A brief article in The Spectator (May 19) by Fredrik Erixon speculates that President Emmanuel Macron of France, generally considered a liberal centrist énarque, seems to be reconsidering his position following the anniversary of his first year in office. Faced with the continuing rise of the right in Europe, the rebellion of Chancellor Merkel’s conservatives against Macron’s scheme for binding the E.U. into ever closer union and the massive unpopularity of his proposal to appoint a single finance minister for the eurozone, the formation of an antiestablishment government in Rome that looks set to challenge Brussels’ authority and its economic and migratory policies, and the impossibility of finding a European consensus on the admission and settlement of refugees, M. Macron is already changing his stripes, the better to merge with the surrounding jungle, Erixon thinks. “He isn’t doctrinaire and has already started to wear his federalism lightly,” as he did in a recent speech in Aix-la-Chapelle. “Macron is at heart a disrupter,” Erixon adds, “who wants to upset the status quo. . . . [He] sees himself as representing the new politics, not as a defender of the old guard.” A liberal, then, of the kind that is prepared to “evolve” and to “grow”—the terms used by American liberals to encourage Republicans and conservatives who shift leftward seeking political convenience and social acceptance.
In the instance of President Macron we are witnessing the process in reverse, as a liberal moves rightward, pressed by shifting realities. A month before Aix-la-Chapelle, he argued that “We need a sovereignty stronger than our own”—the supranational sovereignty of Brussels. In the same speech he warned that to fight over “our values” is to risk civil war in Europe, and deplored “an increasing fascination with illiberalism” and populist “authoritarianism,” which he claimed is “unconcerned with the rule of law.” Clearly Macron’s newly found perspective on his country and the European Union shows a startling growth spurt along with a corresponding increase in political prudence and practicality. Many liberals and other leftists are bound to see this as a betrayal of liberal doctrine and principle. Yet it is only historical fact that liberalism, despite being originally the construct and secular religion of theorists and intellectuals, has never had a developed doctrine (as conservatism also has not), nor a set of clear and fixed principles (which conservatism does have). Both liberalism and conservatism are attitudes and habits of mind. Conservatives, however, agree with Dr. Johnson that “How small, of all that human hearts endure, / That part which laws or kings can cause or cure”; while liberals believe that human beings can, if given the resources and the opportunity and time to apply them efficiently, cause or cure virtually anything—and should, in the name of the common denominator of every one of the many forms of liberalism, which is meliorism. But meliorism is not doctrine either, and as understood by liberals its only principles are to be found in pragmatism, utilitarianism, and secular humanitarianism. Liberalism approves and advances any action, any form of behavior, any program that satisfies people’s worldly wants and makes them freer and happier according to how liberals understand freedom and happiness, which is as strictly materialist and rationalist goods. As the popular conception of these things has changed over the course of modern history, liberalism has changed as well. Liberals are Darwinists in biology and in their view of the progressive evolution of societies in history, and their political evolution has been shaped by this. Owing to its highly adaptive nature liberalism has survived for several hundred years, though at the cost of turning itself inside out, so that today’s advanced liberalism has virtually nothing left in common with the classical liberalism it began with—except meliorism, of course. Political evolution has saved liberalism from extinction, while guaranteeing its historical inconsistency, its intellectual incoherence—and its opportunism. President Macron is acting both politically, in the proper sense of the word, and wisely in accommodating his program to suit the present time. He is acting also as a true liberal, whatever the most ideological liberals may think of him. What, after all, are principles to liberalism? Conservatives find their own fixed and immutable ones in the Divine. Liberals, having rejected the Divine or relocated it to some remote sphere of abstraction and forgotten about it, have only abstract ideology and mutable human law to depend upon for theirs.
The beginnings of modern liberalism coincide with those of industrial capitalism; the first was a political reaction to the second, though not against it. Laissez-faire economics, while it lasted, helped free European economies from government direction and control. Later liberalism entered government and sought control and direction over the new industrial economy, while trying to maintain free trade as a mainstay of the self-regulating market, the gold standard, and the system of balancing powers.
