How much evidence can we resist before we finally accept that our liberal democracy, in its British and American forms, is now exhausted? If the misery caused to millions by the Great Recession and our failure to punish its culprits were not enough, then what are we waiting for? However we vote, on either side of the Atlantic, we cannot deny that our political institutions are overwhelmed by the upheavals of our era, while our leaders across the public and private realms seem bereft of any social purpose or vision of the good life.
What of the remedies on offer? Do we imagine that the profound failures of capitalism might be corrected by a little more taxation here, a bump to the minimum wage there, or perhaps a return to public ownership of strategic industries and the inclusion of workers on corporate boards? That is a social-democratic manifesto which has served much of Europe well; if Britain were also to adopt it, the country would merely step back into the political mainstream. Does any of this have the measure of our fatigue?
We face not an economic crisis but a moral unravelling, powerless to halt the growing indignities of our public life: from nurses who need food banks to the 72 deaths in a central-London tower block, a mile from the planet’s financial centre; from depression and loneliness among young and old to the violence of conversation on and offline; from the degradation of our political institutions to the failure of our media to scrutinise our undoing and establish a factual reality that is widely shared. Standing in the torrent of social media, we have lost the words to describe our predicament.
Rational optimists disagree. They point to reams of evidence that life is improving for millions of people across the planet. Steven Pinker, the world’s pre-eminent cognitive psychologist, argues we have entered the most peaceful epoch in human history. The blood spattered across the front-pages of our newspapers is but a distraction from a statistical trend that sees war, disease and hunger in retreat. For Pinker, human ingenuity and technological advance will save the day. We are more likely to die of over-eating than anything else.
Such optimism will presumably dismiss our raging populist moment as a last howl of protest before Progress regains her composure and restores order. It’s just a glitch. But Progress is indifferent to the texture of our daily lives; its statistics cannot feel the fraying of our social ties or smell the anxiety and isolation of a million souls.
If we scrutinise all parts of our public arena, not only our political institutions but also our civic and corporate life, do we deny that something deep within our shared imagination has come to an end? Or must we sink deeper into a perilous delusion whereby, in defending liberal democracy from the darkening authoritarian forces that would destroy it, we serve only to prolong its demise?
If we cannot see the multiplying forms of our daily unhappiness as a shared problem, which demands that we put it at the heart of our politics, it is because the economy and its 24/7 news cycle – the relentless stock-market ticker running across the bottom of our screens – have not only usurped our common public space and the language of debate but, in its very own failings, deprived us of the means to tackle our social crisis.
While a brutal capitalism clears the land of any obstacle to the market – see how Greta Thunberg riles its apostles – morality has been shunted to the side-lines of public affairs, to be tolerated as a harmless concern for the preacher, columnist and artist or as a private matter for conversation around the kitchen table. By ceasing to measure all economic behaviour as inherently moral, we are demoralised by our economy.
When once-admired power-brokers in politics and the arts are found guilty of sexual predation, their behaviour echoes that of the bankers who wreaked havoc on the lives of millions. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, they argue, and only those willing to bend the rules or trample on their competitors can succeed. Anyone who finds this distasteful is free to choose a gentler occupation, presumably in teaching, nursing or the voluntary sector.
But, across America and Britain, we now see a burgeoning thirst for something better. People are starting to take matters into their own hands, outside of formal politics.
Hundreds of thousands of school children have marched against mindless gun laws, and for an honest response to the climate emergency. Workers are launching new unions to make the Uber-economy more humane. The London Renter’s Union is pushing back against exploitation by landlords and looking for new solutions to housing. Thousands of English soccer fans are organising themselves as charitable foundations, rooting their clubs back into local communities, while the England team coach shows that successful leadership can be honest and civil, humorous and vulnerable. While digital platforms spread disinformation and hate, human journalists risk life and limb to expose corruption at the very heart of our political system. Outside Washington and Westminster, democracy may be in better shape than we think.
But the question is this: why must these civil movements toil and struggle in spite of a societal model that has reached a dead end? Why must they swim against deeper currents that still dominate our institutions and norms? If we revert to the weary explanations that have confined us to a decade of paralysis – the power of globalised elites and their ability to maintain the status quo – we drift further into a fatalism that will lead us nowhere. Instead we must dig deeper, and look within ourselves.
