“Reason…is nothing but Reckoning.”
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651
“As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who…owe nothing to any man, [and] expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.”
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835
“Never has our future been more unpredictable, never have we depended so much on political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules of common sense and self-interest – forces that look like sheer insanity, if judged by the standards of other centuries. It is as though mankind had divided itself between those who believe in human omnipotence (who think that everything is possible if one knows how to organise masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives. On the level of historical insight and political thought there prevails an ill-defined, general agreement that the essential structure of all civilisations is at the breaking point.”
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951
“Just as liberal thought has redefined human nature as fundamentally individual existence abstracted from social embeddedness, so too liberal practice has replaced the quest for reciprocal recognition and mutual flourishing with the pursuit of wealth, power and pleasure – leading to economic instability, social disorder and ecological devastation.”
John Milbank and Adrian Pabst, The Politics of Virtue, 2016
“Today’s social fragmentation didn’t spring from shallow roots. It sprang from worldviews that amputated people from their own depths and divided them into simplistic, flattened identities. That has to change. As Charles Péguy said, “The revolution is moral or not at all.”
David Brooks, New York Times, 14 June 2018
How much evidence can we resist before we finally accept that liberal democracy, in its British and American forms, has reached the point of exhaustion? If the misery caused to millions by the 2008 crisis, compounded by our failure to hold those responsible to account, were not enough, then what are we still waiting for? However we voted in 2016, do we trust that the institutions of our democracy can still mediate the tensions across our societies? Do we still hold faith in our leaders across the public and private realms and in their commitment to a vision of the good life? Are they guided by a search for truth?
And what of the remedies on offer? Do we think that the profound shortcomings of modern capitalism can be corrected by a little more taxation here, a little more nationalisation there, a bump to the minimum wage, or perhaps greater investment in vocational training and the inclusion of workers on company boards? That is a social-democratic manifesto that has served much of continental Europe well; if Britain were also to adopt it, the country would merely step back into the mainstream. Does any of this have the measure of our fatigue?
This is not an economic problem. Our crisis reaches far beyond the failures of capitalism: from nurses using food banks to the 72 deaths in a tower block in central London; 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 these upheavals and establish a factual reality that is widely shared. We have lost the words to describe our predicament.
Rational optimists will point to irrefutable evidence that life is improving for millions of people across the planet. Steven Pinker argues we may be living in the most peaceful moment in human existence; despite endless news of war, crime, and terrorism, violence has fallen over long stretches of history. For Pinker, we inhabit an increasingly enlightened world. Yuval Noah Harari has announced our liberation from war, famine, disease and poverty such that today, in the West, we are more likely to die of over-eating than anything else. Presumably, such optimists would explain our raging populist moment as a temporary glitch or a last protest before Progress regains her composure and order is restored; accounts of scientific progress say little about the health of our democracy and social relations; they cannot make sense of the isolation and anxiety felt by some or the loss of identity and belonging felt by others.
If we observe all parts of the West’s public arena, not only its political systems but also its wider public and corporate life, how could we deny that something deep within our shared imagination has come to an end? What risk do we face that by defending liberal democracy from the gathering 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 has 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 most urgent social problems. As modern capitalism clears the land of any obstacle to the market – resistance comes mostly from a growing ethical environmentalism – morality has been gradually removed to the sidelines of public affairs, to be tolerated as a harmless concern for the preacher, columnist and artist or as a private matter for conversation between family and friends. By ceasing to assess all economic behaviour as inherently moral, we have become demoralised by our economy.
When once-admired power-brokers in politics and the arts are found guilty of sexual predation or corruption, does their behaviour not echo that of the bankers who wreaked havoc on the lives of millions? It’s a dog-eat-dog world, they would 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 we see a great thirst for something else. 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, or for an honest and urgent response to climate change. New trade unions are working to make the gig economy more humane. The London Renter’s Union is pushing back against exploitation by landlords and looking for new solutions to housing. Thousands of football fans are organising themselves as trusts, rooting their clubs back into local communities, while the England 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 movements toil and struggle in spite of our overarching political and economic model? Why must they swim against the 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 – then 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 and pre-liberal philosophy which, more than three centuries after it founded the political and economic institutions of Britain and America, still informs 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 an essential principle of human dignity.