Liberalism responded to the new economic, social, and political realities theoretically and practically, by compelling liberals to reconsider how much of what they believed theoretically they were giving away in practice by doing so. The result was a growing tension between liberal theory and liberal practice: free enterprise and managed enterprise, the claims of the individual versus those of “society.” Liberals in the middle decades of the 19th century were acutely aware of the difficulties of trying to reconcile individualistic liberalism with liberal capitalism and the new industrial system.
Because liberalism is a modern, postfeudal phenomenon, its twin phenomenon in the modern age—industrial power—has been at once its chief political rival, its greatest practical and intellectual challenge, and its indispensable ally as liberal doctrine evolved over two centuries. The industrialist system, which destroyed classical liberalism as an economic and political doctrine, was a fruit of liberal positivism, liberal rationalism, liberal materialism, liberal utilitarianism, liberal humanitarianism, liberal optimism in the short run and, in the long one, liberal skepticism. Absent the liberal spirit, no industrialism; without the industrial system, no liberalism in the modern sense of the word. Today, the “conservatives”—the “greedy,” “exploitative,” “selfish,” and “destructive” industrial and corporate interests and their representatives whom liberals blame for “destroying the planet”—do not, no matter how they vote (and, increasingly, they tend to vote Democratic, Labour, Social Democratic, or the equivalents of these), represent the traditionally conservative interests: the great landholders, the rural squirearchy and the peasantry, the aristocracy, and the monarchy. Instead they stand in for the historically liberal ones: the bourgeoisie, the money men and the jobbers, the industrialists, the bankers, the bureaucrats, the scientists, the intellectuals, and the academics who displaced the ages-old establishments a century and a half ago. The world we live in today is the world liberalism, not conservatism, made, and supercilious and self-righteous liberals should be forced to recognize this and accept responsibility for it.
Economic liberals in the early 19th century understood laissez-faire economics as the embodiment of natural economic principles, and themselves as their defenders against wicked people who sought to impose illiberal legislation. “In these two mutually exclusive interpretations of the double movement,” Karl Polanyi, the 20th-century economic historian, wrote, “it is not too much to say, the truth or untruth of the liberal creed is [still] involved today.” There was, however, a second “double movement” in the evolution of 19th-century liberalism: the divergence between what a contemporary writer on liberalism calls the liberal principle of the “respect” due the ordinary citizen, and the liberal elite’s perceived responsibility to educate and otherwise “improve” him. Educated and well-off liberals in the latter part of the 19th century were conscious of their membership in the socially dominant class, and of their corresponding responsibility (and, finally, their right) to act as the reforming and uplifting one.
Lord Acton, the liberal historian, once admitted that “My liberalism admits to everyone the right to his own opinion and imposes on me the duty of teaching him what is best.” On the other hand, liberals professed to value and honor individuality and (theoretically) the assumption that one man—tinker, tailor, soldier, spy, university don, barrister, vicar, squire, marquis, duke—was as good as the next one, and in no greater need of tutelage in higher tastes, values, ideas, and pursuits than any other. Industrialism had transformed society almost overnight by complicating it unimaginably in every aspect, and in the liberal view (as in fact) members of industrial societies required an unprecedented degree of sophistication to negotiate, or even survive, its complexities. But here laissez-faire was no more adequate to manage the consequent moral and intellectual confusion than it was to deal with the economic and social sort. Inevitably, the project to guide and educate the masses was de haut en bas: the first, relatively innocent, step in the modern project of social engineering on a mass scale, something pre-industrial society felt no need for and lacked the power to accomplish in any case.
Besides relying on bureaucracy and the civil services to hold the crowd at bay, liberals in the 19th century resisted universal suffrage—which, when it came at last, fulfilled their worst fears by weakening the liberal parties and reducing mass politics to popularity contests and self-promotion, a form of team sport (“a never-ending cricket-match between Blue and Yellow,” Sir Henry Sumner Maine, the English jurist, complained), and general popular amusement. Edmund Fawcett, in his book Liberalism, distinguishes three periods in what he calls “the life of an idea.” Between 1830 and 1880 (he says), liberals placed the foundation for “liberal aims and ideals.” In the pre-democratic period 1880 to 1945, they faced the challenges with which democracy confronted those aims and ideals, and came close to failing in the attempt. Finally, after 1945, “chastened by the past, [they] built, defended, and justified a liberal democratic order.”
