Reply Guy to a Leverhulme Prize Winner
Professor Liam Kofi Bright’s excellent blogpost attempts to define liberalism in a way “neither charitable nor polemical”.
This is admirable, as liberalism is a slippery concept, surely one of the statues of Daedalus.
Dante would have called himself a liberal and would have considered “Poetry is liberal” a bland truism. Yet trying to bring about Dante’s political preferences today would be clearly illiberal.
Weber’s Protestant Ethic & Spirit Of Capitalism for instance, investigates how Protestant ideology dealt with accidental existence of Catholics in Northern Europe and proletarians throughout Europe when the ruling ideologies became essentially liberal. Bright misreads this book as being about growth and being part of the Lockean project. In fact, it is about distribution and is critical of that project.
As Bright points out (using the old French class system as the guide), Adam Smith’s liberalism is an essentially bourgeois ideology designed to fight the accident of being born into an aristocrat dominated world. This leads to the modern market defender with nothing to mediate the accidental relation to the proletariat - thus the absurd attacks on the poor as a kind of aristocracy (see: every opinion page every day)
In addition, as Aneurin Bevan pointed out, there is an intrinsic tendency to humbug about basic beliefs. Many people would define ‘liberalism’ as ‘respecting what ought to be respected’ or somesuch nonsense.
Bright’s essential argument is that liberalism is the intellectual-historical tradition which contains John Locke in three ways: as a mediator in the wars of religion in dialog with the Cambridge Platonists, as a colonizer of the new world and as an advocate for the Puritan bourgeoise.
Bright cites John Rawls as evidence this is correct. I think Bright here is fair, perhaps even over-generous to all sides.
This is, however, over-specific to the albion world. Bright argues that Locke’s specific theses - Locke’s nominalist version of latitudinarianism (in dialog with the Cambridge Platonists), Locke’s specific approach to toleration (rather than Montaigne’s also mentioned approach) and Locke’s “refining the theoretical elements of … herronvolk meritocracy”.
This centering of Puritan England as ‘Liberalism Proper’ is not particularly matched by England being particularly liberal. Wikipedia politely leaves the United Kingdom off the universal male suffrage page for a reason.
The choice of Locke as Liberalism commits Bright to a kind of liberalism which is easier to reject than other kinds of liberalism.
According to Weber, Goethe diagnosed the illness of Lockean ideology thus: “At the height of his wisdom, Goethe, in his ‘Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre’ and in the ending which he gave to the life of his Faust, tried to teach us the basic ascetic motive of the middle-class style of life—if it aspires to be a genuine style of life at all—namely, that restricting oneself to specialized work, with the inevitable consequence of the abandonment of the Faustian universality of humankind, is the precondition in today’s world for any worthwhile action. In other words, the ‘deed’ and ‘renunciation’ are bound together in mutual dependence. For him this recognition meant a resigned farewell to a period of full and fine humanity, the likes of which we shall not see again in the course of our cultural development, any more than the period of the full flowering of Athens in antiquity will be repeated. The Puritans wanted to be men of the calling—we, on the other hand, must be.” (The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit Of Capitalism, Part II: The Idea Of The Calling In Ascetic Protestantism, Section 2: Asceticism And The Capitalist Spirit)
We see what a statue of Daedalus ‘liberal’ is: the word now denotes the precise opposite of what Dante meant.
We could highlight innumerable other liberal Locke critics: Karl Popper, Benedetto Croce and Francis Fukuyama.
As Socrates said - all philosophy is, every actual event must be a mixture of essential and accidental characteristics. Discerning or creating the essence requires a wisdom greater than Daedalus.
The difficulty can be seen in Bright’s discussion of political underclasses
“[Liberalism believes it] just so happens that the inhabitants of the New World, the peasants of Ireland and Poland, anyone African — all lack the capability to be rational in the required fashion and so cannot reasonably be expected to benefit from any social system, at best being capable of enjoying the benevolent oversight of their rational betters (Montesquieu for instance considers this the only serious justification of slavery, but conveniently it works well enough).”
Voltaire attacked Montesquieu position (as he attacked all Montesquieu’s positions), saying “… negroes brought in from Africa and transported to Peru like animals destined to serve man. Neither the negroes nor the inhabitants of the New World were ever treated like creatures of the human species. We tell them they are men like us, that a God died to redeem them and then we make them work like beasts of burden.”. In Candide only the horror of slavery is able to make Candide finally renounce optimism.
Which of these is the essence of liberalism and which is an accidental characteristic of the politics of the day?
Here we also see why the misreading of Weber is important. The connection between political and economic power in Weber is loose: “[The economic success of the political underclass] is unmistakably how things stand today with regard to the Poles in Russia and Prussia, where they are undoubtedly doing well economically—in contrast to the situation in Galicia, where the Poles have political influence.” (The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit Of Capitalism, Part I: The Problem, Section I: Denomination And Social Stratification)
Karl Popper offers a different analysis. My deliberately inaccurate summary would be: Contemporary liberalism and socialism are both reactions in the “short 20th century” to the collapse of the romantic nationalism which dominated the “long 19th century”.
This disagrees with the common theory that socialism always and only struggles with a liberalism which has already consumed nationalism. Political evolution is not so mechanical.
I would argue that Apartheid South Africa was an instance of heroic socialists struggling against evil romantic nationalists. To take the 1948 election as an example: neither DF Malan nor Jan Smuts could be called Lockean.
Perhaps this is too many centuries late and not sufficiently philosophical. We could point to Goethe’s East-West Divan superiority to Locke on tolerance.
Edward Said also saw Goethe as the center of liberalism.
Bright notes that Locke’s latitudinarian defense of tolerance was based on “substantive consensus”. Goethe’s Weltliteratur program as developed in East-West Divan is based on a deeper unity than “substantive consensus”.
Goethe is closer to what Nye Bevan above called “imaginative tolerance”.
That Nye Bevan is being quoted as if he were a liberal points to a problem. Gladstone liberalism certainly had class, racial and national characteristics. I think it is fair to call these “essential”. But who cares? Species evolve, essences change.
As philosophers we tend to overemphasize essences. Disraeli’s Tory confessor state had an essential place for the proletariat (Bright’s ‘hegemonic Christian charity or noblesse oblige’) and Gladstone’s Lockean Whiggery did not. But Gladstone’s Whigs campaigned on cheap food. It is clear from the contemporary discussions of suffrage that extension of suffrage was correctly considered a pro-Whig reform. The accidental relation was far more powerful than the essential one.
That said, would a “liberalism” which had an essential relationship with the proletariat cease to be a liberalism and become just one of many kinds of socialism?
There are three answers
No, because liberalism has the relation to the proletariat of embourgeoisement.
No, because liberalism has the relation to the proletariat of providing full employment.
Though the language came later, it was in this spirit that Aneurin Bevan mocked Churchill for posturing as the equal of Roosevelt.
All three answers can be accepted or rejected in their own way.
Bright has outlined the advantages of rejection.
I offer this in favor of acceptance. Bright says his choice means “… a great many leftists in the academy who consider ourselves left of the Overton window should admit that we are de facto small-c conservatives — and in at least my society, to uphold the status quo just is to uphold a liberal social order. We are de facto conservatives…”. Acceptance means that intellectuals “left of the Overton window” have something to do: advocate for and justify full employment and/or embourgeoisement.