Rethinking Liberalism 7: what are the liberal blindspots?

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I started this series of essays because I thought liberalism, to say nothing of Liberalism, was at a low ebb and needed some fresh thinking. I started with the easy bits. Big questions, like the future of capitalism, but not ones that make liberals particularly uncomfortable. This is an old strategy to deal with something big and difficult. If you clean up the easy bits first, what remains looks less intimidating. But I have been a bit underwhelmed with the results, which are well within the spectrum of ideas that are regularly discussed by liberals. After a few weeks break, including a refreshing holiday, I think it is time for a change of direction.

All political philosophies have difficult bits: areas where the principles conflict with each are, or seem inadequate in the rough and tumble of the real world. Socialists want to clamp down on businesses to stop exploitation, and yet crave the tax revenues that will only come if you give businesses some serious rope. Conservatives yearn for a less intrusive government, but are annoyed when they find this gives people the freedom to behave in what they see as antisocial ways – and on which their views tend to be very narrow-minded. Liberalism is no exception. Liberals have blindspots.

I call them blindspots because most liberals behave as if these difficulties aren’t really there. Many have created a sort of alternative reality in which these problems don’t arise. Or they simply change the subject. But this is damaging in two distinct ways. First, it means that we don’t talk about many issues that bother people, and are therefore perceived to be weak or lack credibility. Second, when liberals do get their turn in government, and have to confront these intractable problems, liberal ranks are torn apart. The pragmatists are seen as betrayers of liberal principles; the fundamentalists are seen as people who will not come out of their alternative universe to confront the real world. The British Liberal Democrats in the last four years are a case study in both of these phenomena.

But even identifying what these blindspots are is hard. Because we rarely talk about them in any depth. We seem afraid of what we might find if we do. But this blogger is not running for electoral office, and so should be less frightened of tackling difficult issues. I think my time in this series is most constructively spent identifying and discussing these issues – in the hope that liberals can, in due time, work their way through them to an updated political philosophy. I feel a bit inadequate to the task. I have not read great tracts of John Stuart Mill or even Conrad Russell. But then, maybe spending so much time reading great men can be part of an evasion process.

Anyway, today I will make a start. It is time to move from the abstract. What are the liberal blindspots? Here are few problems to get us going:

  • Dependency. Liberals feel that people should have equal chances. Poverty is usually not a choice, but stems from some form of bad luck. So we offer help to redress the balance: cash handouts, subsidised housing, and so on. But very often this help creates a relationship of dependency between those being helped and the state. This does not worry socialists – but it does worry liberals because dependency is disempowering; it reduces freedom.
  • Free riding. Liberals like rights to be unconditional, since that gives individuals the maximum power. But that creates the opportunity for free riding: people who take but do not give back. Since many rights (health care, education, minimum housing standards, etc.) cost money, the opportunities for free riding are manifold. Progressive taxation, asking the rich to pay more, makes things worse. Free riders not only undermine the financial viability of entitlements, they undermine the sense of community solidarity that underpins unconditional rights.
  • Oppressive communities. Liberals like the idea of strong local communities. These balance the need for a strong central state. They give individuals more weight, and a greater sense of control. Members of strong local communities are generally happier than those of weaker ones. The word “community” even gets into the preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution – the place that the party’s core values are set out. And yet strong local communities are not liberal, open places. They often  promote uniformity and are hostile to outsiders, especially those from other cultures. For many liberalism is a reaction to the oppressive nature of strong communities.
  • Multiculturalism. This is closely linked. Often immigrants form strong local communities that don’t gel with their neighbours, and challenge liberal values. Conflict often ensues. This is a worldwide problem; neighbouring communities from different cultures may live side by side in peace for a long time, and then there is an explosion. The mechanisms of liberal democracy don’t seem equal to the task. And yet forced integration is illiberal.
  • Fighting crime. There are bad people out there, who have no interest in promoting a prosperous, inclusive society. They want to steel our money, or even kill us as participants in some imaginary war. These people adapt quickly to the modern world. But liberals often seem more interested in theoretical notions of privacy belonging to a different age.
  • Postcode lotteries. Universal rights create expectations that vital state services should be more or less the same everywhere. Strong local democracy suggests that different local communities should be able to make different trade-offs that match their own priorities and preferences. But this creates variations that are derisively referred to as the “postcode lottery” – your actual entitlements to universal rights depending on where you live.
  • Managing businesses. Businesses are at the heart of our society; we don’t just need them, we need them to be prosperous and innovative. This is at the very heart of any strategy to combat poverty. But liberals often see businesses as a threat, to the welfare of their employees, their customers or anybody that gets in the way. Liberals dream of cooperatively owned businesses, grounded in their local communities. And yet, valuable as such businesses may be, they do not provide a credible template for the majority of forward-looking enterprises that society needs.
  • Migration. Migration of people from other countries provides a flashpoint for most of the issues already mentioned. And yet it is undoubtedly a dynamic force, and a vital escape valve.

