Let’s end Totalitarian Liberalism
I want to show something of the workings of the soft-left, green, anti-Tory, ‘progressive’, Woke ideals which have coalesced to enfeeble so many of the brightest and best adults of our day. They have unconsciously but comprehensively embraced Kindergarten Liberalism, Smug Liberalism, Snobbish Liberalism, and Bossy – even Totalitarian – Liberalism. I mourn how so many nice, intelligent people have allowed their minds and hearts to be hijacked to the point where they can’t see the merit in the Rigorous Liberalism which could make them useful to our polity.
So let’s get sorting
Bossy Liberalism has been around from the 19th Century boom in the idea of liberalism and its champion JS Mill. 1Footnote: JS Mill is redeemed by being conflicted. See his entry at: https://plato.stanford.edu/index.html. It assumed, first, that a new progressive right-thinking elite (pure of heart, strong of brain, free of superstition) knew best what is good for everyone else. And, second, the rest of society needed to be educated into the new definition of decency. The first proposition created what we now know as The Blob. The second degenerated into something very like the gas-lighting mind control that Orwell attributed to Big Brother. 2Footnote: Roger Scruton and Maurice Cowling are especially sharp on the foundational bossiness of 19th Century liberalism.
The fatal weakness in 19th Century Bossy Liberalism is that it asserted that it could bring idealism to the heart of individual and political behaviour. It presumed to know what was ‘good’ and ‘right’, and if society didn’t produce them, the state must. But the humanist liberalism which went back to Erasmus and More and beyond cannot readily be prescriptive. It exists to value and hold the ring for the diversity of what people don’t agree about, not to ordain orthodoxies and policies they can be bullied or conned into adhering to.
The early 20th Century saw the Bloomsberries and the artistic bohemians boost the sense of liberal superiority which had been around for several decades before them. This was the self-congratulatory Snobbish Liberalism whose sense of moral perfection would morph into Wokery in our time. The liberationism and post-modernism of the 1960s gave Bossy Liberalism even more heft, and locked-in a leftish bent. Liberationist ‘critical theory’ held hands with the cult of Foucault and others in a bizarre weave which supposed that everyone on the planet had for centuries been the victim of hegemonic narratives spun by the white, educated, male patriarchy. 3Footnote: It was of course moot how the elite standard-bearers of postmodern relativism had somehow escaped their own curse and could see and speak clearly.
In the past 20 years we see that Bossy and Snobbish Liberalism’s old disdain for the unschooled has been revved-up by the weaponized vulnerability of Wokery which has taken aspects of impoverished liberalisms and made them compulsory markers of the Chosen. 4Footnote: Wokery is often assumed to be closely allied to identity (identitarian) campaigning, and perhaps that’s right. But Wokery goes far wider and deeper than the trans-gender self-identification movement with which it is often tagged. It is the tyranny of the weak morphing into a movement of persons who insist that society must kowtow to any of their self-identified and probably imaginary fallibilities, which in their eyes mark them as especially enlightened. These Wokes dismiss all opposition from their own minds, and preferably from their firms, state entities, schools, colleges and universities, as threatening to their mental health. Thus, assertive Bossy and Snobbish Liberalism has spawned puritan Woke – or truly Totalitarian – Liberalism. The most bizarre feature of this process is that it is blind to the perfectly normal liberal view that pluralism is the creed’s watchword. Mind you, this totalitarian awfulness is an advance on liberalism’s historic capacity for morphing into violent revolution, as noticed by Isaiah Berlin in a slew of mid-20th Century books.
One other old and generally decent strand of liberalism has recently become more pronounced as doctrine. Liberals have often thought themselves to be humanist because they are humane. They have believed themselves to be nice people who prioritise fairness and kindness, in tune with Sunday School teaching or the progressive approach to resolving infant spats. In our time, this Kindergarten Liberalism has become the mushy core which has induced infantilised adults to cheer on ambitions for an equal society, open door immigration, and the ‘positive’ child-rearing whose effects most of their casual or even committed exponents would loathe if they became the order of the day. Kindergarten Liberalism is hypocritical as well as dysfunctional.
