Liberalism and Corbyn

November 1, 2019

[This is a sort of meandering post, but basically it has two parts: a rather abstract discussion of the different elements of liberalism; and then an argument that in the UK context the ‘hard left’ is often much more liberal than the centre, and that this is a good thing.]

All of the great political ideologies are coalitions of contradictory interests, beliefs, and projects. Socialism has its statist and anti-statist, its democratic and its anti-democratic variants; conservatism has its free market and its communitarian, its traditionalist and its revolutionary variants. But liberalism is arguably the most internally diverse political ideology of all, being as it is the dominant ideology of the last few hundred years of capitalist society, and therefore subject to a bewildering variety of transformations and permutations. Is liberalism an economic ideology, of free trade and private property? Is it a political ideology, of checks and balances on state power and individual rights? Is it an ideology of discourse, where rational debate can direct an open society to forms of political consensus grounded in discursive pluralism? Or is it an ideology of domination, where the lesser sorts – the lower forms of a humanity segmented along lines of race, class, gender, and other categories of identity and oppression – are appropriately ruled with the iron fist of mature technocratic enlightenment?

Liberalism is all of these things, and more, but it is not necessarily all of these things at the same time. There are many liberalisms, and much of our political contestation and debate is contestation within liberalism – a battle over which of these many liberalisms will govern our lives. Of course for some critics of liberalism, of both right and left, liberalism itself – liberalism ‘as such’ – is unsalvageable: an ideology and project that must be thrown out altogether. But it has been the argument of this blog that emancipatory politics is entirely compatible with major elements of liberalism – and, moreover, that it is hard to imagine a genuinely emancipatory governance structure that does not have central liberal elements. A political project that values individual liberty, human rights, and checks and balances on concentrations of power – this is not in itself any kind of guarantor of emancipation, but it seems to me that a political project that dispenses with these goals is likely to turn oppressive sooner rather than later. What we need, in my view, is not the rejection of liberalism, but the development of a properly left liberalism – a ‘radical liberalism’ in something like Charles W. Mills’ sense.

At the present moment, liberalism is under attack, in several ways. As the world-system undergoes one of its periodic crises of declining hegemony, the US-enforced liberal international world-order is fraying. At the same time, and relatedly, populist anti-liberal movements are on the rise in many places. Just as the decline of British liberal hegemony in the early twentieth century was associated with the rise of fascist and communist projects which sought not just to transform liberalism but to abolish it, so the present moment is one of rising illiberalisms.

But we need to be careful with our categories. Because liberalism is so internally diverse, political projects that are illiberal in some senses may be liberal in others. Just as socialists and conservatives love to play the game of ‘true Scotsman’, defining any ideological deviation from their preferred narrowly sectarian line as ‘not conservative’ or ‘not socialist’, so one person’s illiberalism is another person’s embrace of (different) liberal values.

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In the UK today, there are a number of debates over what counts as ‘liberalism’. Here it is common to see a narrative, similar in important respects to the one I sketched above, in which the liberal centre is under assault from illiberalisms – or perhaps ‘populisms’ – of the right and left. It is a favourite theme of many centrist liberal pundits that the populist right of Farage and the populist left of Corbyn present twin threats to a liberal political and economic order that until recently held beneficent sway.

This narrative has its elements of truth – as I say, the internal diversity of these ideological categories means that defining one’s terms correctly can produce this narrative or many others. Yet from the perspective of an emancipatory left politics, it is deeply misleading.

Here two broad points need to be made. First, that the kind of ‘centrist liberalism’ that until recently dominanted UK politics, and which is currently under attack, was and is, in many important ways, illiberal. The New Labour project tethered together, broadly speaking, four different elements: a liberal economic project of privatisation and deregulation; a social democratic redistributive project that significantly increased government spending on key elements of the welfare state; an illiberal law and order project, that sought right-populist legitimacy via attacks on civil liberties; and a liberal interventionist – or, increasingly, neoconservative-adjacent – foreign policy, that engaged in imperialist adventures overseas at the behest of the declining global hegemon. The degree to which you define the New Labour project as a liberal one therefore depends to a large extent on which forms of liberalism you’re interested in.

Similarly, the Cameron-Osborne project, and the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition it produced, had a range of contradictory elements. It was economically liberal; it sought to move the Conservative Party in a more socially liberal direction on some issues such as same-sex marriage; it destroyed significant elements of the social-democratic safety net; it greatly damaged equality before the law by reducing funding for legal aid; and it instituted punitively illiberal policies around migration and citizenship that could only have been dreamed of by the Conservative Monday Club – a group with which the party formerly severed ties due to its commitment to ‘repatriation’ of ethnic minority Britons.

Were these political projects ‘liberal’ ones? In some ways yes. But in other, in my view more important, ways no. Indeed, from the point of view of a left liberalism – one which cares about civil liberties more than deregulation, due process more than military interventionism, and so on, these were disastrously illiberal governments.

So that’s the first point: ‘centrist liberalism’ is not very liberal, and is particularly illiberal in the ways that matter most for emancipatory politics.

The second point is that the so-called illiberalism of Corbynite left ‘populism’ is, in fact, very liberal – at least in the ways that (I believe) ought to matter to us.

James A. Smith made some of this case well in The Independent a couple months ago, and I’m going to be sort of sketchy here for now in the interests of actually finishing and publishing this post. But basically, although Labour is of course itself a ‘big tent’ containing a lot of very different politicians and political commitments, ‘Corbynism’, and indeed more narrowly Corbyn himself, is from the point of view of a left or radical liberalism in many ways very liberal indeed. Corbyn’s Labour is, for example, committed to: returning funding to legal aid; following due process in international law and international governance institutions, rather than unilaterally bombing and invading whichever countries it (or the US) pleases; not arbitrarily stripping British citizenship from babies in refugee camps; retaining human rights principles which can constrain oppressive state action within UK law. More broadly, although there are many scare stories out there about Corbyn’s illiberal radicalism, Corbyn himself is in my view best seen in the tradition of ‘radical liberalism’. His politics is one that emphasises individual human flourishing; because he sees human rights as including substantive rights to provision of human needs by the broader society, this understanding of liberalism also involves heavy state intervention to redistributive ends, and in this sense much of the traditional social-democratic agenda emerges out of radical liberalism. But Corbyn and (many elements of) Corbynism are also strong on other traditional liberal commitments that the ‘liberal’ centrist parties have largely abandoned in the interests of either economic liberalism or straight authoritarian right populism.

I’ll maybe try to expand on the above in a subsequent post, but for now I think it’s important to note that the contest between ‘centrism’ and ‘populism’ in the UK – to the extent that these are useful categories at all – can not necessarily usefully be seen as a conflict between liberalism and illiberalism. In fact, centrism is in many cases highly illiberal, in ways contested by the ‘populist’ left. Just as the historical role of social democracy is (arguably) to save capitalism from itself, so the historical role of the ‘hard left’ may be to save political liberalism from the assaults directed at it by centrist ‘liberals’. This should in my view be a consideration when the UK goes to the polls next month.

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