I’m sure I could go on. The agonising of liberals over events in Iraq and Israel shows liberals in a bit of a post-colonial muddle – though that affliction is hardly unique to liberals. Still we have enough to get started.

Just looking at the list of problems, I think a can see the outlines of a more general one. Liberals paint a picture of an ideal society, based on Goldilocks local communities with just the right amount of cohesion. We want all countries to follow that idea. But we also believe in universal rights; a fundamental equality of all people. And yet many of these people want to use these rights to take themselves and society in a different direction. Perhaps they have an alternative ideal; perhaps they just want to promote themselves in what they see as a rat race. We are getting to two muddled – the society we are trying to create, and the what should apply to everybody in the diverse here-and-now. And we do not address the issue of how a liberal society coexists with others made up of people who have freely chosen something different.

In this light liberals need to rethink their cherished framework of universal rights. That is what I will attempt in future essays. I’m feeling uncomfortable already. Good.

Rethinking Liberalism 3: defeating intolerance

In my first two essays in this series about rethinking Liberalism, I kept to my comfort zone of economics. I concluded that we need to retain capitalism as part of a mixed economy, but that we need to develop the language of economics so that policymakers become less obsessed with crude productivity and growth. Now I want to step back and look at what troubles me most about our society, both in Britain and elsewhere: rising public intolerance.

In my personal bubble, as a white middle class citizen of British heritage, here in a smart inner London district, it is easy to ignore the problem, or even to deny that much of one exists. It just isn’t visible directly. My neighbours are easy-going. The parents and staff that I meet at the local primary school where I am a governor are very positive about taking a tolerant society forward, notwithstanding its ethnic and social mix. I witness easy interactions between people of different ethnic and national groups everywhere. This is all much better than in my youth.

But venture beyond this and things soon get darker. Take this cry of pain from Asian Lib Dem activist Kavya Kaushik, on the relentless hostility and rudeness she has encountered while canvassing for the party, directed not just at Asians, but East Europeans. This is consistent with what other ethnic minority writers have said; things are getting worse not better. Ukip has done well by tapping into this angst, especially in working class communities. Britain First, an intolerant Facebook grouping, keeps coming up on my newsfeed, and has nearly half a million “likes”. Jewish groups are under increasing fear of attack, exemplified by recent murders at a Jewish museum in Belgium. A recent opinion poll found a growing proportion of people admitting that they had racist views, although the Economist has tried to talk this down.

This phenomenon seems typical of the white working class. But it would be a mistake to think that it is only prevalent there. One of the nastiest media outlets is the very middle class and female-oriented Daily Mail. On a local forum this morning it was a nice middle class woman that drew a connection between a local rubbish dumping scam and the arrival of travellers locally (something that I am sure is baseless, judging by the person that tried it on us).