It took liberals two generations and more to recognize fully the need to modify their original polar orientation toward the political liberty and commercial freedom of individuals, and several more to adapt and reconcile themselves to the demands of modern democratic liberalism. Fawcett thinks that, having done so, liberalism since World War II has succeeded in resolving its former contradictions to achieve its telos and build a liberal democratic order that Francis Fukuyama argued 20 years ago amounted to “the end of history.”
Many liberals today still agree with Fukuyama’s thesis. Many others, however—perhaps the majority—have moved beyond the ideal of liberal democratic capitalism to a posthistorical and postliberal “idea” the author James Kalb calls “advanced liberalism”: a step not beyond but away from the liberal tradition as it evolved from the late 18th century down to the close of the 20th. Advanced liberalism emphasizes the theoretical vagueness, uncertainty, and discontinuity of liberalism historically, while demonstrating liberalism’s final insufficiency to satisfy postliberals who wish to replace what was formerly a pragmatic attitude based on a set of optimistic assumptions about man and his world with a utopian ideological image to be realized by highly illiberal means—propaganda, reeducation, social manipulation, and legal positivism, much of it conducted through the agency of the digital revolution created by the postindustrial revolution. Advanced liberalism stares fixedly ahead to a postliberal society shaped and policed by postindustrial technology in the final quest for the absolute power toward which the West has been striving for half a millennium. This is the power that the antiliberals, whom today’s “liberal” establishment dishonestly call “populists,” are determined to oppose and replace with that old-fashioned thing called “democracy”—not with “authoritarianism,” let alone fascism, as Western liberals claim.
In 1986, John Gray, the English political theorist, published a small book entitled Liberalism, grounded on the assumption that the liberal system is “the political system of modernity.” Nine years later he brought out a second edition reflecting how far he had changed his mind on the subject. “I think now,” he wrote in 1995,
that the search for foundations of liberal practice is both futile and unnecessary, in that liberal regimes are far from universally mandatory or desirable, and are merely one segment of a range of institutions that may be legitimate in the late modern, or early postmodern world. . . . Like other variations on the enlightenment project, liberal theory runs aground on the impossibility of formulating a rational morality. If the foundationalist pretensions of liberalism are hollow, so too is the claim that in our historical context there are no viable alternatives to liberal institutions. In the postliberal and pluralist view I now hold, liberal regimes are only one type of legitimate polity, and liberal practice has no special or universal authority. Whether a regime is legitimate depends on its relations with the cultural traditions of its subjects and its contribution to the satisfaction of their needs. It is far from being the case that liberal regimes always come out on top when judged by these measures.
Turning from theory to reality, one finds that there are indeed many practical and civilized alternatives to the liberal system today. In no society, Gray notes, is liberalism hegemonic. Rather, it is in every instance constrained by surviving political elements standing cheek by jowl with it. Not even Western liberal cultures are assured of continuous self-renewal. Gray came to this conclusion in 1994. Over the nearly 30-year period since then, Western societies, having endured the oppressive dominance of advanced liberalism, are now rebelling against it. “The ruin of Soviet Marxism was, after all,” Gray observes, “the failure of a Western universalist ideology . . . it was not the end, but the resumption of history, in forms as little likely to be liberal as they are to be ever again Marxist.” He concludes:
In the postmodern age, liberal culture and liberal states must renounce any claim to universal authority, and learn to live in harmony with other, non-liberal cultures and polities. Finding institutions which can harbour cultural diversity in peace, both in the relations between states and within states, is the pluralist challenge to postliberal thought.
It is a challenge that American and European liberals are meeting very badly by angrily resisting citizens’ protests against illiberal democracy at home and the financial and other burdens placed upon them by the attempted forcible imposition of democracy on countries around the world. President Macron, who during his 12 months in the Élysée has been compared to Jupiter and Napoleon (comparisons he has neither denied nor discouraged), alone among the heads of state of Western Europe seems willing to recognize the challenge for what it is, and to alter his federalist policies accordingly. The newly formed “populist” government in Rome is only his most recent and powerful incentive to do so.