The Limits of Scientism

People have an instinctual desire to trust ‘science.’ It gives guidance as to our actions, offers explanations as to our observations, and insists on its own absolute truth. In these, and other, respects, it is like a religion. But much as, in a liberal society, religions should be open to criticism, the same must hold true of science.

Science is a bifurcated discipline. It consists of two aspects; the collection of data through experimentation and testing, and the creation of theories to explain this data. These two aspects are obviously linked, insofar as theory will guide researchers in the sorts of experiments they conduct and the sort of data they look for. However it is vital to appreciate that they are separate.

The first of these aspects is indeed objective – assuming that experimentation is carried out properly and without inherent flaws, data is just data. The logical flaw made by most (including the majority of scientists) is to extend that objectivity to the interpretation of the data, and thereby to assume that the end product of this experimentation – theory – is ipso facto true.

Of course, this is patently false and dangerous. Interpretation is not an objective discipline; it is guided fundamentally by the preconceptions, biases and beliefs of the interpreters. The extent to which this affects the theories which result will depend on the sort of science. With something as abstruse as astrophysics, any bias will tend not to be grounded in politics or personality; with the social sciences, the inherent political stance of the researcher is everything. All the other sciences line up on a spectrum between these poles.

One upshot of this is that ‘science’ very rarely refers to a single explanatory theory for a particular physical phenomenon. Usually – far more than is commonly understood – there is a range of opinions on a particular observation. Sometimes the range is fairly small; sometimes there are vast differences in opinion. Often, the consensus view will prove to be the more resilient one in the face of scrutiny or further data emerging; regularly, a minority standpoint (perhaps even labelled a ‘crackpot’ view) might turn out to be right.

What does all of this mean? In essence, when a scientist tells you that a particular proposition is ‘scientifically true’, you should not automatically give them credence. This is doubly true where the given scientific wisdom has behavioural implications; where scientists encourage the broader public to do or not do particular things based upon scientific justifications.

Our society is not – and for a variety of reasons we should be very grateful about this – a technocratic one. As discussed above, scientists unearth data and provide theories; where the theories are of public import, it then becomes up to politicians (acting on behalf of the public) who must make decisions relating to how a theory should, if at all, be implemented.

When thinking about this, a politician should have in his mind different considerations to a scientist. A scientist, in developing an account for observed data, will offer forth a theory which to his mind is the best explanation for what he has seen. A politician should be able to balance multiple such (credible) theories in his mind, weigh them against the numerous social and political considerations which are relevant in daily life, and only then make decisions. Basing politics purely upon what ‘science’ says is dangerous and wrong.

I write this all, of course, in the shadow of coronavirus and the intense debate as to the appropriate governmental reactions to it. The British government has incurred hundreds of billions of pounds of debt, essentially shuttered swathes of the economy, and imposed some of the most draconian limits upon normal life ever seen in this country, as well as arrogating to itself extraordinary emergency powers.

They are doing so, they say, in response to the science. This is fair enough – this is a scientific crisis, and any response should certainly be guided by reference to science. But, as discussed above, the government has made the mistake of assuming that science is an accurate explanation of what goes on in the world, rather than a set of competing theories.

In particular, the government has lent total credence to a report by Imperial College London researchers predicting hundreds of thousands of casualties from the pandemic. It is based upon this report, and others produced by SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), that the government has proceeded with a severe lockdown of the country to combat coronavirus.

But a single report is not ‘science.’ It is a theory, a theory which needs robust debate and prodding by the scientific community to determine its truth value. Indeed, even this report does not represent absolute agreement amongst the members of SAGE – it is a compromise document concealing huge variance between the various eminent scientists on the committee.

Should the government be undertaking such radical decisions in response to science which is not settled, as embodied in a single report, which does not necessarily convey the unanimous opinions of those consulted? It doesn’t seem advisable; it doesn’t seem safe. Normally policy decisions are based upon enormous volumes of research – here it is being done on just one.

I am no scientist, nor do I aim to advise the government on what it should or shouldn’t do. I merely observe the following; that an overreaction is just as catastrophic as an underreaction, and that the macroeconomic, social and cultural effects of its decisions will have enormous ramifications going forward. Even if the report’s suggestion that hundreds of thousands could die from coronavirus were true, it is equally true that many thousands of them would have died anyway. In Italy the average age of death is 79.5 – at that age, there is a 1 in 20 chance of dying in an average year, and a 1 in 3 chance of dying within five years. It is not heartless to compare the social costs of elevated elderly mortality to the social costs of disrupting the country’s social framework for months on end; it is a necessary, if uncomfortable, calculus that politicians and scientists both ought to be making.

Enlightenment Anthropophobia

‘What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!’ (Hamlet, II. ii. 309)

 

Political creeds of all stripes have tended to subordinate human nature to ideological preconceptions. Whether liberal or conservative, they have traditionally viewed the human condition as something which is flawed, imperfect; they see their goal as to encourage or coerce humans into acting in a way which is in keeping with their utopian vision. This tendency seems to have begun with the advent of Christianity and its doctrine of Man’s fallen nature. ‘There is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins,’ says Ecclesiastes; this idea of innate sinfulness was enthusiastically adopted by Paul, who was gnawed at by a sense of his own iniquity. ‘For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh,’ he declares in Romans 7:18, whilst a few chapters earlier he observes that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’

Christianity, thus, saw divine truth as being immutable and thus as requiring human nature to be changed in order to fit it. But, of course, divine truth was inaccessible to the normal person; it could only be received through the mediation of the Church. By receiving the sacraments and acting in a ‘godly’ manner, humans could move closer to salvation; if they acted according to their own wills, they were damned to eternal torment. By interpolating themselves as sole mediators of the will of God, the decidedly human Church gained the power to control human activity and behaviour whilst simultaneously presenting themselves merely as passive exegetes of divine will.

The Enlightenment, far from upending this, invigorated this hierophantic social structure. Where Christianity grounded temporal power in arrogating to itself the right to interpret the mysteries of the divine, Enlightenment thinkers grounded their power in their exclusive access to reason. They dismissed loyalty to tradition and religion as superstition; they declared that the world must proceed according to the dictates of rationality.

But whilst this love of reason might ostensibly seem egalitarian and accessible to all – cf. Kant’s declaration that ‘“Have the courage to use your own understanding,” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment’ – it swiftly descends into the realm of the technical. As such reason becomes as occluded as God was to the Christian world. And where the hierophants of the Christian world were priests, the Enlightenment hierophants were scientists and bureaucrats. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer speak of how ‘under the title of brute facts, the social injustice from which they proceed is now as assuredly sacred a preserve as the medicine man was sacrosanct by reason of his gods.’