First a note of caution. I have been careful to use the word “intolerance” as being the primary issue, not “racism”. Intolerant comments are typically introduced by the expression, “I’m not racist but…”. Ukip, and the mainstream newspapers who also promote intolerance, are careful to avoid outright racism, without complete success in the case of Ukip. The flashpoints are cultural (Muslim dress code, for example) or over the impact of immigration on the availability of housing and jobs and the take-up of state benefits. And the intolerance is itself multi-ethnic. Some of the things that I have read an Islamic writer say on state primary education are totally inexcusable (“worse than a toilet, because at least after the toilet you can wash your hands…”). On being challenged by me, incidentally, this writer quoted the Daily Mail. But it all boils down to the same thing – and talking about racism obscures rather than clarifies the problem. And anyway ethnic intolerance is leading to intolerance of anybody who is different, such as benefit claimants, the upper or lower classes, gays and so on, and an orgy of scapegoating,  of politicians, bankers and anybody else you don’t know personally.

There is an optimistic way to view this. It is like the anger stage in the seven phases of grief – just a phase that society must get through on the way to becoming more tolerant – and the product of temporary economic tensions. But behind that optimistic view there lurks a nightmare. In the 18th Century the Enlightenment ushered in period of rising tolerance, and especially the integration of Jews to mainstream society. But from the middle of the 19th Century there was a backlash. And this backlash was no temporary phase. It grew and grew until it burst out into mass murder and destruction with the Nazis.

What lies behind the current rise in intolerance? There are two big phenomena, at least here in Britain. The first what I might call a Muslim backlash. This is a complex thing; it is mostly a peaceful but angry battle between conservative Muslims and the rest of society over things like mosques and dress codes. But it also inspires terrorists – and since the 9/11 attack in New York, these have been elevated by our security services to being the greatest security threat the country faces. This backlash generates its own backlash. The second thing is the mass immigration of East European workers since the end of the Cold War, and especially the entry of former Communist Bloc countries to the European Union. This has visibly disrupted job and housing markets.

But I think there is an even more important driver: the insecurities generated by the world’s headlong process of globalisation and technological advance, of which both of these are aspects. People are stirred by events in far-away places (such as Iraq and Israel); jobs are made less secure by the rise of developing world industries and automation; people are more inclined to change their country of residence for better economic prospects or a more conducive climate. This creates both physical and cultural insecurity, as well as economic advances. This is not unlike the situation that persisted in the 19th Century, which fuelled intolerance then.

So what should liberals do? Many mainstream politicians, Labour and Conservative alike, are seeking a middle path. They accept that immigration is a problem; they want to push minority groups to integrate better into the mainstream way of life. This includes promoting “British Values” in schools, which include “tolerance”, as  away of promoting universal human values while at the same time nodding to the intolerant appeal to Britishness (see Britain First).

I don’t think this is working. It just encourages intolerant attitudes. “We spoke up by voting Ukip,” they might say “and now at last they are listening. Let me speak some more.” The more politicians talk about immigration as being a problem, the more members of the public think it is OK to be intolerant. That may not be logical, but it does seem to be the way things work. And as for “British values”, the trap is obvious. What the public thinks this means (“no foreign cultures here like Islam”) is different from what the politicians think (“Accept Muslims as being fully British”). It’s all a bit “I’m not racist but…”.

Instead liberal, and Liberal, politicians should concentrate on three things: challenging intolerant attitudes, without the buts; developing broad-based community education; tackling the insecurities.

First is challenging intolerance. This means taking on people who say that immigration is destroying society, that Muslim communities are a threat, that benefit claimants are scroungers, and so on. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most mainstream politicians say the words, but destroy them with a “but”. “This society could not survive without immigration, but it has disrupted communities,” for example. Instead politicians should try and divert the blame for the society’s stresses onto economic insecurity following technological and global development.

Next is community education. Schools, especially primary schools, should be celebrated as places where different communities meet. Pupils should be taught about different religions, world regions and so on. Of course Britain’s own special story must be taught as part of this, but not in such a way as to promote narrow nationalism. And the school curriculum should embrace wide life-skills, such as dealing with people who disagree with you, and taking responsibility for you own fate, rather than always trying to blame somebody else. This is not rocket science. Many of our schools are already doing this. But it is difficult to see how this is compatible with the government’s programme of fragmentation of school management, driven by parental choice – and focus on narrow skills such as literacy and numeracy.

