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.
- New Liberalism is the belief that a better future for all humans is possible, and that we have a moral obligation to actualise it.
- New Liberalism seeks social harmony, whether between classes, between genders, or between ethnicities.
- New Liberalism is respectful of cultural difference, but demands adherence to liberal values as a prerequisite of toleration.
- 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.
- 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.
- New Liberalism rejects majoritarianism and demagoguery. It is predicated in consensus politics and concern for the interests of all citizens.
- New Liberalism seeks to build links between the left-wing and right-wing based on shared commitments to the ideals of liberalism.
- New Liberalism is a broad church; it is not dogmatic, nor is it monolithic. There is room for considerable debate and discourse within it.
- New Liberalism values the rule of law and adherence to established methods of governance, eschewing populist demagoguery.
- 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.
Those of you active on social media will inevitably have run into them at some point. They’re easily recognisable by their dodgy grammar and spelling, their love of memes and ‘internet humour’, and their apparently perpetual aggression. You’ll find them in places like 4Chan or the darker recesses of Reddit; on Twitter they might be seen adoringly retweeting people like Donald Trump, or alternatively sending anti-Semitic or racist messages to people they dislike. Since 2010 they’ve been growing in number at an alarming rate. They are, of course, the alt-right.
Though they belong, broadly speaking, to the ‘right’ of the political spectrum – hence their name – their ideology is a uniquely 21st century amalgamation of multiple older ones brought together by that great leveller, the internet. In many aspects the alt-right resembles previous movements; in other ways it seems completely new.
At heart, it is a European and American movement opposed to modernity. But it is a paradoxical movement, insofar as it could not have come about without the social climate and technology of the 21st century. The alt-right rejects modern values wholeheartedly, but embraces the technological outlook that the 21st century has brought – in particular, the internet and mobile telecommunications. The observant amongst you might recognise this as a variant of the ‘reactionary modernism’ so prevalent amongst the fascist movement.
What do I mean by modernity? In essence I am referring to post-Enlightenment thought, in particular the values of liberty and equality amongst all humans. This view has, with a few notable hiatuses, been the dominant school of thought in Europe and America for the last three hundred years. It is one rejected by the alt-right.
At heart they oppose the belief that all humans are equal. On their theory, inequality is not just an inevitability but something to be celebrated. Often they will justify this with recourse to pseudo-scientific Social Darwinism; at other times they will simply use distorted and selectively chosen facts taken from dubious sources. This is an important and underemphasised point – the scientific aspirations of the alt-right. They worship science, reason and rationality, and have nothing but contempt for all metaphysical disciplines such as literature or philosophy. Nonetheless, they generally have a very vague grasp of scientific theory and practice; instead, they often have a background in the applied sciences such as engineering or computing.
The fundamental case of inequality, on the alt-right’s theory, is that of race. According to them, racial difference is essential and all-pervading; they feel little commonality between them and an individual of a different race. However, the majority will deny being racists (though most patently are, and many embrace racism whole-heartedly.) Instead they argue that they are ‘race realists’, essentially a pseudo-scientific version of racism. According to them, they do not believe that other races are a posteriori inferior; however, they claim that the ‘unfortunate reality’ is that whites are somehow superior. Often they will produce distorted or out-of-context statistics which support this; they tend to fetishize these statistics as incontrovertible proof of the truth of the alt-right’s position, even when they’re disproved (common examples include ‘blacks are inherently criminal’ or ‘Sweden is the rape capital of the world because of their immigration policies.’
From this, they attempt to construct a ‘reasoned’ approach to racism, one in which they argue it to be a matter of ‘common sense’ that races separate. For, having claimed that whites are superior, it surely seems logical that whites ‘get rid’ of non-whites. Here, the approaches of the alt-right differ; in America the approach seems to be a deportation of illegal immigrants and a gradual removal of rights of legal non-whites, whilst in Europe there tends to be more talk of ‘humane repatriation.’ Bear in mind that in both countries the alt-right is forced to remain within the law; there is little doubt that the movement supports genocide, but cannot legally say so.
Perhaps the most important object of both disgust and fear to the alt-right are Jews. Indeed, they have been responsible for an extraordinary revival of anti-Semitic rhetoric in a way unseen since the 1930s. To the alt-right, the Jews are even more loathsome than other non-whites since they ‘hide in plain sight’, and corrupt ‘white’ society from within. Furthermore, there is an almost childlike credulousness to the alt-right’s beliefs in the powers of the Jews. They are viewed as universally malevolent, universally intelligent, and all conspiring together to bring about the destruction of ‘western civilisation.’ The usual line of argument is that they plan to do this through a ‘liberal conspiracy’ to weaken whites – such phrases as ‘cultural Marxism’ are often mentioned in relation to this, though the utterers normally don’t have much idea what they mean.
