In the current issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik reviews three books that seek to explain the current state of the world. One of these is Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger, which I liked a lot. Gopnik is skeptical of thinkers who run around shouting “The sky is falling!” Change, Gopnik reminds us, is the only constant, and while things may look bleak just now, “whatever is happening usually does stop happening, and something else happens in its place.” Instead of hysteria, Gopnik counsels a middle way. He writes:
We live, certainly, in societies that are in many ways inequitable, unfair, capriciously oppressive, occasionally murderous, frequently imperial—but, by historical standards, much less so than any other societies known in the history of mankind. We may angrily debate the threat to transgender bathroom access, but no other society in our long, sad history has ever attempted to enshrine the civil rights of the gender nonconforming.
Gopnik also says:
The middle way is not the way of melodrama. (That’s why long novels are the classic liberal medium, and why the best one is called “Middlemarch.”)
Gopnik’s defense of classical liberalism is smug and rather boring – just like classical liberalism itself. “Classical liberalism” is the name given to a set of ideas that burgeoned during and after the Enlightenment. Classical liberalism’s key thinkers include John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and – latterly – Friedrich Hayek and John Rawls. Classical liberalism is closely allied to the philosophy of the Whigs. It promotes representative democracy, free trade, cordial international relations, individual liberty, toleration, consensus, empiricism, and the right to own property. Slightly modified by socialist ideas (i.e. the welfare state), classical liberalism was the shaping philosophy of the post-World War II Western nation-states. Inside the political mainstream of the West after 1945, there was more or less total agreement about the value of classical liberalism as a governing philosophy. (This is why people used to complain that political parties in Western countries were indistinguishable from one another: no one disagreed about anything truly significant.)
During the postwar period, classical liberalism promoted itself in the form of large international collaborative projects. The United Nations is a classically liberal project. So is the European Union. Since borders impede free trade, classical liberalism believes in weak borders. At the heart of classical liberalism is economic liberalism: individual freedom is important not for moral reasons, but for economic ones. Classical liberalism in this sense is inseparable from capitalism – which is one of the reasons so many people dislike it.
Classical liberalism is also open to the charge that it is bourgeois and philistine – and that it leads naturally to the exploitation of the poor. This is part of the point that Marx and Engels were making in The Communist Manifesto – and that Marx made at much greater length in Das Kapital. For Marx and Engels – and for later radical thinkers – free trade results in inequality, which is not to be tolerated. For generations of radicals, classical liberalism is merely the ideological fig-leaf worn by a class of rapacious, destructive capitalists as they advance their own selfish interests at the expense of everyone else. Unless you understand this, it becomes impossible fully to grasp the thought of someone like, for instance, Michel Foucault, who devoted his career to exposing the systems of control that he believed were lurking behind the tolerant facade of classical liberalism.
Classical liberalism in practice has certainly resulted in massive inequality. The forces of “globalisation” have attempted to spread classical liberalism around the world (in this sense, the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a classically liberal endeavour). To say the least, this has not been successful. Instead of prosperity sparked by weak borders, globalisation has created an underclass of poor, mobile workers who lack job security and often seek to express their anger through violence. (This is part of the point Mishra makes in Age of Anger.) Ironically, globalisation has also largely destroyed the very middle class who have historically benefited from the triumph of classical liberalism. All over the world, people can no longer see the benefits of a classically liberal approach. As a result, we have entered a period of illiberalism, in which people will vote, angrily, for obvious charlatans like Donald Trump, and in which classically liberal projects like the EU have come to be seen as high-handed, exploitative, and elitist.
Concurrently, radicals in the contemporary West have continued to wage their war against classical liberalism. The project of “Theory” – derived from anti-liberal critiques articulated by thinkers like Foucault – has moved from the academy into the public sphere, largely in the form of what we now think of as identity politics. People who espouse identity politics are often thought of as “liberal.” But identity politics is not a classically liberal idea. In fact it arose from the failure of classical liberalism to create a genuinely equitable society. In this sense, identity politics has the same origins as the politics of ressentiment that drives the people who voted for Brexit or Trump. White nationalism, for example, is a form of identity politics. Unwilling to recognise that their shared hatred of classical liberalism makes them more alike than not, White nationalists and millennial leftists clash over control of public discourse: who gets to say what, and how. In fact, identity politics – whether of the right or of the left – violates one of the key tenets of classical liberalism, which is that no one group should be afforded special rights: instead, all groups and individuals should be afforded the same rights, with no exceptions. In practice, of course, classical liberalism has consistently afforded special rights to the rich, while simultaneously denying that “the rich” constitute a minority. It is this hypocrisy – which may, in fact, be built into the very foundations of classical liberalism itself – that has driven both right and left into a tumult of illiberal reaction.