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The blindness of liberalism

An arid, self-serving interpretation of liberalism led to political events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, says YULI TAMIR. And to grasp that, you have to accept that those who want to put their country first may have a point

Donald Trump’s election, alongside Brexit, the emergence of the new right in many European countries, and the phenomena of national and religious awakenings around the world, have left liberals perplexed.

They feel deceived. This was supposed to be ‘their’ century, history was about to end, and the flat world promised to be their playground. Then, with no prior notice, villains snatched their victory.

‘Why didn’t we see it coming’, followers of Hillary Clinton, adversaries of Brexit, supporters of Matteo Renzi and many others ask themselves bewilderedly. How come ‘they’ – nationalists, right-wing parties, religious fundamentalists, chauvinists – suddenly reappeared and challenged our hegemony?

Many of the answers point to the crisis of neo-liberalism, growing social inequalities, heightened ethnic and racial tensions, and the mounting anguish of the 99% who see the 1% accumulating more and more wealth, sailing away to El Dorado.

While post-War liberalism was a reflection of economic and political optimism, according to which economic growth and political freedom empower individuals to maximise their fortune, 21st-century liberalism exists in a far more pessimistic era. Many who eight years ago believed ‘Yes We Can’ now suspect we cannot.

What are the origins of the liberal blindness that missed the social and political warning signs indicating we are on the verge of upheaval?

Unfortunately, this lapse of attention is not at all coincidental. From its emergence and during the Enlightenment, liberal theory placed at its core the concept of rational, autonomous, self-interested individuals whose moral development reaches its peak when they act according to the moral law.

In line with Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, liberals identified morality with universal laws, estranged from personal attachments and emotional feelings. Love, connectedness, community affiliations and more particularly ethnic and national ties were therefore viewed as human fallibilities to be overcome.

The personal and moral effects of being socially and emotionally engaged were dismissed, countered by moral universalism which fostered a belief in the brotherhood of man (and women too).

Consequently, liberalism found itself offering a far too sterile and demanding moral axiom; to echo Freud’s words, it was expecting individuals ‘to live beyond their psychological means’.

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam analysed the inherent damages of social disintegration. Yet, such warnings were dismissed, life was all about joining voluntary associations. Two issues were left aside: the close affinity between social class and the ability to make personal and social choices, and the emotional price of finding oneself alone.

Liberalism thus distanced itself from the experience of actual people whose lives are intertwined with others; who have strong emotional ties and warm feelings they find hard to ignore when defining their preferences and obligations.

The universal moral standpoint made liberalism averse to borders, states, nations, and other divisive associations. Liberals came to acknowledge the importance of membership in sub-groups, such as gender, race, ethnicity, and religion, only when it became a liability.

The liberal disregard for the importance of mediating associations silenced many worthwhile voices: religion was shoved to the personal sphere, class was replaced by poverty, and culture, history, and national identity were substituted with colour-blind policies.

Consequently, women, people of colour, immigrants, and members of other minority groups were permitted to refer to their identity in order to vindicate their social position but white men and women were held accountable – not to say blameworthy – for their misfortune.

Those supported in their struggle for upward mobility were those less likely to succeed. Indeed, exceptional members of minority groups made it all the way to the White House but racial gaps remained a sore issue; and while outstanding women were elected to run the world banking system and head governments and international corporations, women are still among the poorest members of society.

Liberal blindness turned out to be an ally of the upper classes, who kept most of the benefits of the new world order to themselves, and of exceptional members of the minorities, who were given a chance to forge their way to the top and in return gave the impression that anyone can make it if they work hard enough. The less exceptional – ie, the majority – were theoretically and practically ignored.

This is not the first time liberalism has sided with the powerful. Yet, it has come a long way from John Locke’s restrictive liberalism of the landlords, and John Stuart Mill’s liberalism of the colonising powers. Gradually liberalism opened its gates to include and defend men with no property, women, individuals of colour, as well as occupied and exploited peoples – all those who initially were assumed to be morally immature, unable to enjoy the freedom and autonomy liberalism offered.

How disappointing it is to find that, once again, liberalism finds itself allying with the privileged as a result of a self-serving interpretation of its own theory. In order for liberalism to win again it must embark on a journey of self-reflection and come out the other side different. If liberals want to recapture their political power they need to see the present period as a disruptive moment that motivates them to question their beliefs and their policies.

To begin with they have to acknowledge that liberal ideals are grounded in a chain of theoretical blind-spots which have something in common – they aspire to create a well-rounded, placid moral outlook that allows for a clear ranking of moral obligations and personal choices.