Modern Bossy, Snobbish, Kindergarten or Woke Liberals are all traitors to real liberalism. The Brexit Wars showed them at their worst. The liberal Remainers and Remoaners seemed incapable of spotting that Brexiteers might be decent, even if they were also perhaps misguided. Thinking themselves to be incapable of prejudice, the liberal Remain tendency even now hug to themselves convenient shibboleths such as that White Van Man is next door to a fascist; that continental Europe has united to produce a sounder polity and supreme court than the UK ever has or could; that a Brexited Britain will fail economically.
Snobbish Liberals are infuriating not least because they have a horror of being condemned as fascist or stupid if they display any sympathies which might be taken as right of centre. 5Footnote: Suella Braverman’s speeches in New York and Manchester in October 2023 were revealing because they mostly seemed to be stating the obvious and were widely accepted as ordinarily reasonable. The speeches were not driven by progressive liberalism, but were decently pragmatic expressions of the limits to a nation state’s generosity. The Snobs fear being tainted by association. With echoes of Mill’s ‘stupid party’ arguments, the witty Giles Coren has said that he voted Remain because ‘all Fascists voted for Brexit’ and ‘I can’t be amongst the Fascists’. 6Footnote: Times Radio, 27/9/23, 0915 am. The small force of his argument altogether collapses if we judge – I am of course guessing – that Fascists were a small component of the Brexit vote. A harder case might be: even a Fascist might be importantly right about some things.
We should be alert to two related tendencies. Firstly, self-identifying, thrusting, affluent liberals should feel acute cognitive dissonance when they live selfishly but affect a code of kindness. They are actually displaying what one might call Cognitive Consonance. They allow no reality to complicate their fantasy. Secondly, and next door to this tendency: as noted below by Danny Finkelstein, even amongst self-identifying moderates and liberals, there is a one-track mindedness which discards or disdains evidence it dislikes but which hoovers up any passing scrap of anecdote or statistical nugget or academic nostrum which can be used to bolster their preconceived argument of comfort and convenience.
The dangers of anti-Toryism
The most dangerous characteristic of Bossy, Snobbish, Kindergarten or Woke Liberals is that they hate, and more particularly, disdain, the Tories. They believe the old dictum that Conservatives constitute JS Mill’s ‘The Stupid Party’ and the newer one from Theresa May that they are ‘the Nasty Party’. 7Footnote: JS Mill conditioned his ‘stupid party’ description of the Tories by saying he didn’t primarily mean that its policies or politicians were stupid but that its supporters and voters were. It has a very close read-across to Giles Coren’s views. See: https://victorianweb.org/philosophy/mill/conservatives.html
Thus, right-of-centre politics loses the chance to be energized by many of the brightest, most experienced, most ambitious adults around. The oscillation between the Conservative and Labour parties becomes especially dispiriting if we see that the right is fielding a team which lacks the most interesting of its potential thinkers and activists.
Liberalism and the Right
The best of liberalism is historic humanism in action, reveling in the freedom of thought which derived from the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. 8Footnote: The Enlightenment’s reading of ‘man is the measure of man’ spawned Romanticism, which took the risk of privileging hysteria. We also have to remember that Romanticism privileged freedom of feeling. It opened the door to the feeble idea that a person’s ‘feeling’ something to be true was tantamount to its being true. Liberalism’s core is to respect the individual and to glory in diversity of opinion. (JS MIll was right to say that only the collision of different arguments gets us anywhere near to the truth of matters.) This core juggling of individualism and diversity makes liberalism rightly reluctant to allow society to limit an individual’s ambition. For instance, it finds it hard to excoriate either financial greed or the urge to campaign for levelling-up. So liberalism is a personally painful and disruptive business whether one tends to the Left or Right. In Bossy, Snobbish and Kindergarten Liberalism, and still more in Woke Liberalism, we see these humanist ideals thrown over.