We must start with the thick bedrock of liberal philosophy which, more than three centuries after it laid the foundations of America and modern Britain, still support our most basic assumptions, shaping our modern conception of the individual, her relationship to the state and her role in the economy.
If these foundations are still intact, it is partly because they have served us well. All who value human liberty can only celebrate the enduring spirit of John Locke, for whom the “end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.” In our age of anger, who would not take refuge in the words of John Stuart Mill, who said that protection from an overbearing state was not enough: “there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling.” Mill’s defence of the sacred value of one person’s opinion, even if alone among all mankind, remains to this day an inspiring principle of human dignity; an antidote to the algorithm.
Yet, as the state of our two countries confirms, a liberal mantra that elevated individual freedom above all else was destined one day to arrive at its own undoing. It was long before the arrival of social media – Bowling Alone turns twenty next year – that growing numbers of Americans and Europeans began to lament the erosion of institutions that once gave purpose: family, church, industry, unions, towns and villages.
Many still see the 1980s as the point of no-return, when neo-liberal governments crowned the all-competing individual as the new sun-king of our political universe. Forty years later, their mission is complete: banking that serves no social purpose; a trickle-up of prosperity, from wage-earners to capital-holders, eroding our sense of fairness; self-realisation as the primary purpose in life.
However one interprets the economic trends of recent decades, one thing has remained constant: liberalism’s tireless celebration of the autonomous rational individual, freed of tradition and received wisdom. Mill and other liberals were not blind to the dangers inherent in their vision, but they could not have imagined the overwhelming power of the economic, social and cultural forces that have degraded their ethos to an individualism without purpose.
But let us dig deeper still. In truth, the roots of our predicament reach down to a gloomier, illiberal view of humanity, spawned by Europe’s perennial wars. Enter Thomas Hobbes, the foremost rational systemiser of the modern state, whose Leviathan of 1651 still casts a shadow over modern thought. Steven Pinker lauds Hobbes as a cognitive scientist before his time, who saw the human mind as a “mechanism”, human thought as a form of “computation” and knowledge as a form of “information”. Hobbes himself said “Reasoning is nothing but Reckoning.”
Thankfully, as she examined the Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt shone a light on the darkest implication of Hobbes’s vision: an all-powerful state that enables endless competition between rival individuals, reduced to cogs in an economic machine, turned in on themselves and condemned to rivalry and the anxiety of status. Writing in 1951, Arendt might have been speaking of our world today:
“Deprived of political rights, the individual, to whom public and official life manifests itself in the guise of necessity, acquires a new and increased interest in his private life and personal fate. Excluded from participation in the management of public affairs that involve all citizens, the individual loses his rightful place in society and his natural connection with his fellow-men. He can now judge his individual private life only by comparing it with that of others, and his relations with his fellow-men inside society take the form of competition.”
Yet, even here, Arendt cannot explain liberalism’s most damning failure: its inability to fulfil its own most cherished ambitions. For those of us who believe that the noblest freedom lies not merely in the guarantee of privacy and freedom from state coercion, but also in the ability of each individual to reach her unique potential, which demands social and cultural institutions that enable such flourishing, then liberalism has surely come short. How else to interpret what has become, for many, the loneliness of modern life, where we are free to do whatever we wish, only, alone and without purpose?
And so we must dig deeper still – down to the secret chambers of the human soul, which today’s explorers of human psychology have begun to illuminate. Equipped with new insights into how our brains function, cognitive psychologists – yes, Pinker again, but also Nobel-laureate Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt – have begun to see more clearly the limits of our rationality and the multiple forms of bias within our unconscious minds. Their findings may free us yet from a self-defeating dogma: the delusion of a rational autonomous self that considers itself the most reliable chief executive of its own interest. If today’s capitalism is the Death Star, this is the weak spot that our brave rebel pilots need to locate and dismantle.
Thanks to Kahneman, Haidt and others, we now see more clearly that not only our minute-by-minute choices but also our deeper moral attitudes are triggered unconsciously by a set of innate moral intuitions; the job of our reasoning mind is then to construct the rational justification for a stance we adopted in milliseconds. We shoot from the hip, then craft a press release.
