Reflections on post-liberalism and post liberal politics

‘Modernity failed our deepest human needs, and comprehensively fouled our physical and spiritual environment in the process; yet the liberalism of modernity, and those other modernists who reacted against it, seem to have exhausted most of what can be said and achieved. There is a sense now of a lack of vision, of aftermath, of epilogue’.[1]

When asked what he thought about the French Revolution Mao is reputed to have said ‘it is too early to judge’. My sense with ‘post-liberalism’ is much of it is too early to judge.  However, we have more than sufficient grounds to explore this concept and ponder the potential for a post-liberal politics.

Nonetheless, something is happening – albeit uncertain - in UK politics that will not fizzle out. It can either be a moment of fragmentation and stagnation or a re-imagining of the good life; outwith the liberal frame empowered by Christian resources.  These are my assumptions as I reflect on post-liberalism and prospects for post-liberal politics. Thus it is wholly apposite to reflect on those societal and political changes currently dubbed as ‘post-liberalism’ and assess their political and cultural significance.

We live in a moment of paradox; the dominant liberal paradigm is firmly rooted in the economic, social and cultural elites but its grip is fragmenting. This may not be enough to break its hegemonic position; perhaps it may not even be desirable; it could be but something is giving way. I see the evidence as.

1)      The economic crash of 2008 – neo-liberalism has been found out

2)      Social liberalism – the 60s revolution, libertarianism, a view of an atomised society has proved empty and destructive. Social liberalism, in some quarters is being questioned, more so than ever and more on the centre-left.

‘Post-liberalism’ acknowledges these trends. After the nadir of social and economic liberalism we are left with a dual crisis of inequality and identity. Post-liberalism is the attempt to navigate the way through this crisis.

The United Kingdom have suffered the largest economic shock since the 1930s; a recovery is taking place but is fragile. The gap between the rich and poor is vast; there are now 104 billionaires in the UK with a combined wealth of £301bn and the highest number on record resorting to foodbanks just to get by. [2]The confident social liberalism of a generation, more liberating to the affluent than the poor, is in question. Increasingly people desire a sense of connection with others, richer identities, tradition and some form of anchoring. The limits of the economic and social liberal revolutions have been reached and we don’t know what to do about it.

 

This moment can manifest itself in unpleasant stuff such as the rise of UKIP, perhaps a key signifier of the ‘post-liberal’ moment, who exploit alienation and disconnection. This ethical vacuum that needs to be filled by a rich and generous conception of politics rather than dystopia. The elite appear unsighted by UKIP and unsure or even complacent in their response. Merely labelling this nascent party as racist (not wholly untrue) is not enough; a more serious analysis is required. Jon Cruddas notes:

‘….two forces are driving our politics. The first is people's feelings of powerlessness in the face of rapid social and economic change. The second is the loss of a sense of belonging, a feeling among people that something has been lost from their lives that they will never get back. They feel abandoned, and Ukip is exploiting this mood in Labour's English heartlands, the ex-industrial areas in which decent work and the old culture of the working class have been devastated.’[3]

What is Post-Liberalism? In order to scope out the potential for a post-liberal politics we need to get a handle on what post-liberalism means. However, there is no agreed, coherent definition of Post-Liberalism.

Post-liberalism is an intriguingly cacophonous movement, capable of moments of harmony that it is not always able to sustain’ [4]

Rowlands is right. We are looking at a disjointed song, as yet unharmonised but until recently the song had not been sung.

Liberalism as a force is not on the wane, but the potential for a genuinely plural politics is not a given. Recognising that the dynamism of the social and economic liberal revolutions are insufficient to nurture the good life is the ‘Post-Liberal’ disposition. Uniting Blue Labour and Red Tory streams it does not blithely accept the self-evident goodness of liberalism but advocates a politics of the common good which is communitarian in orientation.  It is sceptical in respect to the centralising forces of the state and the market, seeks to foster a robust civil society, and affirms the primacy of faith, family, attachment to place and the fostering of institutions.   It seeks to articulate an alternative political economy and account of the good life to address the challenges of glaring inequality and fractured identity.