This new privileged caste of interpreters of transcendental truth was as dismissive of human nature as their ecclesiastical predecessors had been. For them, the issue was not original sin; it was what they perceived as human irrationality. They perceived in human nature a tendency to recoil from reason; to seek comfort in what they dismissed as superstition. Humans were too unpredictable, too reluctant to comply with self-evident reason. They were ‘fallen’, not insofar as they were distanced from God but they were of limited rational capacity. As such the scientists and bureaucrats of the Enlightenment sought to control human nature, just as the Church had assumed temporal control over daily life.

This control manifested itself in the domination of nature through repressive political systems. Traditionally, Enlightenment excess in this regard has been identified with regimes like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, where ‘rational’ central planners were at best apathetic to human suffering and viewed humans as malleable material which could be altered and changed to best fit their ideologies. But the Enlightenment hatred of human nature, and the desire of the ‘rational’ to control those deemed less so, applies to modern-day democracies too.

Human nature is profoundly mistrusted by liberal democracy. Humans are told to believe in technocratic experts, to trust not their own instincts but instead the rationality and judgement of others. Those concepts which transcend reason – the nation state, the hereditary principle, organised religion – are either viewed with scorn or transformed into nullities. Modern democracy has also seen a very noticeable shift in political power away from representative bodies towards deliberative and ‘rational’ ones such as courts. American judges today hold enormous power, both judicial and indeed executive. Even in Britain, courts have increasingly begun to see themselves as guardians of the rule of law rather than mere interpreters of statute and precedent. Across the Channel in Europe the (unelected) European Commission holds vast political power, both within the EU and in its diktats to Member States. What all these bodies have in common is a shared belief that human nature needs taming by those who have privileged access to rationality – that humans exist in a flawed, fallen state which manifests itself in their base expressions of nationalism or prejudice, but which can be corrected through the guidance of reason.

Against this two-thousand-year trend of history stands populism. To be a populist is nothing more than to reject the tyranny of reason; to believe that ideology should be sculpted around the contours of human nature rather than vice versa. That which human beings feel in a primal sense is right to a populist, regardless of whether it is impious or irrational. There is no extrinsic point of reference to which a populist points in considering if something is right or wrong; there is only what the people will.

What are these essential elements of human nature which a populist holds so dear? They are those which are rejected by instrumentalised rationality – a desire for community; a mistrust of the Other; a belief in the power of the majority; a sense of identity; a preference for stability. To a devotee of reason, such things are often seen as defects in character. Let us consider the final of these, a preference for continuity and stability. This is, in most people, a fundamental trait. Yet to President Macron – a typical Enlightenment politician and believer in rationality – the propensity of his people to resist change was a national flaw. The ‘Gauls’ are ‘resistant to change’, he bemoaned to a Danish audience. To Macron, it was inexplicable as to why his compatriots would be reluctant to accept his economic reforms. He, and his fellow high priests at the altar of rationality, had demonstrated by way of reasoned argument why free-market reforms liberalising labour laws would be good for the economy. It did not matter that such reforms would constitute a fundamental alteration to the national culture of his country, nor that many millions of Frenchmen would oppose it; it was rational and thus it must be so.

Thus has liberal Enlightenment thought often proceeded; those who, by virtue of their ‘intelligence’ and their education, have a special access to reason will decide, and then impose their will upon a reluctant populace. One major example of reason clashing with human nature is migration to and in Europe. To an individual with a scientific or anthropological background, there is little difference between a Briton and a non-Brit. They share the vast majority of DNA; their phenotype is nearly identical; indeed a non-Briton speaks and sounds and acts in a broadly analogous way to a Briton. As such, the dictates of reason suggest that people of all nations are replaceable and interchangeable. This has been the impetus behind the breakdown of national borders in Europe; borders, to the rational, simply interfere with the flow of capital and labour across the continent. But the individual intrinsic instincts of a Briton do not function according to the crystalline logic of rationality. To him or her, there is a difference between a Briton and a Pole or Syrian or Ghanaian. Such a difference may not be explicable in terms of rationality or science. But where the populist and the Enlightenment liberal differ is that the latter simply assumes that which is not rationally explicable does not exist; the former is a trenchant believer in such things.

It is not right to suggest that populism is merely vindication of man’s baser nature, as some neo-Hobbesians have suggested. For populism is a repudiation of the belief that man’s nature is base. The Enlightenment is profoundly anthropophobic; much like the Christian world it followed, it sees mankind as inherently fallen and in need of correction. The populist sees man as glorious, as perfect. Of course, that is not to justify everything which an individual man does. No populist would deny that individuals can deviate from their innate perfection – whether that be through violence, greed or through unwarranted hatred. For instance, racial hatred is not innate to human nature; it is an aberration which stems from an individual failing. But what men in general feel is, per se, right.

One objection to populism is that it is fallacious to identify any particular trait as being universal to human nature, and that as such society cannot be constituted around such principles. It is true, and indeed tautologous, that every individual is different. In fact the populist would not seek to deny that there are those who do not have the elements of human nature which he prizes – that there are those who do not value community, who embrace change wholeheartedly, who have a weak sense of identity. But he affirms strongly that such people are not the majority, and that furthermore it is another inherent part of human nature that the will of the majority be respected. Such majoritarian instincts are to be found in all cultures, no matter how primitive.

Populism brooks no hierophany. Historically political leaders acted as mediators between the people and a higher power; so for example a King was the interface between his nation and God, whilst modern liberal technocrats hold exclusive access to scientific truths which they enact for the benefit of the people. This is not the case with populism. Of course, this does not mean that it is a ‘levelling’ movement, or that it is somehow egalitarian. Populism, in fact, requires strong leaders. Such figures, however, are not like former political leaders who (like Platonic Guardians) organise the polis according to higher principles. Instead they conform more to what Hegel spoke of when he wrote of great historical figures. He noted that ‘They are great men, because they willed and accomplished something great; not a mere fancy, a mere intention, but that which met the case and fell in with the needs of the age,’ and later that ‘they were thinking men, who had an insight into the requirements of the time.’ Such leaders are not beholden to ideology nor to the divine. They are simply figures who embody their historical moment and merge the popular will with their own. Like the Emperor Napoleon, they ‘exist on one point while seated on a horse, stretching over the world and dominating it.’

Who are the modern day Napoleons? Trump is one such figure; a figure ‘larger than life’, who is uninterested in fealty to ideological preconceptions and whose sole political mission is to channel the will of the people and enact it through the organs of the state. His abrasive, loud political style is often decried by mainstream politicians and the liberal anti-populists who support them – but they fail to recognise that in contemplating Trump they are contemplating the face of the American people. Neither are morally perfect, certainly according to extrinsic standards – but Trump is deeply human, with all that entails. As such he is able to better feel the pulse of the American majority and embody their will. His opponent in 2016, Hillary Clinton, was the very opposite of this; artificial, disdainful of human nature and thus disdainful of the American electorate too. Hillary had little interest in allowing an expression of human nature were she to become President; her intention was clearly to use the state to impose changes against the popular will, to make Americans more like her ideal rather than bending the state to better match the essence of Americans.