Yet, as the state of America and Britain confirms, a liberal vision that elevates individual freedom above all else was destined one day to arrive at its own undoing. It was at least two decades before the arrival of social media and the abrupt fragmentation of our public space that growing numbers of Americans and Europeans began to lament the erosion of institutions that once provided purpose and identity: nation, family, church, industry, trade unions, towns and villages. Many will point to the 1980s as the moment that accelerated the trend, when neo-liberal governments put individual competition at the very centre of our political solar system. Forty years later, their mission is complete: deregulated finance that serves no social purpose; a massive shift in wealth from wage-earners to capital-holders that erodes our sense of fairness, community and trust; and the promotion of individual 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 liberalism to a pointless individualism.
In truth, the roots of our predicament go deeper still, to the illiberal vision of Thomas Hobbes, the foremost rational systemiser of the modern state. Tellingly, Pinker lauds Hobbes as a prescient cognitive scientist who saw the human mind as a “mechanism”, thinking as a form of “computation” and knowledge as a form of “information”. Thankfully, as she forensically examined the Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt had already understood the deeper implications of Hobbes’s vision:
“The crucial feature in Hobbes’s picture of man is not at all the realistic pessimism for which it has been praised in recent times. For if it were true that man is a being such as Hobbes would have him, he would be unable to found any body politic at all…The fact is that Hobbes is […] concerned exclusively with the political structure itself, and he depicts the features of man according to the needs of the Leviathan. For argument’s and conviction’s sake, he presents his political outline as though he started from a realistic insight into man, a being that ‘desires power after power’, and as though he proceeded from this insight to a plan for a body politic best fitted for this power-thirsty animal. The actual process, i.e., the only process in which his concept of man makes sense and goes beyond the obvious banality of an assumed human wickedness, is precisely the opposite.”
Here, the all-powerful state serves not so much as a guarantor of social peace and stability but as the enabler of infinite competition between individuals, who are reduced to economic actors, turned in on themselves and condemned to rivalry and the anxiety of status. Arendt might be speaking of our own 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.”
In the world of Hobbes, the state embodies no social contract, constitutional law or democratic ideal; it comprises nothing more than the private individual interests of all subjects, where each person is relegated to a function of society and valued by her price in the market. As John Milbank argues, the perpetual ‘war of all against all’ is a prophecy fulfilled in today’s economy, which admits only one guiding principle: endless competition. We lack the means to stop the machine because we have convinced ourselves, until now, that further economic growth ad infinitum is the only means to secure individual and collective welfare. Arendt exposes the darkest corner of Hobbes’ worldview, and finds its most destructive essence, a denial of our common humanity:
“For a Commonwealth based on the accumulated and monopolised power of all its individual members necessarily leaves each person powerless, deprived of his natural and human capacities. It leaves him degraded into a cog in the power-accumulating machine, free to console himself with sublime thoughts about the ultimate destiny of this machine, which itself is constructed in such a way that it can devour the globe simply by following its own inherent law.”
Yet, even Hobbes’s negation of our humanity cannot explain the ultimate failure of liberalism when measured against its own ambitions. If we believe that the most developed form of individual freedom lies not merely in the guarantee of privacy and freedom from state coercion, and the largest possible removal of obstacles to individual action, and then ultimately the sense that one enjoys these freedoms as one’s own master; but also in the ability of each individual to reach her unique and full potential, which demands a set of social and cultural institutions that enable such flourishing, then liberalism has come short. How else are we to interpret what has become for many the loneliness of modern life, where we are free to do whatever we wish, but to do so alone and without a sense of community or social purpose?
We must dig deeper still, and turn now to our growing understanding of human psychology, to reflect on what it says about our moral, political and social selves. Over the last two decades, cognitive psychologists have analysed a growing body of research that sheds new light on the limits of our rationality and the workings of our unconscious minds. Insofar as liberal political philosophy and its ultimate economic form, neo-liberal capitalism, are founded very precisely on the notion of the rational autonomous individual, we must surely consider the philosophical questions raised by today’s psychology.
First, we should recognise that the latest science revives the oldest debate. The philosophical and political questions around the reliability of our senses and our ability to reason date back to Plato, who saw human rationality as our most noble characteristic and the only route to moral truth. In our modern era, David Hume broke profoundly with the rationalist tradition in his Treatise of Human Nature of 1795:
“Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason.”
Hume’s insight was denied the opportunity to launch a broader political and cultural movement that could reflect the complexity of human morality and decision-making, as Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind (2012). Instead, the 19th century was set to be dominated by a rationalism that would continue the work of Plato, insisting that individual humans could and should find their way to a universal and timeless morality by virtue of their reasoning. Morality was not part of a lived human reality, to be observed and understood, but rather transcended it; truth was to be discovered by logic.