My sense is that currently post-liberalism represents a ‘broad church’ of sympathetic perspectives.  There are the non-liberal, faith based communitarians; the liberal sceptics and a broad array of centre-left progressives who see that liberalism, in its economic and social expressions has reached its limits. More clarity is required; ten years ago people weren’t having such conversations.

‘Post-liberalism began as a disposition before it has sought to develop its own programme’.[5]

Starting as a disposition is not a bad thing. Certainly post-liberalism requires maturation and a programme. Yet, dispositions are natural and strongly rooted, unlike ‘bolt-on’ ideologies.  Speaking personally, as an evangelical Christian, from a lower-middle class background in South Staffordshire and the edge of the Black Country my disposition is a strong moral compass. I am tribally Labour, independent in thinking and find southern, metropolitan liberal progressivism somewhat alienating. However, my roots and formation account for the reason why I don’t wholly connect with the political and cultural elite worldview and the dominant groupings on the left.

Is it vitally important to understand that ‘post-liberalism’ is cross party in nature (Blue Labour and Red Tory) and is not fixed in one camp: it has a strong Christian element, I would argue that this is essential. I can connect to some on the centre-right more readily that some on the liberal left on certain issues ie family, faith, and ethical matters. This does not mean I am about to leave the Labour Party; I intend to stay.

I do not think everything to do with liberalism is bad. I recognise good things in classical liberalism that may even derive from a Christian worldview.[6] Too often it has become grammatically interchangeable with the good and generous.[7] This is very shallow and perhaps dangerous and tyrannical if pursued unthinkingly. Liberalism should not be interchangeable with all that is good. In the UK and in the US in certain circles to be liberal is self-evidently good. At worst such cheap liberalism morphs into tyranny relativism and ironically ‘illiberalism’. For example I would point to the metropolitan tendency to be intolerant of views expressed outwith the liberal matrix. Some of the more juvenile response to the daft comments of UKIP activists is one example of this tendency. Maurice Glasman has referred to the ‘tin ear’ of the Westminster Village.

 

Liberalism is imperialistic, perhaps like any philosophical project. I watched a you-tube clip earlier this year enterprisingly constructed by a US student. In a tour de force of Western History from Locke to President Obama anything that was good was attributed to liberalism, anything bad was tyranny! I assert this from the vantage point of Christian faith; all narratives can become totalizing and imperial in nature.[8]

 

Of course a measure of nuance is important to this assessment; Mark Garnett has alluded to a ‘deep and shallow liberalism’[9]. Liberal principles, as properly understood can contribute to the good life. However, this is distinct from liberal dominance in the public square and critiquing liberalism does not mean I am adopting a Conservative tradition as conventionally understood. Alasdair MacIntyre accurately sums this up this position as follows:

 

‘This critique of Liberalism should not be interpreted as a sign of any sympathy on my part for contemporary Conservatism. That Conservatism is in too many ways a mirror image of the liberalism that it professedly opposes’[10]

In 2011 Phillip Blond[11] introduced an essay collection stating:

‘Perhaps for the first time in thirty years politics is changing. The old orthodoxies of left and right are still dominant, but they are no longer hegemonic. Beneath the surface the tectonic plates are shifting; boundaries are blurring, and ideologies are returning to first principles, creating a new terrain that is slowly beginning to emerge’

 

So, a new territory is emerging; an undesirable political vacuum perhaps? But within these shifting plates it is ‘post-liberalism’- in political terms - that seeks to intelligently interpret what is happening.  Full definition is required; the challenge is to fill the vacuum with a generous message of hope. I believe this is found in the Christian gospel and that is why a post-secular politics is a corollary of post-liberalism.

