Thirty years ago, few people could have predicted that liberalism would be in crisis a few decades later. Populist post-modern conservatives on the political right and democratic socialists on the left have all chipped away at the consensus that was supposed to dominate at the “end of history.” Russian President Vladimir Putin recently declared that liberalism was “obsolete.” This echoes the 2014 claims of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban that he was attempting to build an “illiberal democracy,” a model that has since been championed by demagogues in Poland, Italy and elsewhere.
Into this fray have stepped a huge number of diagnosticians, attempting to explain how a doctrine that once seemed the possible one has come under such strain. Academic commentators and pundits are musing about “why liberalism failed.” But its defenders have not gone quietly into the dark night: there have also been a number of books and articles discussing how to uphold or rejuvenate the liberal tradition. Of course, to do so we need to understand what it means to be a liberal, beyond just someone mocked regularly on Fox News. Edmund Fawcett’s book is far and away the best work in this genre. Fawcett was a long-term correspondent at the Economist and his book, Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, is a magisterial history of the doctrine. Fawcett doesn’t just summarize liberalism. He defends it against detractors. The book concludes that, while liberalism faces serious challenges, there is still plenty of gas left in the tank.
What Distinguishes Liberalism?
Fawcett is a journalist, rather than an academic, and it frequently shows. Academic commentaries on liberalism tend to focus on specific aspects of the doctrine, depending on the researcher’s area of specialization. Political theorists like Patrick Deneen tend to read the history of liberalism as a chronicle of (bad) ideas, as presented in the work of major philosophers. Economists like Milton Friedman tend to focus on the emergence of capitalist practices and markets, emphasizing the importance of liberty to engage in free trade and even migration across the globe. And, of course, politicians and pundits emphasize the importance of great and controversial liberal leaders and activists, from Abraham Lincoln to Jawaharlal Nehru. Fawcett’s book aspires to be far more comprehensive than any of these accounts: he looks at everything from the theoretical ideas of great philosophers and political economists to the tactical maneuverings of figures like Lloyd George and Lyndon Johnson. Fawcett is also notably generous in his efforts to interpret liberalism as a big tent, with room for many different positions. For Fawcett, free marketers like F. A. Hayek and social democrats like Willy Brandt, quasi-communists like Jean Paul Sartre and libertarians like Herbert Spencer all belong in the liberal family. Even if on occasion these figures emphatically wanted a divorce.
Liberalism: The Life of An Idea argues that the doctrine really got its start early in the nineteenth century, in the agitation of revolutionaries like Benjamin Constant and the expressivist humanism of Wilhelm von Humboldt. Fawcett admits that there were important pre-liberal thinkers and politicians, but argues that it is only around this time that liberalism really gained power as a social phenomena. While earlier figures like Kant and Adam Smith might have spied what was on the horizon, it isn’t until the nineteenth century that one sees the real advent of liberal political movements and dynamic capitalist change. Liberalism had arrived as a force to be reckoned with, both adapting to and driving a dynamic society, which was constantly engaged in self-transformation. The dynamism of this time period also stamped liberalism with many of its distinctive features. It also helped distinguish liberalism from its major intellectual competitors on the political left and right.
Fawcett’s book is about liberalism, so neither of these two competitors receives nearly as much attention. Nonetheless, it may be helpful to look at how Fawcett characterizes them, in order to better understand what makes liberalism different from either. Interestingly, Fawcett argues that the political right and left have more in common than might be expected—though whether this indicates genuine ideological overlap or is simply the product of their responses to liberalism is left mostly unexamined. Both socialists and conservatives dream of a day when politics will finally end, though for quite different reasons. Socialists long for the emergence of a classless society, where all will be treated as moral equals and human potential will finally be fully unleashed. Socialism and liberalism share a faith in human progress, but socialism is more utopian in its belief that this progress can only be realized in an idealized socialist society. In this context, politics itself will take on a new form: some radical leftists, like Marx, even insist that the state will “wither away,” as the need for it disappears. Anything less would be both unjust and deficient. Fawcett argues that liberals dispute this utopian belief, insisting instead that there can be no perfect society. As such, there will always be the need for a liberal politics of negotiation, compromise and trade-offs.
Conservatives also hope for a world without politics, but in a different manner. Conservatives believe that the inherent flaws in most individuals mean that progress is unlikely to occur, or at best it will be highly incremental. This means that not everyone should play a role in politics, since they are neither intellectually nor morally equipped to do so. Instead, faith should be placed in relatively static hierarchies, which individuals respect, often for practical and affective reasons.
