Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Liberalism failed to set us free. Indeed, it enslaved us

The doctrine was meant to get the state off our backs, but instead it has granted the government licence to interfere

Peregrine Worsthorne
Wednesday June 21, 2006
The Guardian, Comment is Free

Liberalism has much to its credit. But as John Stuart Mill said about Christianity, "all truths need fundamental re-examination from time to time"; and if that was true of Christianity in the 18th century, I think that it is just as true of liberalism in the 21st. For today the great and the good, at any rate in the west, intone their belief in liberal pieties as mindlessly as their predecessors in the 18th century proclaimed their belief in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost.

Take freedom of the press. The liberal argument for the importance of a free press was that it gave voters the necessary information on which they could vote intelligently. Of all the British newspapers today, only the Guardian even tries to do that. The rest concentrate on misinformation or even disinformation - sophisticated and clever disinformation in the case of the broadsheets, and untreated sewage in the case of the tabloids. So, far from helping to guide the reader into the real world - the world for which he or she is meant to take responsibility - they offer him or her a way out of that real world into one of fantasy, muddying rather than clarifying the democratic waters.

The same goes for that other liberal piety, the autonomy of the individual. Of course this was an important principle 200 years ago when the individual had far too few rights. But today it is very plain that man standing alone - as against man locked into society - is beginning to get too many rights. So what was once a noble principle has been degraded into a crass and selfish form of "me-firstism": an attitude wholly incompatible with the team spirit required to make any institution - family, school, college, regiment, hospital, police force or even government department - work. Even the foreign service has been infected, with our former ambassador in Washington not hesitating to tell tales out of school about his colleagues.

Then there is that other liberal fetish, meritocracy. Of course it made sense in John Stuart Mill's day to replace hereditary aristocracy, of which there was too much, with a system of careers open to talent, of which there was too little. But surely anybody looking at the subject with an open mind should be able to see that today, 200 years later, there is something quite other to worry about; and the new problem, which is getting worse all the time, is the deeply unattractive and unimpressive nature of an exclusively self-made meritocratic ruling class: a ruling class made up of men and women exceptionally gifted only in the horrible rat-race arts of elbowing their way to the top. Aristocracy may have its faults but ratocracy, which is what in practice a meritocratic system produces, is proving even worse - which is possibly why the public seems so eager to welcome the return of the English gentleman in the shape of David Cameron.

But my main concern is not with liberalism so much as with liberal triumphalism. The triumphalism that flared forth after the west's victory in the cold war left liberalism as the only ism still backed by a world superpower. There was another countervailing ism - communism, also highly successful at claiming the moral high ground. Today, however, liberalism is the only ism in a position not only to dream of world hegemony but to try to make that dream come true - a case of absolute power tending to corrupt absolutely, if ever there was one. Onward liberal soldiers marching as to war. Not so much Pax Americana as Bellum Americanum.

In other words, the Iraq war is only the first move in a liberal jihad aimed at spreading to all mankind a secular and materialist religion, the central tenet of which - free thought - can be relied upon to dissolve people's faith in any transcendental religion far more certainly than could communist repression. So it is no wonder that Islamic fundamentalists are reacting so fiercely. They have seen what liberalism has done for Christianity in the western world and quite understandably don't want the Muslim faith to suffer the same fate.

Nor is this new overweening form of liberalism to be found only in foreign affairs. It is also pretty rampant on the domestic front, at least in Britain, where the two restraining isms of socialism and high Toryism have been ground into the dust by the Thatcherite revolution. Politicians of all parties, including the Conservatives, are liberal now. But theirs is a novel and almost unbelievably power-dependent form of liberalism. It starts from the assumption that, with the old dragons of despotic kingship, religious intolerance, patrician insolence and, finally, totalitarianism successfully dispatched, another window of opportunity has opened for liberalism to declare war on human, and even eventually animal, pain and suffering - regardless of the fact that this limitlessly ambitious new war must assuredly involve a vast extension of governmental power to enforce political correctness. So with remarkable rapidity, from being a doctrine designed to take government off the backs of the people, liberalism has become a doctrine designed to put it back again.

Liberalism used to be dedicated to doubt, cynical about certainty and, above all, suspicious of power. All I am urging is that liberalism should start applying these attitudes as rigorously to its own powers and certainties as in the past it applied them to everybody else's.


At 3:11 PM, Anonymous David Zarnett said...

Hi Gert,

This is really insightful piece and it really serves up a strong challenge to my perception that liberalism as practiced in the West coupled with some serious reform is the best chance humanity has for not destroying itself.

The one problem is the length of this piece. It is just too short to really address the multiple types of liberalism that exist in the West. For instance, I feel as if the liberalism as represented by the Euston and Muslim from France manifestos indicates a different type of liberalism that can not easily be lumped in with the liberalism to which Worsthorne refers.

At 8:00 PM, Blogger markfromireland said...

Nicely spotted (and posted) both for this piece and Max Hastings' below.

One of the things that I hope will happen over the next few years is that we'll see the re-emergence of a genuine conservatisnm. Conservatism based upon the idea that there must be something to conserve, stewardship if you prefer that phrase. Hopefully there will be a concomittant renewal on the left.

He's very right on the quasi-religious nature of the Western neo-liberal mindset. If one questions, however gently, their sacred values one can expect a reaction the veniom of which is more in tune with one of Savanorola's followers than of Mill.

Hey ho back to translating.

Thanks for posting these.

At 9:44 PM, Blogger J.UL1R4 said...

Yes excellent Gert, the only thing I would say about Worsthorne's article is that, these days and apparently for some considerable time:

liberalism != liberty

At some point, visibly, at least the in the UK politcally speaking, liberalism seems to have largely morphed into socialism-lite, and the vestiges of what liberalism were historically appear long since gone.

The truth is liberalism doesn't mean a great deal anymore, informally it's a kind of a backdrop to things you hear from time to time. It's kind of like dark matter in the background of the universe, it's apparently there according to scientists and having an effect on the surrounding universe but extremely difficult to actually observe as a 'thing'. Maybe that is to the credit of what we call liberalism even.

"From being a doctrine designed to take government off the backs of the people, liberalism has become a doctrine designed to put it back again"

Certainly seems that way.

"Liberalism used to be dedicated to doubt, cynical about certainty and, above all, suspicious of power"

That is very very very much around, but it's largely absent from the political and media classes, who, by and large, are hooked like a heroin addict on the wonders of the state and it's called liberalism.

Also I very much agree with Mark, the Conservatives (I'm speaking of the UK) seem to have abandoned conservatism and that is extremely troubling. Although Cameron may well win the next election he is just creating more problems by building his case on the existing layers of lies of Blair.

At 9:46 PM, Blogger J.UL1R4 said...

"and it's called liberalism"

that should read of course:

"and it's not called liberalism"

At 4:27 PM, Blogger Richard said...


My interpetation/understanding of the term?

To borrow from Fox -- fair and balanced.

At least it used to be. Nowadays I'm not so sure.

At 4:32 PM, Blogger Richard said...

Btw, for three quarters of my life, I was what Thatcher & co called a [very] wet Conservative.

It was mad Maggie's gradual descent into dementia & dictator-like delusions, that has cost the Conservatives any vote of mine -- ever since late in her second term.


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