An adult liberalism is available. Rigorous Liberalism admits – even insists – that liberty is observably dependent on order. What’s more, it sees that the maintenance of order requires force, whose legitimacy depends on a responsive polity, which requires an informed, powerful public. A person cannot claim to be building a liberal society whilst opting out of politics, or tolerating without complaint its enfeeblement. There is more hard news. From child-rearing to penology or welfare provision, Rigorous Liberalism can make a good case that tough love is a decent goal. Or rather, perhaps: societies, parents, teachers – everyone with any authority – have sometimes to be cruel to be kind. That’s why we need scrupulous elites at every level of society. And there is the worse thought: a person or a polity will inevitably act selfishly as well as generously. Core liberalism much more asserts the need for argument in these matters than it prescribes pre-determined solutions.
Roughly speaking, the conservative has always felt that pragmatism – what works – must be a part of the business of balancing a society’s various idealisms and its voting habits. The Conservative Party exists to assert realism with decency. In practice, the party would have little meaning if it were not a serious alternative to the creeping statism of the Left. That was a tough message when the Conservatives occasionally propounded it in the first half of the 20th Century. By the second half, it had become a heresy. It requires, as Mrs Thatcher was hated for saying, that we understand that a good society is based on strong individuals, not on a hyperactive state.
But Mrs Thatcher’s government barely shifted the dial on the British taste for a Father Christmas state (as Keith Joseph characterised it). It is anyone’s guess what can happen now. Neither Labour nor Conservative has identified a modern way to be classless and aspirational. Neither sees electoral advantage in weakening the socialism at the heart of state provision of many public goods. Neither is confident that capitalism and other voluntary social movements can develop sufficiently to replace an over-mighty, socialist state.
My contention is that absent the public participation and even activism of open-minded ambitious Rigorous Liberals of constructively diverse types, our culture, polity, and economy will be far less vibrant and effective than they should be after so many decades of affluence and compulsory education. Indeed, I regard our elites has having failed morally as well as intellectually.
It seems clear that Bossy, Snobbish, Kindergarten and Woke Liberals contain amongst their number precisely the type of person who is needed to energise both Left and Right. Unfortunately, many of them affect such hatred for the right that they default without enthusiasm to the left, but as Virtue Signal voters more than as committed reformers.
Britain has always led the world in spotting the next revolution which might be necessary and very unpleasant. It has made pragmatic adjustments and let other countries have full-blooded chaos in the name of doctrinal purity or sloganising. I don’t really believe that Britain is now in a mess, or making a mess of modernity. As usual, we look like we’re in a muddle but are probably half out of it already.
I don’t believe that this little essay will change or advance anything very much. My main hope is that it may seem like a useful analysis of phenomena which will in retrospect be seen as a passing fashion.
I have recently heard three people who seem to be breaking ranks with their ‘own people’ and that’s surely a sign of progress to come.
Danny Finkelstein noted on Times Radio [12/9/23, 0920 am] that he found it distressing that many of his fellow moderate liberal-minded Remainers or Remoaners had largely abandoned the historic liberal taste for well-considered evidence. They prefer to grasp at any passing snippet of news which happens to be convenient to their case of dissing Brexit.
Ashley Frawley, an academic in the social sciences, recently pointed out on Times Radio that several colleagues of hers in various universities had reported to her that they felt under pressure to toe Critical Theory doctrinal lines.
Frawley’s generation of academics need to break cover. They ought to apply the usual academic taste for revisionism and in that way beat away at the thickets of comfort zone orthodoxy which are our modern trahison des clercs. Her new book promises to address these themes head-on. I look forward to her Significant Emotions: Rhetoric and Social Problems in a Vulnerable Age, November 2023, Bloomsbury.
Hadley Freeman, an erstwhile Guardian journalist of influence, has been writing recently in the ‘right-wing’ media and speaks of the powerful group-think of the leftish liberals. But as usefully, she has outed herself as a modern mother who senses that she ought to learn to curb her protectiveness toward her children. She has been developing an argument that children have to be allowed to learn how failure is the sure adjunct of aspiration. ‘The easiest way to fail a child? Never let them fail’, The Sunday Times, 27 August, 2023. And: ‘The Prize for being a good parent is hatred’, The Sunday Times, 7 January, 2023