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The practice of politics

[The following review appeared in the December, 2014 issue of Chronicles:]

This is a history of liberalism as it appears to an intelligent, well-informed, and thoroughly convinced English liberal who worked for many years as an editor and correspondent for The Economist. It is useful as a sympathetic exploration of the stages through which the political outlook that rules us today has advanced.

The book is subtitled “The Life of an Idea,” but author Edmund Fawcett tells us liberalism is no such thing. The movement, he says, has been not a doctrine but a “practice of politics.” As such, it has done best “when insisting on the primacy of politics—endless public argument and compromise—not when elevating [itself] into moral philosophy or reducing [itself] to economics.” The purpose of the book, then, is to describe the development of liberalism as a practice, largely through accounts of the thoughts and doings of representative liberals.

Fawcett divides his life of liberalism into three periods: its confident youth (1830-80), its maturity and struggle with democracy (1880-1945), and its second chance and ultimate success (1945-89). He also adds a brief and impressionistic introduction to a fourth period, still too new to define, that began in 1989. For each period he covers the setting, the issues and challenges, and characteristic thinkers and politicians, dealing fairly evenly with developments in France, Britain, Germany, and the United States. (He notes that in France what he calls liberalism is more often called republicanism.)

According to the author, liberalism has been a response to general social conditions that have existed since the end of the Napoleonic wars. Those conditions, brought on by capitalism and political revolution, have been characterized by ceaseless social and moral change. Liberalism has been an attempt to find principles for political life in such a setting that would promote “an ethically acceptable order of human progress among civic equals without recourse to undue power.” At the heart of the project, he says, have been four broad commitments: acceptance of ethical and material conflict within society, distrust of power, faith in progress, and respect for people regardless of outlook and social position. Each of the four is essential, and how strongly someone holds to all of them determines how liberal he is.

An acceptance of conflict, per Fawcett, is the point that most clearly distinguishes liberalism from tendencies such as socialism and conservatism. Rather than evidence of a defect, conflict is thought to be potentially creative, an agent of progress, so long as it can be channeled into peaceful competition through legal institutions. That willingness to accept conflict aligns with another distinctive liberal attitude: distrust of power. Liberals believe that power tends to suppress legitimate interests and progressive developments, and deny that the attempt to use power to maintain peace and harmony justifies such a result. The principle of respect for each person, as liberals define it, leads them especially to oppose arbitrary or excessive power over individuals.

The history of liberalism, we are told, has been the history of the developing implications of those commitments, and has featured several broad themes that have bound together their varied manifestations. Thus, maintenance of a regime of peaceful struggle has meant that everyone must have something to bargain with: hence various measures designed to give everyone a stake in society, such as extension of the franchise, support for unions, and expansion of the welfare state.

Another theme has been an increasing awareness of the complexity of power, which acts in many ways and through many agencies. Restraining power has therefore become an ever more complicated matter that requires restraining the influence of wealth and informal social arrangements as well as that of the state by, for example, protecting people from penury and social ostracism. Still another has been the steady expansion of the circle of those entitled to mutual respect and protection, from propertied white males to everyone everywhere. The author tells us that civic respect for everyone has been the “democratic seed in an otherwise undemocratic creed” that has turned out to be liberalism’s greatest challenge. (Other people have made the same point by saying that liberalism has repeatedly been transformed by egalitarian demands.)

Keeping all of these commitments in balance has been difficult. Should liberals promote progressive or democratic government? Try to improve people or give them what they want? When does liberalism become too libertarian or socialist or authoritarian to be liberal? Reforms have been found to require counterreforms, as in the case of the shifting balance in recent decades between markets and economic management. And catastrophes such as war and depression that seemed beyond the reach of all reform have fed liberal mood swings from euphoria to the darkest melancholy.

Having detailed the variety within liberalism, Fawcett, in the end, emphasizes liberalism’s unity. He says that nothing in the evolution of liberalism was inevitable but insists on continuities and is concerned to show that the liberalism of the present is consistent with that of the past, so much so that Fawcett makes it seem that liberalism has always been headed toward the politically correct welfare state of today. As he puts it, over time liberals have learned to understand better what they are after. His account thus tends—against his evident intention—to support an understanding of liberalism that puts at its center an originally implicit but gradually clarifying conception of equal individual freedom to be realized through government action that grows ever more comprehensive as abstract demands eat away at inherited limitations.

This is a good and well-written book. It is severely limited, though, by the outlook of the author, for whom liberalism establishes the horizon of political reason and reality. Within that horizon Fawcett is wide-ranging, informative, and independent in his judgments. His accounts of the various liberal tendencies seem well informed and fair-minded, and he covers thinkers like Sartre, Oakeshott, and Alasdair MacIntyre who are not normally classified as liberal, but have some liberal tendencies and are widely accepted as important commentators. His view of liberalism as a practice of politics led by enduring concerns makes that breadth of treatment possible, and it is helpful in understanding how the movement has been able to adjust to so many changes, include such a variety of tendencies and figures, and emerge victorious after so many threats and such apparent weakness.

However, treating liberalism as primarily a practice means avoiding basic issues. The author mentions dissidents such as MacIntyre but does not take fundamental criticisms of liberalism seriously, treating them as confused, one-sided, or overstated, and has no trouble folding points he thinks legitimate into the scheme of liberal self-criticism that he treats as an enduring feature and strength of the tendency. Further, his approach doesn’t capture the reasons for the endurance and coherence of the movement.

To discover these reasons we must look at fundamental issues that the author elides. The understandings on which liberalism is based are evidently those of the main current of modernity. As such, they do away with essential connections and transcendent standards, and make individual man and his will ultimate authorities. Those ideas have many consequences, some of them quite troubling. The author, who views liberalism as simply a matter of people doing what makes sense, has no interest in exploring them. When fundamental issues arise he turns them into a mass of particular tendencies, such as the varying roles the concept of the individual has played in liberal thought and rhetoric.

The author’s restricted perspective makes his accounts of nonliberal views schematic and ultimately dismissive. He is somewhat open to the left, who are philosophically close to liberals but pursue their concerns in a less prudent and balanced way. Communism is for him an “extremism of hope,” as fascism is an “extremism of hate,” and he has no qualms about calling diehard communist and Soviet sympathizer Eric Hobsbawm the “Marxist conscience of enlightened liberalism.” In the case of conservatism, however, his depictions rarely rise above caricature. Especially as events come closer to the present and their location closer to America, Fawcett sees the concerns of the right as simply a matter of hatred, fear, resentment, greed, mindless prejudice, resistance to change, and so on. That outlook distorts his grasp of reality. He rarely descends to the factual level, but when he approaches it his comments suggest views that are inexcusable in a serious journalist: Better schools are a matter of money; reduced crime is a product of widespread prosperity; right-wing backlash is the only noticeable problem coming out of the 60’s, etc.

Fawcett’s purely internal perspective on liberalism keeps him from seeing how its relation to the world has changed. He betrays no awareness that the growing conceptual clarity he notices, together with the ever-expanding range of human interactions liberalism feels compelled to supervise, has made it much less a flexible practice and much more an ideology. Where, in liberalism today, is the acceptance of ethical disagreement, distrust of power, and respect for people regardless of outlook—attitudes that he regards as fundamental? For him, such issues do not arise. He sees the problem today as too little rather than too much political correctness, which he apparently views as a natural response to new attacks on respect and tolerance exemplified by the “nativist bigotry and foreigner baiting of the … right-wing press.”

Ultimately, Edmund Fawcett’s lack of self-awareness makes his book as much an example as an account of its topic.

[Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, by Edmund Fawcett (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) 488 pp., $35.00]

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