Churchill’s role in winning it; it happened in 1997 when we chose to put an end to 18 years of Conservative government and give the fresh-faced and optimistic Tony Blair a go.

The election of these Labour governments brought uncertainty. ‘The markets’ were nervous, even in 1997 after a prolonged charm offensive towards the City and business community by Blair and New Labour. But now Labour is standing against political change that brings uncertainty like this. Even with the far left now running the party under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour spokespeople have been enthusiastically repeating and recycling British Bankers’ Association propaganda demanding that the big banks get their way so that Brexit barely happens, if at all.

What we have at the moment is a mainstream left (or ‘liberal-left’) that is almost wholly lined up behind the status quo in terms of the fundamentals of how our society operates – despite Corbyn, and however much it talks about change. I think this is partly a function of Labour having been in power for so long (from 1997 to 2010), that it has developed a whiff of entitlement around it that remains even after losing two successive elections. Labour MPs are not an impressive bunch for the most part, but they talk as if them being in power is almost a right, that they deserve it whether or not the people think they deserve it. There is a lack of respect for the voter here which I think comes out again and again in the way that Labour MPs and their allies talked about the referendum vote before it happened and continue to do so now. Alan Johnson is a lovely chap, but when he said as chair of the Labour In campaign that “we are the reasonable people” and “I think in the leave side they are the extremists on this,” he was reflecting a more general view that ‘staying in Europe’ was right in an absolute sense rather than just a political decision reached by weighing up the pros and cons.

In a similar vein, it seems to me no coincidence that Labour people are now lining up to echo the lines of bankers and big business groups, since their aims and approach are broadly the same in seeking to defend the status quo but also in assuming that they are right in an absolute sense and have a right to dictate what happens, even if that means going against the democratic will.

This isn’t wholly about Labour though. Nick Clegg and Tim Farron for the Liberal Democrats and some Tories have been repeating the same lines. There is a broader elite, Establishment entitlement thing going on here, encompassing most of public administration, the media and civil society – where it is no exaggeration to say that the decision to Leave is not seen in a positive light for the most part, despite (and indeed perhaps partly because of) the majority that chose it. They claim they have ‘facts’, ‘evidence’ and ‘expertise’ on their side, and this is true in the sense that elites and Establishments control the dissemination of facts and evidence; they are the experts, they have the existing authority. If you control dissemination of information (for example through government, the media and academia), you can choose which facts to bring to light and which to suppress. You can generate data to serve your own ends (as with the largely fabricated ‘hate crime’ epidemic); you can make predictions for the future and claim the authority of fact for them (which is a contradiction in terms, for facts by definition have happened already).

Ardent Remainers are using all the considerable Establishment power at their disposal to attack the EU referendum result from every conceivable angle, trying to undermine the morale and confidence of people in leaving the EU with view to preventing it from happening or minimising change. Of course, an awful lot of this is down to support for continuing and indefinite mass immigration, which has been major point of crossover between big business interests and the political left since the early years of New Labour.

What free movement and high immigration in general does is maintain a kind of inverse form of job exporting or outsourcing. Whereas in the conventional form, exporting jobs means moving production facilities to other countries where productivity can be higher, mass immigration has opened up the prospect for domestic-focused businesses to do the same sort of thing, but by importing people, and thereby allowing jobs to go to the people of elsewhere but not elsewhere itself.

Along these lines it has become quite clear from the continuing EU referendum debate that one of the biggest attractions for employers in the British economy is that they don’t have to employ British people. We should understand and respect this for the most part from a purely business-related point of view or even just a basic choice point of view. They are making decisions which they think are best for their businesses. But what good does it do to Britons who are passed over and rejected and who find their terms and conditions attacked while also being priced out of housing? In a democracy, as a political left, aren’t these the people (citizens) that we should be looking out for first and foremost? Can we not see a loss of morale in these people? Yet the left in its now-customary technocratic stance repeatedly pulls away from such things to the comforts of the abstract ‘economy’ and what levers can be pulled to make ‘it’ function better, preferring the ‘it’ to the ‘us’.

On 23rd June, I voted for ‘us’ to start having more control over ‘it’, and also over ‘them’ - the people that were managing ‘it’ and continue to do so. I voted against the people who enjoy deriding me and my fellow Leave voters as ignorant, bigoted idiots who shouldn’t be allowed a vote and will hopefully die off so we can get back into the EU. The more they shout and insult and deride, the more my resolution builds. Je ne regrette rien.

On the EU referendum, this article explains my decision to vote Leave while this is a speech made at the London School of Economics proposing the motion ‘This House Believes We Should Leave the European Union’.