But Trump will prove to be but the first of the great populist leaders of the 21st century. Already in Europe others are rising to join him – Salvini in Italy, Sebastian Kurz in Austria. Such leaders are not, as they are often accused of being, rabble-rousers. Such an appellation implies that they instrumentalise and use their people towards an ulterior motive. Instead of this, populist leaders simply channel the sentiments of the nation’s spirit, allowing it to infuse the organs of the state and thus to enact political change. These leaders are already busy reconstituting their countries along new lines which abjure anthropophobia and place the interests of the native people at the heart of their political program. No more will Italians be told by their self-imposed social betters that their wishes and desires are somehow ‘incorrect’ and must be altered to better fit the will of a higher power – populism will enable the restoration of national pride after years of contempt at the human nature of voters.

This essay began with a quote from Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, speaking of the wonderous nature of what is to be a human. Hamlet places humans rather than god or reason at the centre of his universe – imperfect, flawed, full of rages and lusts and yet awe-inspiringly perfect. It is this sense of awe at the sublimity of human nature which lies at the heart of populist thought; it is this which impels it towards a future in which politics, theology, philosophy and art all revolve around humanity.

#MeToo and Class War: A Critical Overview

Sexual assault, harassment and exploitation are, most sensible people would argue, plagues upon civilised society. They reduce women to the status of objects, they grossly demean them and they destroy the bonds of trust which enable people to work and live together as a community. Whether liberal or conservative, there are few who would disagree with this, and were the #MeToo movement to be dedicated to a broad push against such things it is unlikely it would have ever become a contentious matter. Indeed there were moments in its nascence when it seemed like this was a possibility. However, times have changed. What began as a defence of the rights of women has morphed into something altogether different – a targeted assault upon a small group of men. Not ‘all men’, as the more hysteric elements of the alt-right and manosphere suggest – whilst there is something morally admirable in the consistency of viewing all men with equal distrust, #MeToo has become a tool of the radical left in attacking the upper-class white man.

Consider the Brett Kavanaugh debacle. Leave aside for a moment the question of whether it is ever possible to determine what precisely went on in a bedroom thirty years ago. Leave aside too the highly convenient timing of Christine Blasey Ford’s decision to come forward, and the the powerful and wealthy liberal interests guilty of asking leading questions to a vulnerable victim in order to push her towards giving the answer they want. Concentrate on the language which opponents of Kavanaugh and the President have used to characterise the case. Constant attention has been drawn to Kavanaugh’s wealth, to his education at Yale, to his alleged ‘privilege.’ There has been almost a gloating sort of glee in ‘rich white men’ getting their comeuppance, and a constant implication that these ‘rich white men’ are the real oppressors of women.

Let us assume, for the purposes of argument, that Brett Kavanaugh indeed sexually assaulted Blasey Ford as she alleged. It would be perhaps surprising, but also morally consistent, to say that such an act committed by a 17 year old boy should disqualify him from public office – but only if all such transgressions are equally denounced. It is no good to criticise Kavanaugh but to remain silent over other instances of violence or harassment towards women – either sexual abuse is wrong always or it is never wrong. Yet the liberal left, which has been near-hysterically eager to denounce an upper-class white male, is deafeningly silent when it comes to a whole variety of other issues where the alleged perpetrators do not fit neatly into a preordained ideological schema.

Those same people who now express horror at Kavanaugh (and at others like him; the trope of the upper-class white male predator is a popular one) are apparently unmoved by the plight of the thousands of young (predominantly white) girls who have been groomed and abused by (predominantly Muslim and Asian) gangs in towns such as Rotherham and Keighley. The scandal of child grooming in Britain has involved the abduction, rape and exploitation of countless girls as young as 12. Victims have been removed from their families, drugged, kept in conditions approaching slavery and abused by large groups of men who view them as subhuman by virtue of their race and religion.

But the liberal devotees of #MeToo show no interest in these victims. There have been no diatribes in the media asking for Muslim men to undergo soul-searching, no criticisms of Muslim masculinity, no demands for justice. The Blasey Ford allegations (centred around one unpleasant incident of alleged harassment) dominated the headlines for weeks; it took years of campaigning by charities and investigative journalists before the Rotherham grooming gang even came to light. Whilst not seeking to negate Blasey Ford’s suffering, it seems fairly uncontroversial to say that the grooming gangs have caused far more.

Even the current #MeToo movement is transparently terrified of pointing its finger at Muslim communities. The world was rightly appalled at a video of a woman sitting in a Parisian cafe terrace being berated and then physically assaulted by a man she criticised for catcalling. The internet was full of angry attacks upon patriarchal French culture – but also being singularly cagey about descriptions of the assailant. Several months later and to considerably less fanfare, it was announced that he was named Firas M. (French practice is to provide defendant identities in this format.) Firas – a Muslim name. Later it was revealed that he was a homeless Tunisian immigrant. By this time, the case was kept safely away from the headlines lest it cause any uncomfortable questions to be asked.

Why, then? Why this unfathomable and vituperative loathing for white men who are even alleged to have committed sexual infractions coupled with an apparent unconcern for PoC individuals who do the same or worse? The only conceivable explanation is that #MeToo is not about the victims at all; it is and has always been a project designed to take down a preordained set of perpetrators. In other words, #MeToo is part of left-wing class warfare, part of a plan to fundamentally reorder society by transferring power from a group seen as historically privileged (ie upper-class white men) to groups seen as historically unprivileged (women and PoCs)

Of course, that’s not to say that we should have much sympathy for the men exposed by #MeToo. It would be completely impossible to defend Harvey Weinstein, or even the actions of men like Louis CK or Charlie Rose. There is endemic sexual abuse concealed within all elements of society, even if interestingly enough many of those felled by #MeToo have been from within the heart of the liberal establishment. Sexual harassment and assault of women is wrong – full stop.

But almost as wrong is a movement which has no real concern about victims, which uses them as weapons to bludgeon their political enemies (as was the case with poor Christine Blasey Ford, brought forth by powerful liberal politicians and convinced to put herself through the ordeal of an inquiry despite the fact she was clearly never sure of the identity of her assailant.) #MeToo exists to disrupt society, not to fight sexual harassment. It traffics in Marxian mistrust of institutions of power, and instrumentalises female bodies.

A true program aimed at combating sexual abuse would not focus merely on trying to unseat powerful white men. It would not use attacks upon individuals as proxy attacks upon the institutions of Western culture which those individuals represent. It would examine the colossal scale of sexual abuse committed by those of the Islamic faith – both against non-Muslims and against Muslim women themselves, at home (cf honour killings and forced marriages) and abroad (the sexual violence inflicted upon the Yezidis.) But #MeToo is none of these things. It is a short-sighted attempt to exploit victims for the sake of class war and iconoclasm. And until it abandons this, it cannot be respected.