For Haidt, each of us is morally diverse, born with a capacity to respond to any external event with a range of intuitions and emotions that operate in our unconscious minds. If we wish to heal the great fragmentation of our time, the stubborn divisions across our kitchen tables and the solipsism of our social media, then this is where we need to look.
Our moral intuitions have the power and speed to guide us before we even know it. The symbols of tax-funded welfare may trigger a deep sense of care within me; my neighbour sees free-riders cheating. When I raise money for Syrian refugees, my neighbour sees a betrayal of our (national) family. And where my neighbour argues for the God-given sanctity of the human body, my teenage daughter might perceive a limit on her freedom. But here’s what matters: none of these positions results from reasoned analysis and debate; we’re too quick for that. Instead we are united, all of us, in the unconscious authenticity of our moral intuitions, even as we shout at each other. It is not factual analysis that we lack but empathy.
None of this means we are helpless irrational beings, doomed to obey our blind instincts. Nor should we see ourselves as any less free to think and act as we wish; nor are we absolved of responsibility to ourselves or others. On the contrary, by recognising our limitations, we are liberated from the harmful injunctions of perfectibility, and – take note, liberals – by at least acknowledging a broader morality that lies beyond the protection of rights, we may begin to see our neighbour’s view as authentic, even as we disagree. Scientific observation, factual analysis and reasoned argument must remain the pillars of civil society; only now we see how little they help us to persuade others to change their mind.
This is a modest proposal that provokes the most stubborn resistance. Socialists and social-democrats will complain, understandably, that they have not only rejected these core tenets of liberalism but successfully built different models that have stood the test of time. The National Health Service, embodying the solidarity of the early Labour movement and infused with Christian generosity, remains a towering achievement and national symbol. Conservatives will argue that most traditions and institutions of British life have resisted the liberal steamroller, and and continue to provide sources of virtue, inspiration and meaning to millions.
Much of this may be true, and yet it is the core principle of liberalism – the individual liberated from all constraints and all but the most basic duties – that has most shaped our American and British societies. To find a more deeply rooted practice of social democracy, we must look to our German and Scandinavian neighbours, even as they too have become increasingly tempted by aspects of neo-liberal economics; to find a more genuine conservatism, we might look to Europe’s burgeoning green movement.
Liberal democrats will complain loudest of all. They will claim that their model is designed expressly to adapt to a changing world and negotiate the cultural diversity of its citizens, peacefully mediating their competing interests, and all within the rule of law. Such a political organisation properly remains silent on the question of the good life precisely because that can only be debated and agreed by its constituent members; the vision of the good life cannot reside in the institutions themselves. Instead, the competing demands of free individuals are resolved peacefully by the market.
Today, most liberals would certainly accept that any expectation of freedom and fairness at the heart of their model has been overwhelmed by the concentration of power inherent in modern capitalism and the excesses of its financial and corporate masters; but even after the crisis of 2008 they would still argue that it can be reformed and revitalised. They would refuse to see the powerful dynamics at the roots of liberalism, which simply cannot correct or reinvent themselves. Hence the Financial Times’ half-hearted call of September 2019 to “reset” capitalism: “Business must make a profit but should serve a purpose too.” Are we to genuflect and give thanks for that final “too”?
Once they are established as the prime purpose of human life, individualism and the accumulation of status and wealth continue for their own sake – the blind and pointless expansion that Arendt first saw in 19th century colonialism, where trade has saturated the home market and finds no other purpose but to continue overseas, under the brutal military protection of the state. A new logic of accumulation-without-purpose drives today’s surveillance capitalism, as Shoshana Zuboff, an Arendt for our times, has brilliantly exposed.
True, many Western societies have successfully reformed themselves, thanks in part to the competition of ideologies and democratic movements. Europe’s ability to criticise and renew itself appears woven into the very fabric of its civilisation, for what has our story been, over centuries, if not a reliable reflex to doubt and reject each of the prevailing philosophical, political and cultural movements of the time, even as we return later to their most valid lessons? No single culture or creed can claim ownership of self-renewal.
