Liberalism – a belief in the primacy of individual liberty – has built modern democracies. Now it’s in an existential crisis, caught between rising authoritarianism and identity politics. I look back and ahead for liberals with British political journalist Ian Dunt.
“Isa, what are you doing?” I can hear you say. “We’re here to talk about global citizens, what’s this political thing?” Friends, if there is one political philosophy that allows our lives to exist, it’s liberalism. Not in the leftie meaning it has taken on in the US, not in the ultracapitalist sense it has in much of Europe, but as a philosophy that puts individual liberty at the center of our lives and our political systems. There is no freedom of movement without freedom. There is no belonging to multiple tribes if the individual does not supersede the collective. There is no room for our weird, compound identities if we’re systematically reduced to a nation, an ethnicity, a gender or a sexuality. Liberalism makes global citizenship possible. Also, if I must choose an ism, it’s the one that fits me best and I love nerding out about politics.
Ian Dunt made himself the champion of this endangered political philosophy in a book that surprised and enchanted me, How to Be a Liberal. UK listeners will know him of course, as the occasionally foul-mouthed co-host of the Remainiacs podcast (now Oh God, What Now?), an editor-at-large at politics.co.uk and Twitter royalty. Bring on the RTs, Ian! Here’s our conversation, extremely condensed and edited.
For the full story, listen to the podcast or read the transcript.
With so much contemporary news to write about, why think, "Hey, I'm going to go back 400 years, read Descartes again and write about that?”
Ian Dunt: I always end up doing that. Your job as a journalist is to keep on asking the question “why” over and over again, until you really understand something and can communicate it simply to a reader. And the question “why” just keeps on taking you further back. I wanted to talk about Trump, Brexit, what's going on in our world right now. And once you do that, if you start asking questions like, “Why do we have a scenario where you don't have a president that attacks the judiciary? Why don't you have a prime minister that can just cancel Parliament?” And once you ask that question, you're in the English civil war! It just seems that to tell that story, to describe what it is that's getting shattered, what it is that's being vandalized, it's a 400-year story. And so you end up just going very far back.
We should define some terms. When I was growing up in France, a liberal was a selfish right-wing person. Then I moved to the US and it was cultural Marxists on the left. It's always an insult and it never means the same thing. So how do you define a liberal?
A liberal is someone who believes in the freedom of the individual. The truth is none of these categorizations are false, right? You can become really quite right-wing economically. You can go to a position where you just say: “everyone gets to keep their own stuff, taxes aren't really tolerable. and we're going to have a very unequal society.” Or you can go to a place where you say: “How much privacy does a homeless person have? How much freedom does someone have to explore their personality and their life if they're constantly in insecure work or housing? Therefore we are going to have to tax wealthy people more.” There are places you can't go: fascism on the one side, communism on the other, where you lose the individual completely. But ultimately liberalism does give you a tremendous amount of leeway on the economics.
The truth is liberalism doesn't tell you what to think. It tells you how to think. It tells you what is the primary moral unit in life. And that is the freedom of the individual. Where you go from that, the conclusions that you come to on that basis, that's up to you. It doesn't hand down stone tablets. It doesn't really have political leaders that we're going to put in a mausoleum somewhere. It's for free thinkers. It's for people who would think for themselves. And on that basis, they come to a very wide variety of conclusions as to where its principles lead.
Yet, liberalism somehow managed to ignore the individuals most in need of liberty: enslaved people, women, indigenous people, LGBTQ people... How did it have such a blind spot there?
It comes down to a really pernicious idea, it's the great tragedy of liberal history, which is called “the community of the free.” And that's “yes, liberalism... for these guys.” I think it comes from a failure of imagination, a failure to truly commit to the idea of the individual. During the American Civil War, in Britain, most liberals were on the side of the South. It seems incomprehensible. The only reason they did was because they didn't really consider Black people to be actual humans. They didn't really consider them to be capable of individualism, to be part of that moral category.