 

Human Rights and the Unwritten Constitution

One of the most idiosyncratic elements of Britain’s political framework is its unwritten constitution. Almost alone amongst the many countries of the world, Britain’s political structure is defined not by reference to a single codified text, but instead is made up of a varied assortment of texts, laws, judgements and principles which have evolved since time immemorial. The lack of a codified constitution is not merely a historical accident, though – it is a manifestation of Britain’s historical scepticism of the possibility of a rational grounding for government and rights. The modern-day idea of a written constitution is a concept deeply wedded to the Enlightenment, and to the possibility that a group of men or women could – using solely their reason – formulate a document which would be sufficient to act as a cornerstone of a body politic.

This was not the route chosen by Britain. Edmund Burke, in his Observations on a Late State of a Nation, wrote that ‘politics ought to be adjusted, not to human reasonings, but to human nature; of which the reason is but a part, and by no means the greatest part.’ Burke’s argument here – that politics is the realm of human natures rather than minds and should be treated as such – is in many ways one of the key justifications for an uncodified constitution.

Many written constitutions contain references to human rights. The constitution of the French Fifth Republic, for instance, speaks of ‘human rights [droits de l’Homme] and the principles of national sovereignty, as defined by the Declaration of 1789’ explicitly linking human rights with a man-made declaration. The American Declaration of Independence, similarly, suggests that ‘men […] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ But are human rights any stronger if grounded in a codified constitution than they would be in an unwritten one such as Britain’s? It would seem otherwise – that Britain’s constitution provides one of the best and strongest defences for human rights due to its pliant nature and irreducibility.

The basic human rights enjoyed by British citizens might correspond to those enacted in British law by – for instance – the Human Rights Act of 1998, but they do not stem from it. Such principles as the rule of law or the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment can be found in texts such as the English Bill of Rights of 1688; indeed, even the Norman Magna Carta contains references to liberties of Britons still in force today. Each of these texts, unlike the French ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’, does not seek to suggest that human rights can be grounded on something as flimsy as a piece of paper – they imply that they are reassertions or reaffirmations of pre-existing ancient rights. As the 1688 Bill of Rights puts it, the British constitution makes reference to ‘ancient rights and liberties.’ Such liberties cannot be removed through a constitutional amendment or reinterpreted according to judicial whim. The effect of our rights being ‘ancient’ is to make them integral to the essence of what it has always been to be a British citizen.

Written constitutions can often become fetishized merely by virtue of being a constitution (and thus a symbol of a country.) Such a situation reduces constitutional elements like human rights into slogans – contingent upon a singular wording at a particular point in history which is then taken to be a transcendent and eternal truth. Daniel Hannan, the Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, has written of how this process ‘divorces [rights] from any context of law, custom or tradition’ and makes them ‘uncertain in their meaning.’ But by transcending the inherent limitations of the fixed word upon the page, ‘the security which an Englishman enjoys for personal liberty does not really depend upon or originate in any general proposition contained in any written document’, as A.V. Dicey put it.

 

When rights are tied to specific wordings arising from specific historical moments they can be both too permissive and too limited. One example of this can be found across the Atlantic in the American Constitution. The Second Amendment argues that ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.’ This right, arising from a highly specific historical context, is today used in a highly  contentious fashion to justify the possession of assault rifles by citizenry. By contrast, the framers of the American constitution did not foresee extending many of the rights they codified to African-Americans; this tying of rights to historical moments through the act of codification was what eventually led to the state-sanctioned enactment of such practices as segregation and Jim Crow laws.

In other constitutional systems there can often be a tension between the right of the people en masse to legislate as they will through the vehicle of parliament, and their individual rights. The former is embodied through parliamentary sovereignty, and the latter through the rule of law. Part of the brilliance of the British system, though, lies in its ability to locate human rights as something which emanate from neither but are guarded by both. The British judiciary and the British legislature both defend differing aspects of British ancient liberties, and the ambiguity as to which is supreme – an ambiguity which is a central element of our uncodified constitution – means that our constitution is flexible enough to allow the precise interpretation of rights to reflect the nuances of each individual act of interpretation, keeping both individual rights and collective political rights in balance.

Considerable public debate regularly takes place on questions of human rights in this country. Such discourse should not be seen as a failure of the unwritten constitution, but in fact a vindication of it. Through its refusal to be tied to specificities – whether a specific document or a specific historical moment – the British constitution takes on a uniquely universal aspect. This is particularly important in terms of human rights – the constitution sees them not as being grounded in written texts but instead merely reaffirmed by them. Certain rights are, and have been since time immemorial, the inalienable property of all British citizens – it is around this understanding that the constitution has evolved.

The Relativism of Diversity

The diversity cult – that self-appointed clique of navel-gazers, dilettantes, idealists and do-gooders – has recently claimed another scalp. The unfortunate victim? Author and journalist Lionel Shriver, who recently dared to question the core tenets of diversity politics in a column written in the Spectator. Shriver took issue with an email from the publisher Penguin Random House, in which it declares that it is

A new company-wide goal […] for both our new hires and the authors we acquire to reflect UK society by 2025 […] this means we want our authors and new colleagues to reflect the UK population taking into account ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability.

Shriver (quite rightly) saw this for what it was; tritely smug virtue-signalling of the highest order, and something which would inevitably bring about the triumph of mediocrity in literature. She observed that it was increasingly becoming the case that the criterion of what is ‘good’ in literature is based upon diversity rather than aesthetic merits – as she tartly puts it, ‘if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published.’

Naturally the bien-pensants who have entrenched themselves into the heart of the artistic scene in Britain and America, and who like to think of themselves as the intellectual elite espousing a sort of noble liberalism from their eye-wateringly expensive enclaves in the metropolises, were having none of it. Shriver was first fired from her position judging entries for a writing competition run by the apparently notable ‘women’s writing’ magazine Mslexia (no, me neither.) This was swiftly followed by the disapprobation of author Hanif Kureishi (a man whose entire literary career has traded off his identity as a South Asian despite having lived in Shepherd’s Bush for most of his life.) Kureishi, with an astonishing lack of tact, denounced Shriver as ‘the usual knuckle-dragging, semi-blind suspect’, and accused her of trying to protect an establishment ‘more or less entirely dominated by white Oxbridge men.’

Shriver’s comments have touched a nerve precisely because she has identified the malaise afflicting the literary world’s self-appointed gatekeepers – cultural relativism. To Kureishi, to Mslexia, to the unnamed author of the Penguin memorandum, there is no longer such a thing as ‘good’ literature. The telos of a text is not its quality, but whether it accomplishes socio-political goals. This instrumentalization of literature has been, it appears, implicitly accepted by the vast majority of scholars in the Academy today – hence the proliferation of identity-focussed fields of study such as postcolonial studies or gender studies.