Today’s psychology, across its cognitive, cultural, evolutionary and social branches, has begun to revive and develop Hume’s vision. A growing body of research suggests that our moral reactions and decisions are first triggered unconsciously by a set of innate moral intuitions; then our reasoning mind steps in to construct the rational justification for a stance we have taken in milliseconds. 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. Yet each of us responds differently since our intuitions are not developed uniformly or equally: the symbols of tax-funded welfare may trigger a sense of care within me, whereas in my neighbour they provoke an intuition of cheating by free-riders; my neighbour reacts to my concern for asylum-seekers as a betrayal of our family, while I see her religious conception of a sacred human body as a restriction of my freedom. For Haidt, we are all united in the unconscious authenticity of our moral intuitions even as we forcefully disagree; it is not factual analysis that we lack but empathy.
In The World Beyond Your Head (2014), Matthew Crawford explains how the father of liberalism, Locke, established the opposing rationalist vision: not content merely to dismantle the Divine Right of kings and establish our equality as individuals, Locke wanted to liberate each of us from the opinions of others and then, echoing Descartes, establish that all reliable knowledge can only originate within our own minds. But as Crawford observes, each of us enters a world that is already saturated with meaning from all history. It is only through our interactions with others, starting with the relationship between child and mother, that we begin to understand the world. Our self-sufficiency is, at best, partial.
The findings of cognitive psychology do not mean we should now see ourselves as predominantly irrational beings; nor should we see ourselves as any less free to think and act as we deem fit; 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 by embracing a broader morality that is richer than the protection of individual rights and the avoidance of harm, liberals may be better equipped to understand and accept the diverse morality of our fellow citizens. Scientific observation, factual analysis and reasoned argument will remain essential to civilised conversation, but we can now see them as utterly insufficient if we wish to persuade others to change their mind.
This awakening could not be timelier: as we begin to reflect on the implications of artificial intelligence, we would do well to remember that we are not, after all, rational machines guided uniquely by self-interest but a complex and endless interaction of different intuitions, which our rational minds explain to ourselves and others, and which render our social relations only more complex. Our first, unhappy experience with social media shows we have much to think about: our attachment to the notions of self-mastery and rational decision-making can create an illusion of choice and control when, in truth, we are increasingly vulnerable to manipulation by those who design our modes of digital interaction.
Enriched with a fresh understanding of our human selves, we should still proceed with caution. Any attempt to harness scientific discoveries to new political thinking is fraught with danger. But if we believe that our current form of democracy is exhausted and unable to revive itself, can we not accept that a hyper-rationalist liberalism is now fatally undermined by an emerging picture of how humans think and behave in practice? We might reasonably conclude that the political ideal of liberalism and its lead actor – the self-contained, autonomous, rational individual – is an illusion, and a harmful one at that.
If the optimistic liberal vision of individual freedom must now be nuanced by our evolving understanding of the human mind, we must likewise acknowledge the consequences of Hobbes’ darker, illiberal vision. The human cost of the 2008 financial crisis is stark: a decade of austerity that has inflicted misery across large swathes of Europe, ignited a revolt against so-called elites, and destroyed the myth of Progress. According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, 2.4 million adult British residents suffer from chronic loneliness, a condition that is set to become the country’s most pressing health problem. In the perpetual war of all against all, the casualties are growing.
A 2017 study by Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill of 40,000 students in Britain, Canada and the United States found that, between 1989 and 2016, the extent to which people felt they had to “display perfection to secure approval” had risen by a third. In the US, rates of anxiety and depression in adolescents are rising. Despite widespread adoption of antidepressants since the 1980s, the nation’s suicide rate rose by 24 percent between 1999 and 2014. Crawford locates our growing depression in the ‘culture of performance’, that is, precisely the war-like economic culture that Hobbes prescribed:
“With our presumption of meritocracy – that is, of a fair and frictionless mobility, a system without any rigidities that would block our way – failure carries a deeper stigma than it would if we had a more realistic view of our society. If there are no external constraints, what you make of yourself depends on your gumption and mental capacities. Are you a high-performance person? In a culture of performance, the individual reads the status and value of her soul in her worldly accomplishments. Like the Calvinist, she looks to her success in order to know: am I one of the elect or am I damned?”
As loneliness and anxiety take hold in the world’s richest economies, we might question the notion that our problems started with the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions; radical as they were, they were fuelled by ideas with the oldest and deepest roots. If we want to renew our democracy today, it is precisely those assumptions that we must challenge. If Hobbes, Locke and Mill are united in one thing, despite the chasm that divides the pessimism and optimism of their starting points, it is that their central concern lies in the relationship between individual and state. For the authoritarian, only the all-powerful centre can protect man from his fellow rivals; for the liberal, the state must be constantly pushed back from our individual privacy and freedom.