For Fawcett, liberalism differs from these competitors in its insistence that politics can never end because change is a constant. It cannot be overcome through establishing some utopian socialist end-state, nor through irrationally appealing to faith in traditionalist hierarchies. This does not mean that liberals agree on the kind of changes one should agitate for. Much of Liberalism: The Life of An Idea is taken up with showing how much disagreement there has been amongst liberals on crucial questions—including the association of liberalism with democracy. Fawcett points out that, throughout the nineteenth century, many liberals remained highly skeptical that granting the mostly uneducated or apathetic masses a say in politics was a good idea. Even proponents of representative government like J. S. Mill argued that the better educated should be granted more votes than the common man. This hesitancy has carried through the present day: right-wing liberals like F. A. Hayek and libertarians like Jason Brennan argue for epistocratic (rule by the knowledgeable) checks on the democratic will. Another of the key questions liberals split on was the economic role the state should play in people’s lives. Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher and others insisted that the job of the state was simply to secure conditions for the market to flourish. It had no business redistributing wealth to help society’s “losers”—Fawcett’s term. Left-wing liberals, like Keynes, Rawls and Lyndon Johnson, disagreed. The state had a responsibility to look after the least well off: failure to do so was both unfair and risked generating considerable political instability. These are big questions that have persisted to the present day.
Fawcett insists that these differences can all be accommodated within a liberal framework and disposition. This is because the “four guiding ideas” of liberalism are relatively broad and not constrained by specific answers to questions concerning democracy, economic redistribution and so on. Here I will briefly summarize these four ideas. First, to be a liberal means to be guided by a belief that conflict in society is inevitable. This means that it must be managed, and differences in opinion tolerated, rather than overcome wholesale—as both the far left and right wish. Second, human power is implacable. There will always be those who seek to dominate over others, and they need to be continuously resisted and checked. Third, liberals believe that well formulated policies and a reasonably just society will enable history to progress and gradually soften conflicts and the desire for power. Education and an emphasis on reason are therefore very important for liberals. Finally, liberals believe that political power must be checked so as not to mistreat and exclude people. While they did not come up with the “banal truth” that might does not make right, they have been more insistent on that point than earlier (and even many later) political doctrines. A person beholden to these four ideas can be characterized as a liberal.
Conclusion: Has Liberalism Failed?
Fawcett’s presentation of liberalism is consistently appealing—which raises the serious question of why liberalism appears to be faltering. Admirably, he does not shy away from this issue, but tackles it head on in the final sections of the book. Some of his efforts involve situating the crisis in historical context. Fawcett points out that liberalism has faced serious crises throughout its history. Throughout the nineteenth century, it was subjected to relentless criticism and even persecution by reactionary forces aligned with throne and altar. In the mid-twentieth century, it fought two titanic conflicts against rivals on the far right and far left. Fawcett argues that liberalism may weather this storm, as it has many others. But that doesn’t mean it should be off the hook for contemporary failings. Fawcett argues that, in recent years, civic bonds have frayed, giving rise to various forms of identity politics on the left and right. A sufficiently robust liberalism needs to find ways to accommodate the needs of citizens for identity and belonging without ceding to the extremes. At the same time, Fawcett—a self-described “left liberal“—is highly critical of the extreme inequality and precarity that have come to define many societies post-1979. If we don’t make greater efforts to elevate the poor and ensure the rich pay their share, we will see deepening resentments, which can only destabilize liberal societies. Remarkably, Fawcett chides even self-described democratic socialist candidates like Bernie Sanders for a lack of ambition on this front.
This brings me to my one serious criticism of the book. Fawcett isn’t always clear on where the line can be drawn between liberalism and its rivals, even if he is insistent it lies somewhere. As a Bernie Sanders supporter who is also friendly to the liberal tradition, I agree that the current revitalization of democratic socialism in many western states is to be welcomed. I agree with Rawls that fulfilling the promise of liberalism entails extending a broad array of economic and social rights to citizens, with a special emphasis on taking care of the least well off. But, for some critics, any such move towards rights-based democratic socialism constitutes a firm rejection of liberal principles. While I agree with Fawcett that this isn’t the case, he would help his argument substantially by clarifying where the cut-off point is. This is also true for his analysis of figures on the political right. Fawcett is highly critical of Donald Trump and the contemporary “hard right.” But he has kinder words for figures like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, even though he acknowledges they sometimes showed an illiberal desire for power and a moralism that belied lofty rhetoric about liberty. There is nothing wrong with this in itself, but greater clarity on what distinguishes earlier liberal conservatives from today’s hard right would be highly appreciated.
Despite this, Fawcett’s book is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand one of the great political doctrines of history. It is exceptionally readable: bristling with wit, salt and an eye for personal detail. Liberalism comes alive in Fawcett’s hands, and he makes a convincing argument that it can rejuvenate itself in practice as well.