Finally we must tackle the insecurity that drives intolerance. This brings me back to economics, and I will develop my ideas on this in future essays. But in essence I think we need to look for stronger local economies, with stronger local governance – to balance the global dimension with a local one, at the expense of our current national focus.


Vienna 1900 – parellels with Europe today










Today we went to see the last day of the National Gallery’s exhibition of portraiture from Vienna at the turn of the 19th/20th Century. The art was interesting in its own right, but the main impact for me was learning about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which lasted from 1867 to 1916, and its implications for our time.

Austria-Hungary came into being after the Habsburg Austria Empire’s disastrous war with Prussia in 1866. This put to an end idea that the Habsburgs would lead a united Germany. It also put paid to the Austrian Empire’s possessions in Italy, which joined the new Kingdom of Italy. Austria’s rulers had to consolidate what they had, and they took a distinctly liberal approach. The Kingdom of Hungary was established as a parallel entity to Austria, rather than simply being part of Austria’s extensive possessions, and it took perhaps about half of the total land area. Hungary included what is now Slovakia, Croatia and the Transylvanian region of Rumania. In each part of the dual monarchy, democratic reforms were enacted, with elections and citizenship open to all (I think these were more advanced in Austria than Hungary).

Many people of different backgrounds migrated to Vienna, which became a liberal, multicultural place. Jews, in particular, were offered a route into the higher echelons of society, and many assimilated into the Austrian culture. But by 1900 all this liberalism was creating a backlash, and tensions started to mount. There was political stalemate, broken by the First World War in 1914 – which Austria-Hungary itself started, by attacking Serbia. This brought catastrophe down on the Empire, which broke up after Emperor Franz Joseph’s death in 1916, with complete dismemberment when the war finally ended in 1918. Things got worse after that, with anti-Semitism growing into the horror of the Holocaust. Hitler was an Austrian and part of the Vienna scene before 1914. The betrayal of Jews, in Austria especially, has left a stain on Europe’s history that will never be expunged, to rank alongside exploitative, racist colonialism, which Austria at least did not take part in.

Austria-Hungary was widely disparaged at the time – “the sick man of Europe”. Its attempt to forge a multicultural national entity was thought to be undemocratic and illiberal. The right way was to form nation states from largely one language and culture. Nowadays we have much more sympathy with the Austria-Hungary project. National identity is a complicated business, and the idea of creating states based on linguistic and cultural heritage proved to be romantic fiction at best, and licence for oppression, murder and war at worst. All European nations wrestle with the issues of being home to multiple cultures, and we have created a vast, multi-national entity in the EU, which shares many features with Austria-Hungary.

What the Exhibition showed, however, was that for all the tension and ultimate political failure, Vienna in particular produced a flowering of creativity. Many of the period’s greatest artists worked there (we can think of Gustav Klimt and Gustav Mahler, and the highly innovative Arnold Schoenberg). This creativity was not confined to the arts: there was Sigmund Freud, and in the discipline of economics, Joseph Schumpeter, each responsible for ground-breaking ideas that we now take for granted.

But there is a discomforting parallel with Europe today. The European liberal and multicultural project is under fire. Nationalist groups, promoting intolerance, seem to have the political momentum. This is creating a tension, and causing liberals to doubt. In Britain it is disheartening to see that both Labour and Conservative parties have decided to pander to the anti-liberal momentum, rather than stand up to it. And meanwhile, just as in the 1900s, economic advance seems to create inequality, creating yet more tension.

Are we heading for disaster? I don’t think so. The horrific events of the first half of the 20th Century still cast a strong shadow. But liberalism does need to reinvent itself. I dedicate myself to that cause.