This model of literature – one predicated on iconoclasm – represents a move away from the accretive understanding of literature which has been dominant for the last few millennia. Previously, authors were understood as operating ‘on the shoulders of giants’, taking influence from the works of others and embedding their texts within a literary continuum. So Milton drew upon Shakespeare, and himself was drawn upon by Wordsworth. This continuum manifests itself most critically in shared values which are contained within these texts – Western humanist values – that also enable us to meaningfully judge them.

Shriver’s critics recoil at this model. To them, such values are inherently repressive relics of a tyrannical Occident; we must create works of literature which both repudiate Western liberal values and which actively resist judgement by them. Such works will do two things; they will destroy the canon by consciously existing apart from them, and they will bring to the forefront perspectives which are intimately wedded to categories such as gender or race.

Whether these perspectives are aesthetically good or bad is, of course, irrelevant; they are different to the perceived hegemonic ones, and hence it is a moral imperative that they be published. The literature industry has ceased to think of itself as the guardians of cultural heritage, and has begun to view itself as radicals who can use culture to effect acts of resistance. And considering the power which agents, critics, publishers and opinion-formers hold, such acts of resistance can have profound effects in directing the zeitgeist, undermining Western culture in favour of relativism.

Of course, this is nihilistic nonsense. Literary merit might not be commensurable between cultures – but the very act of comparing literary texts between cultures (cultures, bear in mind – not races or genders or even necessarily languages) is a naïve universalist fantasy. When we confine ourselves to a single cultural paradigm – an act which requires confidence in that paradigm – we can easily refute relativism. The standards of judgement for Western literature have been fixed over millennia, arising from the finest products of the canon. They exist as very real entities – they are not immutable, but develop very slowly, whilst still retaining certain underlying qualities.

The fact that we can pass meaningful judgements upon literature means that we can salvage the idea of books being ‘good.’ And if we can do this, we can continue to uphold the standards that underpin Western civilisation. The stakes being contended over between Shriver and her foes are bigger than merely ‘diversity’ – they are the foundations of culture itself. There is such a thing as right and wrong, and those things are worth fighting for. Diversity in culture is no more an intrinsic good than diversity in literature; Western culture has produced some great and abiding values (often, incidentally, embodied in great works of literature, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment) which need to be protected.

Perhaps, then, both Shriver and her critics can agree on one thing – that literature is political. They see it as something to be used in disrupting and destroying hegemonic culture, and in replacing it with a bland relativist dystopia. But equally literature can be seen as the last and strongest line of defence of Western culture – a way of embodying and developing values which predicate civilisation, and placing them in literature as a way of instructing future generations of their worth. If we see literature in this (equally political) light, it becomes clear that like Shriver we too must take our stand. The alternative is not merely ‘diversity’ but the undermining of civilisation.

 

The Fallacy of Secession

The question of secession has recently become particularly topical in light of the twin independence referendums in Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan. Whilst the history and geopolitical situation of both regions is hugely different, at the heart of both referendums is a shared principle; that it is legitimate and right for a body of people to, by majority vote, declare themselves independent of the political entity to which they presently belong.

Catalonia and Kurdistan are not unique in holding to this view. Indeed, this view of sovereignty and secession seems to have been in the ascendancy for the last sixty years or so; it has formed the crux of arguments for decolonisation, and is generally accepted by the international community, hence the UN’s support for referendums on ‘self-determination’ in South Sudan or East Timor, or indeed the British government’s decision to permit a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014.

This view of secession, however, has multiple flaws. The most important of these – in fact, the one upon which the others are predicated – is the fallacious assumption that popular opinion can affect the fundamental essence of a nation. According to this line of argument, there is no thing which cannot be altered if a sufficient number of people approve of the alteration, up to and including the character of a country as manifested in its borders.

The flaw here is that popular opinion can never be more than a snapshot, a freeze-frame of what the majority of the people think at a certain point in time. To rely upon that in deciding questions of sovereignty is to ossify that one moment for all of eternity. This is patently absurd; popular opinion is as mutable as the tides, and with regards to sovereignty particularly there is often considerable change – one example might be the enthusiastic vote in 1974 for Britain to join the European Union, followed by the vote in 2017 to leave it.

Taken to its extreme, this position seems to imply that secession is an inevitability which merely needs to be ‘ratified’ by asking the same question over and over again until the people can be worn down. An example of this is the present situation in Scotland; the Scottish people voted against independence in 2014, yet Scottish nationalists are already agitating for a second vote. Even if a second such referendum were not held imminently, it is almost certain that it will take place at some point. Such a system is grounded in the belief of an elite that secession must happen; it is the people’s fault for not voting for it, and they must be pressed again and again for a ‘correct’ response.

Beyond this, there is a further objection. Secession is often presented as something which only affects the seceders, but in reality to secede is to create two new polities – the new state and a remaining rump. This is often a profound alteration of the national identity of the rump; for instance, Catalonia has been central to Spanish culture for centuries, and contains much of the historical heritage of the wider Spanish nation. Equally there may be economic imperatives at stake; Iraq’s wealth is staked on its hydrocarbon deposits, of which a great amount are located in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Surely, then, when secession entails such a great alteration to the condition of both entities, it is only right that a vote take place (if it take place at all; see above) across the entirety of the initial state? And that the consent of a majority in both polities be required for secession to be actualised? But even here we see the absurdities of predicating sovereignty on popular opinion. What if secession is only approved by a slim majority? What if only by a single vote? Is it then the case that the views of the minority, even if that majority constitute 49.9% of the populace, be disregarded? Such aggressive majoritarianism seems a profoundly instable way to ground sovereignty.

The logical conclusion of the belief in self-determination as justifying secession is individual independence; a dystopic libertarian scenario in which each individual might declare independence purely out of dislike of his neighbours or the prospect of being ruled over by someone else. If all that matters is opinion, then we end up in such a nightmarish situation.

Of course, none of this should be construed to suggest a total opposition to secession per se. There are a variety of situations in which secession is justifiable; one is particularly minded of instances where peaceful co-existence between two groups seems impossible, and the only pragmatic solution is to divide them into two states. The partition of the Palestine mandate in 1948 is one such situation; equally the implosion of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

But the situation in Catalonia and Kurdistan is not similar to either of these. In Catalonia, Catalans have prospered under Spanish rule for centuries, and presently enjoy a very generous political and economic settlement. Similarly in Kurdistan, the current compact between Erbil and Mosul allows the Kurds profound autonomy. In both cases, one suspects that the motivation behind secession is more likely the ambition of nationalist elites than a general will of the people.

The essence of a state is not something which should be set in stone; states evolve and change along with their societies. But those who suggest that secession can be effected by a mere referendum are risking fundamentally altering the national identity of two peoples on the flimsiest of grounds. Both the Catalans and the Kurds should proceed with caution.