In the UK I believe we are now seeing a deep cultural disconnect, perhaps explained by the recent curiosity with UKIP. There is now an almost permanent anti-political element within the UK electorate. In the European and Local elections on 22 May we saw UKIP get the largest share of the vote. We need to be wary of rushing to strong conclusions, however, it is folly to write off UKIP as only appealing to disaffected Conservative voters alone. They clearly appeal to the disenchanted white-working class in England; whom Labour voting was once an ‘old time religion’ but now feel culturally alienated by the ‘people’s party’. On 16 May 2014 Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin spelled out clearly that UKIP do pose a threat to Labour, as they can tap in to this constituency. They wrote that:

The problem for Labour is that these voters no longer think about politics in general, or Labour in particular, in economic terms. Labour has encouraged this: New Labour played down traditional leftwing ideology in favour of social liberalism and pragmatic centrism. Now many voters with longstanding "old left" economic values associate Labour more with "new left" social liberalism: feminism, multiculturalism and support for immigration…..Conversely, "old left" voters retain a strong distrust of Labour's middle-class elites, after decades of feeling ignored and marginalised as New Labour chased the middle-class swing vote, and cannot abide lectures from privileged "new left" activists about the virtues of immigration and diversity.’[12]

This point to me is fundamental, UKIP; not what they stand for, but what they ‘tap into’ are the flipside of ‘post-liberalism’. Understanding why people have voted for them is key to realising why this agenda is important and how we can broker a politics of the common good.

Our analysis needs to be delicate and nuanced, balancing act; not reading too much into the UKIP surge whilst not dismissing it either. It may be a complex amalgam of factors; legitimate concern over the EU, a visceral anti-political sentiment, collapse in both the BNP and Lib Dems as protest vehicles the BBC’s interest in conflating the novelty of anti-establishment party’s. My instinct is that within the multi-causal account of UKIP they are tapping into the alienation exacerbated by social and economic liberalism and doing so in a negative way. Ford and Goodwin are on the money.  This is the context which post-liberalism must address.

What is the potential for Post-Liberal politics? and what should be the next or first steps for post-liberal politics?:

1)      There needs to be greater work on defining the concept and space of ‘post-liberalism’. We should set out the terrain on deepening the politics of the common good; inside and outside of mainstream politics. Informed by a post-secular perception of what is happening; connecting Catholic Social Teaching and evangelical energy. Christians can shape post-liberal politics; informed by experience in critiquing liberalism and embodying an alternative framework of hope.

2)      Honouring and nurturing of institutional life[13] – policy alone is too abstract, too rooted in the intellectual, liberal policy elite and too prone to watering down and compromise to be enough to renew Britain.

3)      Seize the ‘post-liberal’ moment within the mainstream political parties. Campaigns and Parliamentary groups could be formed, documents need to be published, conferences could forge ahead with socially conservative and post-liberal campaigns. These can respect party boundaries and operate at their margins. There needs to be a reckoning with this agenda; the challenge is far too serious.

4)      There needs to be a raising up a new generation of ‘post-liberal’ leaders in public life.  Currently, the post-liberalism agenda could be vulnerable to opportunistic cherry-picking of ideas in vacuum.  This agenda is more likely to be durable when championed by a generation of people who have the values in their blood, are battle hardened, take a long-term view of the challenges ahead and are therefore less prone to being bought off by party machines, becoming bored, distracted or simply give up.

There needs to be a distinct engagement between Labour and post-liberalism. It should be the centre-left and Labour that stands to benefit from post-Liberalism, although it should not own this agenda. However, this remains to be seen. Labour should be the natural beneficiaries with its putative link to working-class voters and communitarian roots; yet we have a long way to go. There are still variable reactions to ‘Blue Labour’; yet for Labour to win again it needs to take this agenda seriously.

‘Blue Labour cannot win Miliband the next election but he surely cannot win without it.’[14]

More needs to be done to distinguish a Labour explanation of twenty-first century Britain from a liberal one. This is why Post-liberalism provides a space for a distinct Labour story. We came out of the liberal tradition, but are not a liberal party.

I believe that Post-liberalism can play its part in renewing the left. I feel strongly about this agenda. More of the same will lead to more of the same. Yet, the rupture with working-class voters runs deep; the people are ‘small c conservatives’; the elite is not. ‘Post-liberalism’ lives and breathes outside the M25.