Liberalism’s blindness to its own shortcomings were on full display in The Economist’s 175th anniversary essay of 2018. The authors casually accept that the world’s liberal leaders were asleep at the wheel just as they navigated its most perilous journey of the last half-century:
“The global financial crisis laid bare the dangers of under-regulated finance. Liberal economists paid too little attention to the people and places harmed by trade and automation. The liberal world order failed to confront the epic challenge of climate change or to adapt its institutions to the growing importance of emerging economies. Liberal thinkers paid too little heed to those things people value beyond self-determination and economic betterment, such as their religious and ethnic identities.”
It’s an apology that should be printed as an obituary. In truth, liberalism necessarily failed to grasp the nature and the urgency of environmental devastation, financial vandalism and the basic human needs of meaning and identity because all of these crises elude the very language of liberalism.
In its theological attachment to individual freedom and free markets, liberalism possesses neither the sensitivity nor the vocabulary that could possibly apprehend and describe a set of problems that are inherently moral. No, the world’s liberal leaders were not asleep at the wheel; they were wide awake with their eyes fixed on the road, foot to the floor, oblivious to the dead-end sign they had missed long before.
What might all this say about the United Kingdom’s impending departure from the European Union? Most observers today see a constitutional crisis that has supposedly pitted people against parliament. Those who see Britain’s future outside the Union insist that members of parliament must implement the outcome of the referendum; the opposing camp argues that such a referendum should never have happened, and claims parliament as the ultimate sovereign arbiter.
Others prefer to step back and see current events as part of a decades-long conflict inside the Conservative party. Like players of Cluedo, they locate the culprits and weapons in different rooms of an English country house, but are not especially concerned to find a credible motive.
Most attempts to explain the deeper causes of the crisis tend either to ignore the European question altogether – the vote to leave was merely one symptom of a widespread anger and despair caused by a decade of austerity, which has now shattered the relationship between cities and shires and between citizens and politicians – or to describe Britain’s place in Europe in overly simplistic terms as the exceptional island civilisation that was never at home with the mainland, and could never share its neighbours’ founding myth of a new Europe built from the lessons of defeat.
Rarely do any of these accounts explore how it was possible, over no less than five decades, that a Britain so capable of re-shaping Europe in its own image (free markets and free trade) and according to its own geopolitical goals (eastward enlargement) ultimately remained so blind to the Union’s very essence and the reason for its success: an unprecedented democratic project that neither subsumes its members into a post-national state nor replaces the polity with a market, but instead embodies a way of sharing power between sovereign nations so that together they uphold a set of shared values and express them in political action.
Is it not precisely this that our analysis so far has revealed: that the England of Hobbes could only ever see Europe as a market of private transactions, tolerable only so long as it extended economic opportunity?
The British parliament has struggled for more than three years to leave the Union because our country never truly joined it. Forty-six years were not time enough for our political, cultural and economic leaders to hold the project in their hands and examine it truthfully, so that it could become part of our landscape. Too many convinced themselves they could neatly cut the market away from the peace project and its shared values; too many lazily conflated the Union with the forces of global capitalism even as it strove harder to regulate and tame them. Westminster fumbles for an exit, forgetful of when and why it entered in the first place.
The institutions of the European Union, starting with its 27 national governments, must urgently heed the lessons from what has happened; too often they have appeared equally blind. In recent years they have sometimes degraded their project to an economic trading bloc – the European Commission today calls the single market the “beating heart” of the Union – which only serves to uproot it both from its founding mission to bring peace and stability and from the shared values of its peoples. The Commission would do well to expand its vocabulary so that it appeals beyond its cosmopolitan base to people who value tradition, loyalty and a sense of place more than the right to cross borders without smartphone roaming charges or a passport.
The leading argument of the campaign to remain in the European Union – hard-nosed economic necessity – could only fail. The point here is not whether a narrative of peace, stability and shared values would have swayed a single person to vote differently; it is simply that such a narrative was inconceivable in a country that had evidently come to see Europe, at best, as a means to extend personal and economic freedom.
Likewise, the woeful assumption that facts would set the record straight, cause people to see sense, and then vote accordingly, was doomed from the start. To complain that a rational process was unfairly distorted by a campaign of deceit brings us back to our main theme: factual truth is vital to the health of democracy but facts alone do little to shape our decisions. To persuade democratically is to put facts at the service of a truthful, emotional argument that can touch our deeper, unconscious, moral selves. The ‘Remain’ campaign had no such story, and where could it possibly find one, when England’s idea of Europe had been drained of all meaning?