The Dialectical Presidency

Donald Trump is not a normal politician. That, at least, both his detractors and supporters agree on. To the former, it’s a sign of his dangerous unpredictability and callow inexperience; to the latter, a token of his status as one unaffected by the rot of the Washington bubble. But if that’s what he’s not, the question remains of what he is.

To answer that, we must journey back in time long before a Trump presidency was ever anything other than a punchline to a particularly bad joke. For before Trump the politician, there was Trump the businessman; the blond-haired bruiser from New York’s Midtown, clad in a sharp suit, beautiful supermodel in tow, butting heads with rivals across boardrooms. Times may have changed, the tawdry glitz of Trump Tower may have been exchanged for the grandeur of the White House, but at heart Donald J. Trump is best understood as a businessman.

Seeing him as this rather than a politician helps explain much that is bewildering about him. Trump is not bound by the conventions that politicians are normally constrained by; the expectations to speak truthfully, to fulfil promises, to act in a measured way. Businessmen have no truck with any of this. A Manhattan real estate investor, sitting across a table from his competitors, doesn’t act like a politician; he curses at them and cajoles them, he slams the table, he insults them, and eventually he wins.

All the bombast of Trump – all the gratuitous offensiveness, the rude tweets, the childish appellations he attaches to his rivals (of which ‘Crooked Hillary’ and ‘Lying Ted’ are the highlights) should be seen through this lens – as a posture Trump adopts in order to help him win. He doesn’t even seem to believe much of it; witness how fast the vitriol directed at Ben Carson, for instance, was replaced by the warm embrace of an offer of a job on his campaign. We’ve all been taken in by the act of a showman.

But this act extends to far more than Trump’s pugnacious demeanour. Far too many people – on both sides of the political spectrum – were taken in by Trump’s grandiose statements of policy during the campaign. Perhaps reasonably, they viewed them as they viewed policy announcements by prior politicians – that is to stay, statements of intent that, if elected, he would follow through on.

With the benefit of hindsight, though, their true nature becomes clear. They were not statements but opening gambits in negotiations. Take Trump’s so-called ‘Muslim ban.’ Trump made his ‘offer’ to the American people, so to speak, with his call for ‘a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.’ The reaction was mostly shock and disgust – but the initial bid had been made.

Upon Trump’s election as President, opposing ‘offers’ were made in the form of vociferous opposition both Congressional and judicial. What took place next – the wrangling between Trump and various judges – might be termed the ‘negotiations’, much as an aggressive property developer might argue with a tenant over a disputed term in a contract. What eventually emerged was a travel ban that is, by all sane accounts, very reasonable – common-sense, time-limited restrictions on emigration from a handful of notoriously dangerous countries.

This isn’t how politicians operate; it’s precisely how businessmen do. No self-respecting businessman worth his salt will walk into negotiations and state the price he wants, knowing that the cut and thrust of negotiations will drive it down. Instead he names a figure twice as high as he wants, knowing the response will be half as much as he wants. Through slow back-and-forth argumentation, eventually the two parties arrive at a price both consider ‘fair.’ It’s an almost dialectical style of governing, one which has never really been tried before.

The same applies with Trump’s flagship policy – fighting illegal immigration. When Trump started talking about building ‘a big beautiful wall with Mexico’ and repealing DACA, he almost certainly never wanted to do anything of the sort. Instead, he was seeking to do two things; firstly to make illegal immigration (by all accounts a genuine issue) part of the national debate, and also to make an extreme initial demand, knowing that he’ll never get it but that negotiations are now open.

Upon his election, Trump immediately faced pushback from liberal voices in Congress. What most failed to realise was that Trump intended for this to happen. Trump is not a moron; he employs many undocumented workers himself, and recognises that a blanket deportation would be economically damaging to the country. But by demanding a huge amount initially, he was able to pull negotiations in his favour and eventually conclude an agreement with Democratic leadership which meant that key provisions of DACA would be kept in place, with funding for a wall highly unlikely.

One of the few people who understood all this about him was the Democrat who worked alongside him on hammering out this deal, Chuck Schumer. Schumer, like Trump, is a New Yorker, and like all New Yorkers he’s steeped in the commerciality of that city. He recognises Trump for what he is; a negotiator willing to brawl a bit to get the deal he wants. Though politically he seems the antithesis of Trump, Schumer is more similar to the man than many realise. Neither are beyond a bit of chest-thumping and posturing, but fundamentally both are nothing more than negotiators. By all accounts the two have a good personal rapport – an indication that Trump’s aggressively partisan demeanour is an artfully-constructed artifice.

‘We are not wholly bad or good,’ Dylan Thomas reminds us. The same might be said to hold true for Donald Trump. It’s beyond dispute that he’s a thin-skinned sexist who will do or say pretty much anything to attain wealth and power. It’s also true that politically he’s proving to be far more nuanced than anyone had assumed. He has at least three more years left (and, who knows, perhaps even seven) and the world would be advised to prepare themselves for more surprises.

‘Dunkirk’ reviewed

As topics for war films go, the evacuation at Dunkirk is strikingly atypical. Fundamentally, it was a narrative of catastrophe – the hurried retreat of the British Expeditionary Force from Western Europe, still reeling from the force of the Wehrmacht’s blitzkrieg. It was a botch-job of a military operation, with civilian boats and pleasure yachts sailing across the Channel to ferry soldiers away from France, and thousands of weapons and vehicles left behind. If there was eventually to be a happy ending to the tale, it would not have seemed apparent to anyone there on those beaches; only after five more years of blood, sweat and tears would there be a final victory over the Germans.

Perhaps that is why ‘Dunkirk’, by Christopher Nolan, does not seek to conform to traditional assumptions about what war films should be like. Nolan’s work eschews generic conventions – narrative movement, character development, purple dialogue – and instead delivers a movie which is startlingly minimalist and stripped-back. The result is, in every sense, a cinematic triumph.

Nolan opts to split the action into three strands – The Mole, The Sea and The Air – each operating on a different scale of time (a week, a day and an hour respectively) but whose timelines slowly converge. It’s a tool he’s used before, in movies like Inception, but where previously it’s always been a somewhat self-indulgent gimmick, here it functions to structure the whole film into a coherent whole. Instead of breaking up the action – as such a narrative technique inevitably risks – it means that the whole film is one continuous crescendo of tension, culminating euphorically in the convergence of all three strands.

This is not a movie about individuals. The soldiers – unshaven, grimy and terrified – blur into one. Even the name of the protagonist of the first strand, Tommy, calls to mind the nickname for British soldiers. That’s not to say that Fionn Whitehead’s performance is not strong – but in many ways what is much more effective is Nolan’s characterisation of him as an Everyman, wandering through a hellish landscape. For the most part, dialogue is absent from the film, and that which is there is mostly functional; the terse back-and-forth of Spitfire pilots, or the barked orders of officers. Without the crutch of dialogue to fall back upon to propel the narrative, Nolan is able to let the images tell the story.

