The Janus Face of Liberalism Redux
In addition, note that what Glover refers to with sniffy disdain as “mathematical equality” is also closely related to “mathematical” levels of violence, drug abuse, mental health problems, teenage pregnancy, measures of child well-being and a host of other key social indicators. It is hard to see how passing over human welfare with a rhetorical sleight of hand serves to elevate the way we discuss politics onto the higher plain to which Glover yearns to ascend.
Glover reminds us that the Guardian was “founded as a liberal publication at a time when liberal did not connote the left. Nor should it now”. He is correct to say this. The history of liberalism as a political philosophy has contained elements that face to the left, and others that face to the right. I have no doubt that most of the staff and readers of the Guardian who supported the paper’s endorsement of the Liberal Democrats at last year’s election, did so with the more enlightened, compassionate strand of liberalism in mind. With all respect to them, I remain of the view that this judgement was a mistake. There is a much less pleasant form of liberalism in British politics that does not share with its sibling the values of human equality and social democracy. That is the version of liberalism represented by the leadership of both governing parties, and we are seeing now, under their coalition, just how poisonous and destructive it can be.
This is a crucial point: the left does emerge from the liberal tradition almost immediately during the French revolution, but the origins of modernity and corresponding liberalism emerged: Rousseau, Locke, and Marx are all inheritors of that tradition and the tensions within the two variants of liberalism have emerged in the contradictions of left-liberals. Right-liberals (neo-conservatives, modern Tories, and many Liberal Democrats in the UK) make the apparent these contradictions by constantly setting the agenda for the enacted politics of left-liberal coalition governments.
This brings me back to a point made by John Grey:
“As the political theory of modernity, liberalism is ill-equipped to address the dilemmas of the postmodern period. Liberalism was the political theory of the modern age, partly because it was a response to circumstances of diversity in world-views that arose in the early modern period with the Reformation and the Wars of Religion, and partly because it was a version of the animating project of modernity, which was the Enlightenment project – ‘the project’ as Alasdair MacIntyre summarizes it ‘of an independent rational justification of morality’.
The diversity of world-views, which gave rise to the liberal project in early modern times, has not diminished and is with us now; but the Enlightenment project which informed and sustained liberalism is now a dead letter. It lingers on in academic debates about realism in ethics and in the philosophy of science but – except in the United States, where along with an equally atavistic Christianity it continues to pervade the public culture – the Enlightenment project is no longer a living force in contemporary culture.
Within philosophy, the project of rationally reconstructing morality – whether on utilitarian, contractarian or rights-based foundations – is virtually extinct; and, if there remain philosophers wedded to that Enlightenment project, they are few and unimportant in the larger scheme of things, since philosophy itself is not a culturally marginal activity. The intellectual foundations of the Enlightenment project have fallen away; but liberal theory, for the most part, proceeds as if nothing has happened.”(p 85 of “Liberalism” by John Gray)
While all the intellectual foundations of the Enlightenment have no fallen away, many of them have: scientific processes still stand with some serious caveats, most of the positivism and progressive teleology of liberal theory has been questioned. The attempt to rationalization liberal morality in universal terms has always been problematic, and that is because that same intellectual artifice produced and is produced by the economic and political structures that early liberalism itself helped create.