What is… liberalism?

Sunday 29 October, 16:0017:15, Frobisher Auditorium 2Crisis of Political Language


In December last year, Adrian Pabst, a post-liberalism theorist, wrote: ‘After the vote for Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the US election, the liberal world lies in tatters as reactionaries rise.’ Certainly, liberalism seems in crisis. The election of Emmanuel Macron in France raised hopes that Western liberalism might be saved by a ‘liberal strongman’ who could challenge the ‘illiberal authoritarianism’ on the rise in the US, Russia and Turkey. But the joy at Macron’s victory has been short-lived as his popularity plummets and other trends point towards to a deeper malaise within liberalism.

In the UK, following an election fought between non-liberal wings of the two main parties, Lib Dem Tim Farron resigned claiming he was unable to reconcile his evangelical Christian beliefs with leading a liberal party. In the US, Democratic Party chairman Ben Ray Lujan sparked uproar for suggesting its liberal members should support illiberal anti-abortion candidates to win back voters.

Such instances indicate a profound confusion about what being a liberal means today. There are few words in the political dictionary that mean so many different things in different contexts. Traditionally, liberalism – inspired by Enlightenment thinkers from John Locke to JS Mill – referred to championing ‘negative liberty’ and privileging individual rights and personal autonomy over those of the state, challenging restrictions on economic, social and intellectual freedoms.  In the postwar era, liberalism became defined by differing stances on the role of the state. ‘Neo-liberals’ believed the state has a role in protecting markets against state power. Social liberals, exemplified by William Beveridge’s vision of the welfare state, tended to believe that the state has a role in protecting vulnerable individuals from the vagaries and power of the market.

These differing strands of liberalism nonetheless made a virtue of taking a broadly tolerant approach to matters of belief and conscience, in opposition to conservatism. There have been tensions, but over the past 40 years, politics across the West has witnessed the victory of the ‘twin’ liberalisms. On the one hand, economic liberalism appeared to have triumphed, especially in the Eighties when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher dominated Western politics. Sometimes at odds with such free-market ideas, the Sixties liberal-left largely won the social/cultural argument.

Those freedom fighters of the Sixties overthrew many of the shackles of conformity, including the partial decriminalisation of both homosexuality and abortion in 1967, leading to a society associated with being open, tolerant and permissive. But today’s so-called progressive ‘liberals’ are often intolerant of other points of view, frequently leading calls for official censure against ‘non-progressive’ views on topics such as LGBT rights, feminism, climate change and immigration. Many economic liberals, meanwhile, appear to define themselves in opposition to progressives on social issues and move more towards libertarianism as a loosely-defined label. Yet economic liberalism seems to be increasingly out of favour, associated with job-exporting trade deals, free movement and the deregulation of finance which, it is argued, have resulted in economic hardship for many.

Meanwhile, socio-cultural liberalism, with its belief in universal rights and the meaninglessness of difference, has not been able to withstand the challenge of everything from postmodernism to identity politics and, more recently, militant Islamism, liberal society’s avowed and violent enemy.

Why has liberalism, the dominant ideology of Western nations until only a few years ago, fallen into such malaise? Does it reflect a growing disenchantment with economically liberal ideas, or with the concept of liberalism itself? Are the culture wars a battle within liberalism or against it? Is liberalism predominantly a laissez faire approach to contemporary political and social currents or an active ideology of freedom? What does it mean to be a liberal in the twenty-first century?

This debate is part of the Time to Talk series ‘Understanding the Populist Turn: the Ex-Debates’, supported by The Open Society Initiative for Europe