And ‘Dunkirk’ is a deeply visual movie. Even in the most character-driven of the three strands, the story of a shipowner who sets sail with his son and boat-hand to Dunkirk to rescue soldiers from the beaches, Nolan revels in spectacle. Ships sink, planes crash, oil slicks burn, columns of smoke rise. It’s testament to Mark Rylance that he’s able to anchor the plot in a rich seam of humanity, with his portrayal of the quiet dignity of a man called by duty to war. Against a backdrop of apocalyptic grandeur, the details in Rylance’s portrayal become all the more striking – his ramrod-straight posture, his softly authoritative voice.

By contrast, the third strand – the Air – features characters almost invisible to the audience. Tom Hardy, playing the Spitfire pilot Farrier, has his face covered by goggles and a mask for almost the entirety of his role, yet is able to portray an intensity which harmonises perfectly with the much-compressed timeframe of his strand. His final scene – and indeed the final scene of the entire film – is the first time we see him unmasked, as he almost ceremonially burns his plane before being taken into captivity by the Germans. It’s a moment of glorious symbolism; the Spitfire ablaze, but its pilot still steadfast and undefeated, staring stolidly into the distance.

Nolan’s command over the dramatic energy of the film is mostly outstanding. The claustrophobia and terror of the initial attempts at evacuation are conveyed brilliantly through the positioning of the camera on a stretcher as it is carried by Tommy and the mysterious Gibson (played wordlessly but effectively by Aneurin Barnard), the camera pivoting like the head of the wounded man being carried. Later, with the protagonists on board a torpedoed ship in the harbour, the camera almost bobs up and down frantically, mimetically replicating the experience of drowning. Occasionally Nolan slips into cliché – the episodes with the naval officers standing on the Mole seem somewhat artificial, despite a brisk performance by Kenneth Branagh – but generally he offers forth an authentic and sincere film.

‘Dunkirk’ is a masterful piece of art, something to which many films aspire but which few attain. Freed from the demands of a linear narrative, Christopher Nolan is at liberty to produce a film which is almost wholly visual and which relies upon spectacle to carry its energy. For a director whose earlier efforts have been criticised for being over-cerebral (‘Inception’ or ‘Interstellar’, for instance), ‘Dunkirk’ is refreshingly humane and at times wonderfully poignant.

(Third) Party Time?

There are two fairly inevitable things about two-party systems. First, that there will be perennial discussion of the creation of third parties. Secondly, that in the end pretty much nothing will upturn the two-party status quo.

James Chapman, the former Special Advisor to the hapless David Davies, is the latest in a long line of people to have proposed such a party. Since parting ways with his former boss, Chapman has been announcing to apparently anyone who will listen that he intends to set up a new party – ‘The Democrats’ – which will function as a pro-European centrist party.

Chapman might be a slightly odd character (his Twitter feed suggests a man suffering the effects of too much Mediterranean sun and too little caution) but the concept of a new centrist party isn’t altogether a strange one.

The main stimulus, of course is Brexit, something which has altered – perhaps perpetually – the political calculus of the country. We are no longer a nation defined by our attitudes to economic issues; we are one defined by our position vis a vis globalisation. On one side sit the 52% – against the European Union, immigration and neoliberal politics. On the other are the 48%, supportive of international trade and the free flows of capital and people.

In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, however, a curious thing took place. In their haste to win votes, both Labour and the Conservatives positioned themselves firmly on the side of the thin majority who voted in favour of Brexit. Both parties deposed their leadership in favour of figures opposed to internationalism (Jeremy Corbyn, whatever his youthful fanbase might believe, is and has always been a trenchant nationalist and opponent of the European Union) and have enthusiastically courted former Leave voters.

But if Britain’s political realignment saw the creation of a political coalition united by its opposition to globalisation, the entailment of that was the creation of another one, one which defines itself in terms of a positive attitude to neoliberalism. Yet this demographic has been almost completely neglected by both major parties. Corbyn’s Labour Party professes a neo-socialist programme taken directly from the 1970s, while the Tories have opted to pursue a rock-hard Brexit (though whether they’ll get it, considering the sluggish state of negotiations and the reluctance of the European Commission to compromise, is as yet unclear.)

This leaves a large pro-globalisation lacuna in the political landscape. Who can fill it? Some have suggested the Liberal Democrats, but this seems unlikely. Their brand has been irreversibly tainted by their decision to go into coalition with the Tories in 2010, and the few electoral successes they enjoyed in 2017 came not from their pro-European agitation but from what they’ve always been best at – locally-focussed campaigns won through intense canvassing.

If not the Lib Dems, does this leave room for a new centrist party – of the sort suggested by Chapman – to enter the scene? Contrary to the somewhat febrile speculation of many commentators, some of whom seem in need of something to write about during the long hot summer, this seems unlikely.

Firstly, it relies upon the assumption that all of the 48% of the electorate who opposed Brexit are ideologically internationalist. This is as mistaken as presuming that that all of the 52% of the country who supported Brexit are swivel-eyed bigots. Whilst at least some of those 48% are, many more are the economically cautious; those who voted to Remain out of an innate reluctance to jump into the void. The small cadre of hardcore Remainers do not constitute enough of a pool to form a new party of.

Secondly, it mistakes internationalism for centrism. Indeed, this difference has been elided over by multiple commentators online, who assume that a centrist party is per se going to be internationalist. Genuinely centrist parties in the past have been grounded on economic centrism; that is to say, fairly high government spending and a fairly equitable tax burden.

None of this is compatible with the brand of internationalism being espoused by those encouraging a third party; returning to the European Union would, for a variety of reasons, require adherence to the ‘German model’ of economics, one which would see spending cut and foreign labour permitted entry to the country. Theoretically an internationalist party might achieve limited success in certain areas; but it would be unable to capitalise on the potential that true centrism holds.

This leads to the final reason for the likely failure of a new third party, namely the deeply entrenched political differences that transcend the pro-globalisation/anti-globalisation dichotomy. Profound differences exist between left-wing and right-wing internationalists, both in their attitudes towards internationalism and in their stances on various other issues.

Indeed, it could almost be argued that the gulf between right-wing internationalism and left-wing internationalism is almost as profound and impassable as the one between parochialism and globalism. A centrist party would have to find a way to reconcile wildly different positions on issues like defence, non-European migration, civil liberties and the environment.

This all highlights a problem with the basic premise of Chapman’s; that a party can be founded upon an issue. UKIP tried that, and it didn’t work – after essentially exhausting the mileage that could be made out of Europe, they’ve been reduced to a risible fringe movement of nutcases and Islamophobes. Parties shouldn’t be founded upon policies; they should be founded upon ideologies.