That original failure has been there in liberalism in recent years, I think, which is a failure to listen. And where that's led to is the separation on the left between liberals and social justice activists who are saying, "you just ignored us for a very long time. So don't expect us now to start believing that you are the great saviors.” This is a problem that liberals always have, again and again: they show insufficient imagination, insufficient empathy, and they don't listen enough to people in various situations to discover the restrictions on their freedoms. And if there is a future for liberalism – and at the moment we're in the battle of our lives, we're in an existential threat against liberalism – it is by virtue of finding the radical liberalism that listens to marginalized people, to oppressed people, to people who are discriminated against, to people who are stacked to the bottom of an economic system, and explores in a really aggressive way how to improve the freedom in their lives.
As you say, younger generations especially are embracing a form of identity politics, which are not Enlightenment liberalism. How do the two connect?
It's hard for us all to morally work it out. It is both a threat and a gift, I think. The gift is that it is being explicitly stated to you: "you need to listen." Your ability to process information about the world is dependent on who you are and the experiences that you have had. That lesson needs to be taken on board by liberalism.
But the split with that part of the left, I think, also has a damaging impact on identity politics, which has ended up falling into that old trap of homogenizing groups. When you make everything dependent on the identity of the person, what you lose is the ability to distinguish between arguments within that identity group. To do that, you need to go back to the individual, you need that dose of liberalism in these debates so that you make sure that people are not silenced within the group that they belong to. Those voices, I might not even agree with, but they have a right to be heard and not to be spoken over by activists and academics who claim to be speaking in their own best interests.
The rupture is the problem. Liberalism has a lot to learn from these movements and these movements have a lot to learn from liberalism. And if we can hopefully get them talking rather than screaming abuse at one another, we might actually be in a better position than we are right now.
You start the book with the lies of nationalism. One of them is the people versus the elite. What do you mean by that?
These categories just don't exist. There is no such thing as the people. We have a system of democracy, a product of liberalism, that means that by consent governments are formed. And we arrange that by the parties that have the most votes. That does not mean that you have exactly the same interests as the other people that voted one way. There is no one will, we all have different interests and eccentricities and values. So throughout history, when you see people use this phrase, “the will of the people,” it's usually what gets said just before an awful lot of people get killed.
The same is true of the elite. There are lots of different kinds of financial or cultural or political leadership. There is no one elite, no great shadowy force that controls things. In fact, the world is irreducibly complex and made up of lots of different forces that sometimes act against each other and sometimes work in parallel. When people talk about the elite, typically, what they're doing is trying to dress up that complexity in a very, very simple language that can be used to try and find an enemy and an excuse for their own inadequacies.
But people believe it because we have that need to form some kind of tribe. Is that how liberalism fails, in refusing that notion? I don't know that you win elections as a collection of individuals with different needs.
Exactly. This is the problem that has tortured liberalism for hundreds of years, which is people feel the need to have identity. The two chief thinkers on this were George Orwell and Isaiah Berlin. Their theory was essentially, if you care about the individual, you will care about what the individual believes in and how they like to associate themselves. Belonging matters insofar as it matters to the individual. That stops the moment that it infringes on the individual. If we said to people, the only way to be British is to do the following things and any other way of doing it means that you're no longer British, that is not communicating the reasons why one would believe in belonging in the first place. The moment that we stop the individual from doing anything on the basis of their belonging, we have broken the basis upon which they could believe in it in the first place. That crucial lesson is there in liberalism.
We’ve just gone through a very illiberal year in the name of public health. Are you concerned for liberalism coming out of the pandemic?
When liberalism says it cares about the freedom of the individual, that freedom stops where you interfere with another individual's freedom. In any normal time you get to do whatever you damn well please. If your actions can contribute to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people, then there is a basis to put restrictions on people's social lives.
Now that does not mean that governments will not try and use the powers that they have suddenly granted themselves for reasons that go well above the pandemic. You need to be pretty vigilant about making sure that you get those powers back from government when it's over. The battle will be on and liberals are well-placed to do it because they haven't gone completely insane thinking that there's some grand conspiracy. In fact, this is just the typical incentives of government and the reasons that we always hold government to a very high degree of aggressive scrutiny.
📚 How to Be a Liberal, Ian Dunt, Canbury Press, 2020. On sale here.