Liberal democracy, then, is exhausted in three distinct ways, which leave it beyond repair.
First, having enabled the most extreme forms of neo-liberal economics, it has produced inequalities of wealth and opportunity that many of us would consider immoral in themselves, before we even begin to measure how they have corroded our shared sense of identity and trust. This, in turn, has entrenched new hierarchies and concentrations of power that are empty of any legitimacy or social purpose; worse still, they deprive the rest of us of energy and resources. Life for the weakest has become harsh, lonely and meaningless.
Second, liberal democracy has mostly confined itself to a very narrow morality, rooted in the notion that each individual can only reach the universal moral truth by reason alone. Predictably, this vision has served to expand and protect the rights of individuals, limit any social constraints, and reduce any notion of the common good to the idea that each is free to do as she sees fit, provided she harms no one else. The rationalist delusion has blinded us to the moral diversity that exists within all of us from the day we are born, and which holds the key to a richer social existence where everyone has a place.
Third, liberal democracy has refused to accept that, as individuals, we need each other not only for shared endeavours, friendship and solidarity but also so that we can fully experience and understand the world around us. This is the ultimate paradox: we only become our true selves and reach our greatest potential through our relations with others. We are born into a world that is saturated with history, traditions and social relations, and yet liberalism would have us run from it all.
Today, liberal democracy’s most helpful contribution would be to help prepare the ground for what comes next – peacefully, democratically and according to the rule of law. How better to defeat the growing band of illiberal demagogues and would-be fascists than to slip their grasp and start building a new city on the hill?
A new politics can respect historical traditions. A radical break with one stream of thinking does not exclude continuity in other areas. We must retain the most enduring achievements of liberal democracy, just as it once borrowed the best from the Greek, Roman, Judaeo-Christian, medieval and Renaissance traditions. To put a new emphasis on our mutual needs and interdependence is not to spoil Mill’s celebration of our individual spontaneity, originality, genius, mental energy or moral courage; it is rather to recognise that society can be as much eroded by anomie as it is crushed by collective mediocrity; it is to accept that individualism can become its own self-defeating dogma.
Likewise, Isaiah Berlin’s idea of positive freedom – “I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s, acts of will” – remains as valid as ever. Only, it should now be nuanced by the emerging psychological evidence that our moral intuitions are located deep in the unconscious.
We should no longer deride our unconscious impulses as our ‘lower selves’ to be tamed or corrected through fact and reason, but accept them as an integral part of our morality and our sense of who we are. The philosophical question of ‘who is master’ continues afresh, only it has a new frontline, not between the individual and the state or the church or the multinational corporation but within each of us.
As a point of departure, could we not propose that, however our democracy may evolve in the years ahead, a small number of basic ideas and institutions should continue to provide its foundations:
- a shared view of humanity that sees every human being as a unique soul, who deserves not only to live in peace and dignity but also to flourish and reach her full potential as a member of society;
- a code of fundamental rights that guarantees the sanctity of the individual and her basic freedoms, starting with the freedom of thought, expression and religion;
- the rule of law overseen by an independent judiciary that serves no master but truth and justice;
a form of representative democracy that encourages all citizens to take part in the country’s public affairs, from city to regional to national and then to international level;
- a commitment to public education that sees its primary role as the forming of individuals who are able to live and work with others in a spirit of empathy, respect, creativity and cooperation;
- an independent media that holds government, public institutions and large corporations to account, and provides a public space for debate, criticism, protest, investigation and, ultimately, the search for truth;
- a market economy that is embedded in local communities and harnessed to a long-term vision for the sustainable development of all parts of the country;
- a constitutional commitment to a high level of social solidarity, guaranteed in part by the state?
These institutions, at their best, have served us well. Their greatest test may still lie ahead, as technological change, global migration and climate change continue to exert enormous pressure on our society. We will need them more than ever as we take our first steps into a post-liberal world. But they offer a minimal framework only – an infrastructure of democracy. They leave open vast questions about how to organise our society: how to encourage the true political pluralism that comes from self-organising associations across all parts of society; how to establish the organising principles of a market economy that is infused with moral principles and social purpose; how to reincorporate the public role of our different faiths; and how such a society would relate to its neighbours and the rest of the world. We must now start the conversations that can begin to answer those questions.