So it is with both the Conservatives and Labour (and indeed, to their credit, the Lib Dems.) The Conservatives are not a party of low immigration or monetarist policy; they are a party which believes in the concept of hierarchy, of the inevitability of inequality, and of the importance of incremental societal evolution. Similarly, Labour is a party which is rooted in a belief in the importance of trade unionism and of egalitarianism.

Deprived of such an animating spirit, a centrist or internationalist third party cannot hope to thrive. At best it will succeed in agitating enough to make its voice heard – which may well be enough to accomplish its goals – but in reality a third party of this sort has no hope. If James Chapman wants to stop or to mitigate Brexit, a new party isn’t the answer.

New Liberalism – a manifesto

Much – too much, probably – has been written about why liberalism seemed to fail in 2016. None of it is particularly convincing. That’s not to say it’s worthless – it’s not. But whilst each of the explanations has been true, none has been both necessary and sufficient. In reality, it will take many decades – centuries, perhaps – before an intelligible and explanatory narrative can be found for the events of 2016.

That doesn’t mean that, in the here and now, we can’t react. In fact it is absolutely imperative that liberals regroup and prepare to mobilise against the forces of reaction and anti-modernity. The alternative is unthinkable; to simply surrender and watch as the 1930s repeat themselves.

But if liberalism is to go on the offensive, it needs to arm itself with a coherent ideology that can compete with the numerous anti-liberal ideologies presently ascendant. The failure to articulate such an ideology was one of the key reasons that this present period of liberalism came to an end. Far too often it seemed that the liberalism of Blair and Obama was an ad hoc menu of policies rather than a philosophy; a confused jumble of ideas with little in common.

The (perhaps inevitable) result of this was that liberalism began to be perceived as little more than a façade, merely a byword for pragmatic politics. And therefore, when the tides turned and liberalism no longer delivered prosperity (i.e. after the financial crash of 2008-9) there was no longer a valid case for it. Liberalism had predicated itself solely upon ensuring prosperity, and as such it provided no convincing reason to support it when that prosperity was gone.

In the void left by the collapse of liberal hegemony, both the far right and the far left have sought to take its’ place. Both despise liberal values, and have spent much of the last sixty years waiting to attack them. Though they (clearly) differ greatly from each other, they have shown themselves to be willing to co-operate in their attacks upon liberalism. It is this grotesque coalition – pairing Edward Snowden with Vladimir Putin, Jean-Luc Melenchon with Marine Le Pen – who liberalism must confront, if it is to ensure that liberal society can survive the next few years.

In light of all this, I propose a new paradigm for liberalism. I have provisionally named it New Liberalism – it seems the most appropriate name for an ideology which clearly follows in the tradition of liberalism, whilst seeking to distinguish itself from older and flawed versions of it. New Liberalism is not a political party or movement; nor is it even a platform of policies. It is against the essence of liberalism that it be ossified and turned into a single entity. Instead, New Liberalism is a series of principles – ten, to be precise – that I suggest should underlie liberal thought in the coming years.

 

  1. New Liberalism is the belief that a better future for all humans is possible, and that we have a moral obligation to actualise it.
  2. New Liberalism seeks social harmony, whether between classes, between genders, or between ethnicities.
  3. New Liberalism is respectful of cultural difference, but demands adherence to liberal values as a prerequisite of toleration.
  4. New Liberalism supports a gradual progression towards transnational integration, whilst acknowledging that nation-states and national identities will not disappear until a popular will exists for them to do so.
  5. New Liberalism embraces the principles of free trade and economic neoliberalism, but accepts that mistakes have been made in the implementation of both, and resolves to learn from them.
  6. New Liberalism rejects majoritarianism and demagoguery. It is predicated in consensus politics and concern for the interests of all citizens.
  7. New Liberalism seeks to build links between the left-wing and right-wing based on shared commitments to the ideals of liberalism.
  8. New Liberalism is a broad church; it is not dogmatic, nor is it monolithic. There is room for considerable debate and discourse within it.
  9. New Liberalism values the rule of law and adherence to established methods of governance, eschewing populist demagoguery.
  10. New Liberalism is a muscular and evangelical ideology, insofar as it seeks to propagate itself around the world. It is unafraid to confront anti-liberal ideologies situated anywhere on the political spectrum.

These principles are both broad and narrow. They are broad, insofar as they are not ostensibly a commitment to any specific policies. But they are narrow, inasmuch as commitment to these principles will inevitably preclude many policies. This is intentional. New Liberalism is, as (8) says, not a monolithic entity. One can be a Conservative or a Liberal Democrat or a Labour member, and also a New Liberal. It is an ideology which seeks to occupy the areas of intersection between all these parties. This area is not homogenous; there is plenty of debate to be had. But the foundational premises of this political space are not challenged.

They are also intentionally antagonistic to the far right and allied movements. Far right policies cannot conceivably be actualised in a state governed along New Liberal principles. The aspirations to equality and freedom inherent in them is repugnant to the far right. But equally these principles – particularly the unapologetic defence of the free market – are unconscionable to a far left movement.

This is not a pick-and-mix ideology. New Liberalism must be taken in its’ entirety, or not at all. The principles support each other, and indeed are all necessary consequences of the first one. Ideological flexibility – and the appearance of sly pragmatism – was the downfall of the last wave of liberalism. As such the people will respect an ideology which retains its basic principles, rather than selectively discarding them based on what seems to gain votes.

At heart New Liberalism is a reformulation of historical liberalism, one which is cognizant of its’ mistakes as well as its strengths. It recognises that liberalism failed to ensure economic stability through a variety of ill-considered policies. It recognises that mass immigration from non-Western countries has been a varied narrative, one which many are unconvinced about. It is aware of the problems of cronyism and corruption that have often afflicted liberalism before. And it promises to work towards eliminating them, whilst retaining the principles of liberalism.

Will it work? Who knows. Every ideology hubristically assumes that it is ‘right’, and history informs us that so far none has succeeded. But I do not intend to posit New Liberalism as an ideology that will last mankind till the end of time, as some kind of watertight belief system. It is specifically intended to combat far-left and far-right extremism in Europe and America. As far as this goal is concerned, it seems a beginning, at least – whilst it may not succeed in defeating the massed ranks of the radicals, it provides a platform around which opposition can rally. It plays to the strengths of liberalism, whilst reinvigorating it with new life.

The election of Alexander Van Der Bellen in Austria proves that, contrary to the wishes of its premature obituarists, liberalism is not yet dead. So too does the nomination of Sevil Shhaideh – a Muslim woman – as President of Romania, and the apparent setbacks for Marine Le Pen in France. But as liberals we must not be complacent. At any moment the situation may worsen for liberals; we must be prepared to respond.

The war is on, the armies are being massed. Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 9th will herald the beginning of open combat; another battle may well happen in the run-up to the French Presidential election in Spring of 2017. There will be many more such. But with a standard to act as a rallying-post, liberalism may not be lost.