The first of these blind spots has already been mentioned: liberalism assumed that affiliation with others is secondary to rational deliberations and personal autonomy, and inferred that individuals should subordinate feelings of attachment and solidarity to rational, universal moral principles.

The second, closely related to the first one, is grounded in a misunderstanding of the nature and importance of mediating affiliations. For example, the liberal emphasis on individualism alongside its traditional antipathy to the notion of class led liberals to focus on poverty and social gaps rather than on social identity.

What may seem as a mere semantic difference has significant consequences: class, unlike poverty, is a collective notion. It is much more than a socio-economic description; it is a way of thinking about society. Exchanging the energising and motivating ‘class talk’ with the demoralising analysis of poverty allowed liberals to promote welfare rather than social change.

The individualisation of poverty meant that members of the working class were left to fend for themselves. In many ways, the social alienation and ensuing injured pride were harder to cope with than the loss of income and the disappearance of worthwhile jobs.

It was this sense of social loneliness and the lack of cross-class solidarity that allowed for the emergence of unusual candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, both willing to challenge the ruling social norms and place the socially displaced at the centre of their campaign. While Sanders invoked class issues, Trump played the national card, and both pierced the thin crust covering the liberal hypocrisy around globalism, an ideology justified by universal values that benefitted a few at the expense of many.

Frustration released the repressed nationalist voice: people started drawing a thicker line between ‘us’ and ‘them’; our jobs, our future, our power, our hegemony. The close affinity between economic crisis and the emergence of nationalism has a long history, yet it has been described as an expression of the moral feebleness, fearfulness, and irrationality of the masses.

I would like to dispute this distinction, suggesting that for many the national choice is a rational choice; or, to put it differently, nationalism is the rational choice of the masses just as much as globalism is the rational choice of the elites.

The gap between the different choices has been widened by processes of globalisation that deepen the rift between the small elite of globetrotters and those bound to stay home. Most inhabitants of this world are immobile. Even today, in the wake of the recent waves of immigration, only 3.3% of the world’s population lives outside their homeland.

People thus rightly assume that they are far more rooted than globalists would have them believe. Their personal fate is tied up with that of their society. It is therefore logical for them to put their country first. Many have claimed that ‘Putting America First’ is a fascist slogan, identical to ‘Germany Above All Else’; they are, however, mistaken.

Rather than expressing a sense of supremacy this slogan expresses a desire to regenerate a sense of commitment among fellow nationals. And there are many ways of putting one’s nation first. Bernie Sanders’ call to America’s billionaire class, ‘You cannot continue to take advantage of all the benefits of America, if you refuse to accept your responsibilities’, is as inwardly focused as JFK’s summons: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ This is a liberal nationalist voice that liberalism has lost and must recover.

People are more pessimistic and less trusting than ever. The fear of losing internal hegemony leads to brutal internal competition. In an ever-growing economy dominated by optimism, immigration and social mobility are regarded as blessings. Not so in an age of pessimism, when the less educated and less skilled are exposed to greater risks and diminishing opportunities. The less ‘well-off’ fear that their state will no longer defend them; they dread misplacement, exploitation and, most of all, losing control over their lives.

Hence they are likely to seek ways to thicken their identity, forcing fellow nationals to stick together, obliging their state to invest in the common good. They seek to slow down globalisation by erecting higher and more impenetrable national borders, as they dread that newcomers will take their place.

Despite Marx’s best hopes the workers of the world have no power or will to unite; their plight forces them to constantly compete with each other. The workers want governments to put their interests first – not because they are supremacists or chauvinists, but because they have rightly noticed that the social contract has been broken and they are left unprotected.

Their nationalism is more economic than cultural or racial and more rational than emotional.

Ironically, it is the elites of the world who have united. They have deserted their homelands, rejecting their social and economic obligations: they send their children to international schools and then to Ivy League universities; they buy and sell commodities in the international stock exchange; they live in several countries in order to avoid taxes; they ski in the Alps, sunbathe in Honolulu, enjoy London theatre and Parisian restaurants. They have become citizens of the world and believe that these benefits are morally just.

Liberalism must reject this sense of privilege and offer some guidance for a better distribution of social and political power. It should recover the cross-class coalition characteristic of the nation-state and promise citizens they will not be left alone.

The demand to prioritise one’s nation, if accepted, could be the beginning of a productive alliance fostering a more just and inclusive distribution. It could also lead to internal chaos, class struggles and racial and ethnic schisms. The onus then is to lead it in the right direction, constructing a more just distribution of risks and opportunities, giving citizens new reasons for acting together to promote the common good.

Yuli Tamir is president of Shenkar College and former Minister of Immigrant Absorption and Education, Israel

This article also appears in the Oxford Government Review, a publication created by the Blavatnik School of Government

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