How, then, do we build a better democracy, centred on the human soul?
Our starting point must be to envision a politics that allows every individual to flourish as part of communities nested within one another – local, regional, national and international – in which we reconcile our desire for freedom with our respect for place and loyalty, our offer of care with our expectation of responsibility, our urge to compete with our desire to help, our urge to disrupt with our respect for experience and expertise. We need a politics of reconciliation and repair.
To avoid the final indignities of narcissism – the quest for permanent happiness and then immortality, Silicon Valley’s final frontier, which has already attracted billions of dollars in new investment – we must renew the human bonds that are essential to our flourishing and, paradoxically, our sense of individual identity.
This, then, is the radical departure: a politics that begins with the question, what does it mean to be human, and how do we relate to one other?
A politics that lets go of the superstition of Progress – a blind pursuit that claims to answer every question except those of purpose and meaning – and puts in its place the search for ways of living and working together that restore trust, friendship and cooperation, and put invention at the service of human need.
We must return politics and culture to the heart of society. Only politics, culture and society together can answer the central question: who are we, what do we value most, and how do we want to live together? Only then can we address the economic questions that follow; the economy thus ceases to be the sun around which everything else revolves, and becomes instead a set of practices and tools that help us to achieve our shared goals.
Reconciliation begins with the complexity at the heart of each human being: each of us is morally diverse from the day we are born; education can help us to understand why we are nonetheless shaped by some beliefs more than others; but only empathy can help us to live together in peace. Today’s tribalism reveals that people have equally authentic and sincere positions on the values of fairness, equality and order, even as their political expression may be diametrically opposed.
Our human dignity is at stake. Until now, all the great political ideologies have fundamentally denied our common humanity and instead reduced human beings to a function of a historical process, movement or utopia. Three-and-a-half centuries after Leviathan, the lives of too many of us have become a mere function of the economy, driven forward towards no commonly agreed end; we are shackled to growth and expansion for their own sake.
Reconciliation means – in its most radical break with liberalism – that we invite our various faiths back into public affairs, not merely as the collective voices of millions of believers but as the original sources of some of our most enduring secular values and, more importantly still, the carriers of a transcendental ethical worldview – the sense that we are part of something greater than ourselves, driven by a purpose that goes beyond the here and now.
This leads in turn to the question of how we wish to relate to each other, as citizens. The central concern of liberal politics – my relationship to the state – must now be replaced by the question of how I relate to my neighbours both near and far. If today we sense that competition between individuals, the war of all against all, is not only too pessimistic a vision of human nature but one which deliberately silences our instincts to give, cooperate and support, then this must infuse the roots of a new politics.
Reconciliation means renewing a shared belief in a common good that derives not merely from the need to share common resources, jointly fund public goods such as education and health, and maintain a high degree of material solidarity between citizens, but more deeply from a shared sense of our mutual needs as human beings and a common purpose to discover the good life, even if this ultimately remains the personal search of each individual.
In other words, as individual members of a local, regional, national and international community, we recognise that we are first and foremost fellow citizens, neighbours, friends and fellow parents before we enter the world of work and the marketplace. Our relationships and projects within our various associations and groups, as well as between each of us as individuals, lead to a shared sense of the good life. The market can do none of this.
The ghosts that haunted Hannah Arendt after the war are among us today. We too see “homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth”. We too can agree that the “central events of our time are not less effectively forgotten by those committed to a belief in an unavoidable doom, than by those who have given themselves up to reckless optimism.” And we should certainly conclude, as she did, that “all efforts to escape from the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipated oblivion of a better future, are vain.” Let us turn instead to each other.
A politics of repair and reconciliation must begin with a moral revolution, and a work of decades. We can start today by casting off a worldview that once served us well but ultimately denied our humanity, so that instead we celebrate our imperfect selves and our need for each other. It will demand virtues in short supply – modesty, patience and empathy – but they are urgently needed if we are to find the freedom that is worth more than any other: the freedom to be our true selves.