Racism, though, is but one plank of the alt-right. The other is a uniquely visceral sexism. Much as, by recourse to pseudo-science, the alt-right believe that non-whites are unequal to whites, they similarly believe that men are somehow superior to women. Indeed, the movement arose fundamentally out of the sexist ‘Gamergate’ controversy, where male ‘gamers’ felt that the traditionally male space of computer games was being ruined by the perceived intrusion of women. A distinction might be made between the anti-feminism of the masses and the ideologues of the alt-right movement. On the part of the former it manifests itself as the mewling women-hatred of men unable to build meaningful relationships with the opposite genders, and who have retreated into anachronistic concepts of masculinity. The latter, however, add an extra level of complexity to their anti-feminism by combining it with their racism. According to these individuals feminism has caused European women to have fewer children, and to have them later – this means that white European birth rates are lower (in some cases significantly) than non-white birth rates. As such, they seek to restore a world in which women lived in subordination, where their role is merely to give birth to white children. Of course, much as the alt-right uses pseudo-scientific racial theory to cloak their fear of non-whites, their grandiose theorising about women masks a fundamental crisis of masculinity that they are experiencing.
More than merely an ideology, though, the alt-right is an approach to politics. It combines toxic anti-modern views with a contradictory embrace of modern technology and culture. Much like the Nazis – who despised modernity whilst still pouring billions into scientific research and technology – the alt-right is a techno-savvy movement. Indeed, it exists (uniquely for a political movement) on the internet, principally on Reddit and 4chan. The virtue of these platforms is that they are unpoliced and lend themselves to monolithic groups hostile to alternate views. Unsuspecting outsiders are sucked into these digital lairs and radicalised, exposed solely to ‘facts’ and media which strengthens the alt-right narrative. The flames of anger are stoked ever higher, directed against immigrants, women and ‘the elites.’ In addition, these online platforms are full of in-jokes and memes – shibboleths by which alt-rightists feel part of a global brotherhood, and can feel self-righteously superior to those who don’t ‘get it.’ Occasionally these users spill out onto other websites – they are known to sally forth onto Twitter to harass individuals who provoke their fury, such as the actress Lesley Jones. Never has a movement been so dependent upon online communications; it is the lifeblood flowing through the veins of the alt-right.
Of course, it would be remiss of me to cast the alt-right as a monolithic group. The most obvious division of the movement is into leaders and fellow-travellers. The majority are of the second camp, and do not necessarily conform to the above description. In particular, many ‘fellow travellers’ will be sympathetic to religion, or perhaps marginally liberal on certain issues. However, the leadership are remarkably homogenous – young, white, male, geeky, contemptuous of metaphysics, and supportive of atheism.
Are the alt-right conservatives? Not really. Conservatism is an ideology centred upon two things; societal cohesion and structural evolution. The first element posits that for a society to advance, different groups within it should be in harmony – blacks and whites, rich and poor, town and country. The alt-right rejects this spectacularly; it attempts to sow division wherever possible, and rejects all compromise as ‘cucking’, to use their delightful term. The second element posits that any change in society must be gradual – evolution, not revolution. Even if a previous change has been wrought by a revolution, the counter-revolution must not be iconoclastic or violent; it should be gradual and cautious. This too is rejected by the alt-right, with their calls for extreme policies against immigrants and democracy.
Neither are they ‘neo-Nazis’, as some well-intentioned but misguided people are attempting to label them. Neo-Nazism is based upon a reconstruction of Nazi ideology in some shape or form; a potent combination of totalitarianism, racism, and third-positionism. The alt-right, though they share the second of these beliefs, generally rejects the first and second of these. They are violently libertarian (perhaps best described as paleo-libertarian, insofar as their libertarianism is wedded to white nationalism) and often approving of brash capitalism. Put simply, the Nazis would have viewed the alt-right as a bunch of long-haired wastrels who needed a shower, a uniform and a ticket to boot camp; the alt-right would have viewed the Nazis as boring reactionaries, even if many of them pay considerable lip service to the Third Reich (at least partly because of the transgressive value of doing so these days.)
What they are, then, is a manifestation of the new division in politics; between populism and elitism. I use the latter word in a non-pejorative sense, descriptively rather than normatively. By it, I mean the liberal-minded, educated class – not merely ‘educated’ in the sense that the alt-right is, simply provided with technical knowledge, but with a liberal, humanistic education. It is these people, regardless of political affiliation, who (for better or worse) are now the fundamental opposition to the populists. Though there is enormous diversity between populists – it is, after all, a movement encompassing Black Lives Matter and the alt-right – they are united in their loathing of ‘the elites’ as much as those elites are united in their fear of the populists.
It seems fairly uncontroversial to state that the alt-right are a serious threat to Western civilisation. In common with terror groups like al-Qaeda or Daesh, they seek to destroy the liberal values intrinsic to the West, and reconstitute our societies in a totalitarian and illiberal mould, one in which women are oppressed, minorities persecuted, free thought stopped, and the self is negated in favour of the state. The British MP Jo Cox was killed by a member of the neofascist group National Action, a group which shares a lot of things with the alt-right (indeed, it is in many ways functionally identical.)
Far-right ideology is fairly indestructible; no matter how many times it is ‘defeated’ by liberalism, it comes back in new forms. Nazism was destroyed in 1945, but it returned as the neo-Nazi hooliganism of the FN and the BNP. The triumph of neoliberalism in the early 21c put paid to those forms of far-right rhetoric, and for a few years liberal thought reigned unchallenged. The alt-right is merely the latest in this long line of challengers to liberalism. Will it be defeated? Certainly. How and when? Who knows – but it looks like they’re going to be around for a long time.