Sunday, September 07, 2008

A history of crossed lines

I had dinner with friends last week and caught up with an academic couple I've known for years. They are both solidly left-liberal in their politics, though traditional in their family life.

The conversation turned to the issue of the European Union. The left-liberal couple didn't express opposition to the EU, but they did take the view that some parts of Europe had a closer affinity than others and were therefore more suited to be joined together.

I wanted to see if I could push their Euroscepticism a bit further, so I pointed out that there was support for extending the borders of the European Union much further, to Turkey and even to northern African countries. The lack of natural affinity would then be even more marked.

Their response? They laughed dismissively and claimed that it would never happen. The same thing happened when I followed up by mentioning plans to form a Pacific Union, modelled on the EU, in our own region. They knew far less of these plans than I did and wouldn't entertain the idea that such a plan would ever go ahead.

It was as if they had drawn a line in the sand within which liberalism would be contained.

The problem is that this line in the sand is imaginary. There is nothing within liberal politics to keep it within certain limits. Over time, liberalism will be taken to its logical end point.

The left-liberal couple somehow wanted to reconcile contradictory things. They wanted to continue to comfortably identify with left-liberalism, perhaps as this serves a particular function for them, as a marker of both class status and membership of a progressive moral elite. They also wanted, though, to set limits on what would be lost to a liberal politics - they didn't want natural, traditional, historic boundaries to be entirely overthrown.

This just won't work. What is really needed are people who are so committed to a realistic view of where things are headed, that they don't dodge a recognition of what is going to be lost. Such people will at least avoid contradictions; they will either stick with liberalism knowing what the long-term costs will be, or they will choose to give up the comforts of a liberal identity in order to help conserve significant aspects of their own tradition.


  1. You wrote: "Over time, liberalism will be taken to its logical end point." Some 25 years ago, Leszek Kolakowski wrote an essay, "The Self Poisoning of the Open Society," in which he pointed out the threat to the maintenance of liberal values of liberalism's tendency to consistently and logically extend its principles until they turn into their opposites. For example, an extreme version of tolerance requires intolerance of criticism of excessive tolerance so that in the end liberalism tolerates nothing but liberalism; extreme egalitarianism requires creating unequal concentrations of power that are a far more serious threat than economic inequalities sought to be addressed; and liberal freedom interpreted as radical personal autonomy and the free expression of will and appetite undermines the conditions necessary for the perpetuation of liberal values across generations.

    Why should liberalism be so immoderate, and refuse to make reasonable tradeoffs of its core values where necessary? In my view, it is because liberalism serves as a kind of substitute religion, a whole way of looking at the world that meets human needs for meaning and consolation. Contrary to its adherents' beliefs, it is not a rational phenomenon.

  2. Yeah I agree with that statement and its even more obvious when you're in a liberal environment. Its like the hushed tones of a priesthood at prayer.

  3. Thucydides, it's interesting that Kolakowski recognised the contradictions generated by liberal theory 25 years ago - it adds some force to what I've written at this site along similar lines.

    Jesse, thanks for the recent comments.

  4. The real issue with "liberalism" is that it needs firm conservatism to push against otherwise it ends up flat on its face in the mud. Liberalism must always "push the boundaries" and all that so that it's practitioners don't have to see themselves as that dreaded thing, "reactionary". So they usually imagine that there is this vast conservative monolith that they have to move, and that they are bravely fighting the good fight against this all powerful conservative establishment. The truth is that the "establishment" as it exists is basically "liberal". They want to maintain their personal position in society. That's why these people are socially "progressive" by in economic terms are "economically rationalist". Our media represent this, as, generally, do the politicians. Overall it isn't a very pretty picture.

  5. The truth is that the "establishment" as it exists is basically "liberal".

    Anon, agreed - and a good comment, thanks.