The private war of the jihadi terrorists

Last week’s bombing of the Boston marathon received blanket coverage here in the UK. In a world where there is still plenty of death and destruction, it seemed to be particularly shocking. But the strangest aspect of the episode to me was that nobody claimed responsibility. We were left to speculate as to whether it was Islamic jihadis, right wing extremists or some tortured loner. What’s the point if nobody knows why you did it? It turns out that it was the jihadis: but this still leaves us with the question of what their cause is all about.

Describing the jihadist enterprise as a war, as in “war on terror”, is controversial on the part of the western states that seem to be the main targets. Be that as it may, the jihadists themselves see it as a war. “I am a soldier,” said one of the London terrorists of July 2005 in the video released to publicise his suicide attack. But it is a strange sort of war.

Following the 19th Century philosopher of war Carl von Clausewitz very loosely, we can see war in terms of three elements: purpose (the political, rational element), strategy (the way the two sides try to outwit each other, which resolves to a game of chance), and will (the primordial hatred and drive to violence). The will is evident, and there is quite a bit of strategy too, as the jihadis spend quite a bit of time plotting their acts, while the authorities try to catch them. The problem comes with the political purpose. What is all this designed to achieve?

It did seem a bit clearer in September 2001. The scale of the attacks on New York and Washington was breathtaking, and there seemed to be a strategic driving force, based in Afghanistan. The Western media focused on the personality of Osama Bin-Laden, though what his personal role was in all of this I find it difficult to say; he was a convenient focus for the attacked nations. But if not him, there were other strategists and leaders in a global enterprise. We could make out some kind of purpose. There was something about establishing a global caliphate, and pushing the Western countries towards enlightenment and the Islamic path. The terrorist attacks would so disrupt western civilisation, whose foundations they believed to be very weak, that its economy would collapse and they would then be forced to consider their ways. With talk of escalating the violence towards nuclear and biological weapons and “dirty bombs”, you could just about see this as being rational, if deluded.

But those delusions became pretty obvious pretty quickly, and the jihadist campaign resolved to a few nasty pinpricks that could do little to undermine the fabric of western society itself. The Al-Qaeda leadership, so far as it exists, is focusing on maore local issues, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and expanding elsewhere in the Middle east and Africa. It is an armed part of a puritanical, fundamentalist Islamic political movement, operating in countries that are  predominantly Muslim. They have no real interest in pursuing terrorist campaigns in the West, which might even harm their cause by getting Western securities services involved. Western countries don’t want to get themselves bogged down in messy wars in countries they don’t understand. The foreign jihadists might see some use in recruiting sympathetic residents of Western countries to act as foot soldiers in their wars, but that is probably the limit.

But terrorism in the West lives on. Not only are there the occasional successful attacks, like that in Boston, but many more plots that come to light before they are executed – such as a Canadian plot in the news today. But these are local affairs carried out by citizens or residents of the countries concerned, with little outside involvement. The plot of the US TV series Homeland is a fantasy. Does that mean that the US military effort against the terrorists, drone strikes and all, is purely a geopolitical game? Or is it successfully suppressing outside terrorism? It is impossible for us ordinary members of the public to know.

What we have is a very private war, carried out by isolated and frustrated members of minority communities, who feel excluded and alienated. Terrorism is some kind of release, but serves no wider goal. As one character in the BBC TV series The Village set in the First World War says in another context (I paraphrase from memory): “He thinks that by going to war and getting killed he will impress her; he forgets that the problem with being killed is that you are dead.” This was quite striking with the 7/7 bombings in London. It was perpetrated by a well-organised cell (compare their attacks with the ham-fisted ones that took place a week later), but it was a one shot weapon. Any military virtues died with them. The silence that followed the Boston bombings has something of the same disconnection with any wider objectives.

So what to we do to protect ourselves? The police and intelligence effort has to go on, even if we suspect those that lead it are playing the threat up, and hiding behind national security. But we also need to carry on the slow, awkward process of outreach and integration of minority communities: multiculturalism. We need at least to try to drain the hatred that drives these very private wars.