Liberal tenets have remained intact not only through their partial success. As we have seen, the rational mind has no equal when it comes to self-justification and self-reinforcement. It cannot see and will not accept that it is part of anything else – not even the greater, richer moral self that surrounds and informs it. Resistance to change will be stubborn.
Socialists and social-democrats will rightly complain 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, built from the solidarity of the early Labour movement and infused with Christian generosity, remains a towering achievement and national symbol. Conservatives will argue that the traditions, customs and institutions of British life have resisted the liberal steamroller, and still provide sources of virtue, inspiration and meaning to millions. Some 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 modern society. To find a more deeply rooted and widespread practice of social democracy, we would 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 emerging environmentalism.
Liberal democrats will complain loudest of all. Their model sees itself as inherently designed to respond and adapt to a changing world and reinvent itself since, better than any other, liberal democracy is able to negotiate the cultural diversity of its citizens and peacefully mediate their competing visions and interests, all within the rule of law. Such a political organisation remains silent on the question of the good life precisely because that can only be debated and agreed by its constituent members; it cannot reside in the institutions themselves. Instead, the competing demands of free individuals are resolved peacefully by the market economy.
Today, most liberals would 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. 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 full military protection of the state.
Where Western societies have been able to reform themselves, it is 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? Liberalism has no monopoly here.
On the contrary, liberalism’s blindness to its own shortcomings are on full display in The Economist’s 2018 essay that celebrates its own 175th anniversary. In a single paragraph, 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 challenge 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 is an apology that reads as an obituary. 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 things escape the very language of liberalism; in its deepest attachment to individual freedom and free markets, it possesses neither the sensitivity nor the vocabulary that could 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 our analysis say about the United Kingdom’s impending departure from the European Union? Most observers today attempt to explain a constitutional crisis that has supposedly pitted the 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 the 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 – or determined to ignore – 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 in Europe a market of private transactions, while the England of neo-liberals could only see obstacles to that same market?
The British parliament has struggled for three years to leave the Union because our country never truly joined it. Forty-six years were not enough for our political, cultural, social and economic leaders to examine the project 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; they too 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 can appeal to people who value tradition, loyalty and a sense of place more than the right to cross borders without roaming charges or a passport.
Now we can see why the ‘Remain’ campaign’s central argument of cold economic necessity – a message mostly unrevised almost three years after its defeat – would stubbornly 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 more 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, come to a rational view, and then vote accordingly, was equally harmful. To complain that a rational process was unfairly distorted by a campaign of deceit brings us back to our main theme: factual truth is certainly 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, in its American and British forms, has failed in three distinct ways which now expose it as beyond repair. First, its enablement of neo-liberal economics 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 most vulnerable has often became 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 can and should 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 must now be nuanced by the emerging psychological evidence that our most fundamental moral intuitions are located deep in our unconscious minds. 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, our decision-making 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 then propose that, however our democracy may evolve, a limited number of 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.
In the light of liberalism’s shortcomings, 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, as Harari warns us – 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.
First, as Milbank argues, 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.
Ultimately, 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 market place. 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 for us.
Our current political parties, in the United Kingdom at least, are unable to launch this work. They are as exhausted and drained of purpose as the political and economic model they once successfully served. In their radical libertarianism, uprooted from any true sense of the country’s place in history or its relationship with our neighbours, the dominant forces among the Conservatives now represent the very antithesis of their party’s founding mission to respect our traditions and institutions so that change may come gradually. Labour is consumed by an identity crisis that prevents it from addressing the most urgent political question since the war. The result is a stubborn corporate duopoly, protected by an electoral system that sets the barriers to entry at the highest possible level. Unmoored from their founding missions and constituencies, both parties have become organisational machines that vie for power and little else; a red team and a blue team. Rebels and splinter groups are doomed to fail since they grew up in the same airless corridors; they provide an outlet for frustration but cannot find the words to describe our predicament.
Neither of the two dominant parties is able, philosophically, to recognise the moral diversity of our nations; neither would see our individual complexity as a starting point for political thought; neither could grasp that the central political question is no longer our relationship with the state but our relationship with each other. Both parties may recognise that modern capitalism has produced unacceptable excesses, but neither is ready to remove the economy from its dominant position at the centre of our public square so that politics and culture can again address the basic human question: who are we, and how do we want to relate to each other?
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.