For Labour to be a broad and plural party it needs to be amenable to a pro-faith, post-secular and post-liberal. We are facing a crisis of inequality and identity; the economic and cultural apparatus has failed. Post-liberalism is a positive response to the failure of economic and social liberalism. However, we know there are alternative responses that present bad choices; for society and politics and the nation’s relationship with the outside world. Post-liberalism is only a start; much more needs to be done.

In one sentence I believe that ‘Post-Liberalism’ means that all our gods have failed us.  My hope is in the Christian gospel; it can uphold liberty, the common life and provide a politics of servant hood, not domination, it speaks of a tradition that is pre-liberal and transcends all ‘isms’ to a life beyond this immanent frame. It is time to start making a much more explicit case for a Christian politics. It can address the sense of exhaustion and lack of vision which characterises economic and social liberalism as alluded to in the opening Pete Lowman quote.

That is why I believe the challenge presented by the crisis of identity and inequality calls for a robust Christian voice in the public square. Individualism is never enough, it only ever benefitted the few and wrought destruction for the many.  Liberal modernity has been the big story in the west for 250 years. It will not disappear overnight; yet it has cracks and is contested. Its dominance is over. ‘Post-liberalism’ signifies the moving of tectonic plates and a post-liberal politics needs nurturing.  

 



[1] (p289, ‘A long way east of Eden – could God explain the mess we’re in?’, Pete Lowman,2002).

[2] ‘Pay inequality is suffocating Britain's economic recovery – and our society’, Deborah Hargreaves, The Guardian, 13 May 2014.

[3] Jon Cruddas, The Guardian, 8 May 2014

 

[4] ‘Post-liberal Politics and the Churches’, Anna Rowlands, Crucible – The Christian Journal of Social Ethics’, January to March 2014

[5] Sunder Katwala, Demos essay collection, 17 January 2014, - http://quarterly.demos.co.uk/article/issue-1/responses-to-a-postliberal-future/

 

[6] Whilst classic liberalism owes a debt to Christianity; it becomes problematic when detached from these moorings becoming a relativistic, shrill form of illiberal tyranny.

[7] Philip Blond said at the Blue Labour Midlands Seminar in Nottingham on 5 July that liberalism has become code for all that is good..

[8] See p103-4 of ‘Metavista: Bible, Church and Mission in an Age of Imagination’, Colin Greene and Martin Robinson, Authentic Media, 2008

[9] ‘…a schism could be detected in liberal ranks long before September 2001. I call the rival camps ‘fleshed-out’ and ‘hollowed-out’ liberalism. The former retains a close resemblance to the ideas of the great liberal thinkers, who were optimistic about human nature and envisaged a society made up of free, rational individuals, respecting themselves and others. The latter, by contrast, satisfies no more than the basic requirements of liberal thought. It reduces the concepts of reason and individual fulfilment to the lowest common denominator, identifying them with the pursuit of material self-interest.’ Mark Garnett, ‘The snake that Swallowed its Tail – Some contradictions in Modern Liberalism’ (London:Imprint Academic, 2004), p.8

[10] (p Xiii, Prologue to the Third Edition,’ After Virtue’, Alasdair MacIntyre’).

[11] A New Political Settlement Phillip Blond's foreword from "Changing the Debate: The Ideas Redefining Britain" - http://www.respublica.org.uk/item/Changing-the-Debate-The-Ideas-Redefining-Britain-ufqo

[12]  (‘Ukip has divided the left, not the right, and cut Labour off from its 'old' support - Labour and Ukip voters agree on more economic issues than you might think, presenting a strategic problem for Ed Miliband’, Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, The Guardian, Friday 16 May 2014).

 

[13] In a ‘Big Lunch’ event on 1 June in South London I saw more common good in action than in reading reports on poverty and social exclusion in just under two years.

[14] ‘The strange death and rebirth of Blue Labour’, Richard Darlington, Progress Online, 27 September 2012’

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commented 2014-08-22 14:13:30 +0100 · Flag
Like this analysis that we face two crises, of inequality and identity. Solutions will come when we seek the common good, both locally and globally. Surely these are indeed Christian aims.





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