Liberalism To The Barricades, Again

3 June 2024
Liberalism To The Barricades, Again - Featured image

The start and finish of liberalism’s golden age is captured in books by Christopher Clark and John Gray, but Jordan Peterson’s ARC seeks to write the next chapter, argues IPA executive director Scott Hargreaves.

The story of the rise and fall of liberalism—and what might come next—can be found in two recent books and also in one critical new creation, the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship (ARC). The two books are Revolutionary Spring: Fighting for a New World 1848-1849 (2023) by Australian-born historian Sir Christopher Clark and The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism (2023) by English philosopher John Gray.

The inaugural ARC conference, held in London in October 2023, was spearheaded by wealthy backer Paul Marshall and modern-day prophet Jordan Peterson.

Clark—an Australian who completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney and is now the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge—certainly sees echoes in today’s turmoil of the 19th century struggles for a liberal order, but is the least inclined to prognostications of the thinkers described in this essay. He presents an incredibly well-researched and detailed history spanning the entire continent of Europe, including illuminating details of the great powers at the geographic periphery: the UK, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. But then it is up to the reader to draw what conclusions they will. With so much of academic history now awash in postmodernism and relativism, reading a history of a more traditional form was a delight.

If there is a ‘viewpoint’ it is, not surprisingly, one very sympathetic to the martyrs of 1848, those liberals of various stripes (monarchist, republican, Christian, socialist, atheist), whose visions of a better and more free society led them to risk and ultimately give their lives in the revolutionary upheavals, and the conservative and monarchist crackdowns which followed. Robert Blum of Cologne, proponent of a liberal united Germany (one not dominated by Prussia) and opponent of antisemitism, was a philosopher and poet in the German romantic tradition, which merely amplified the pathos when he was arrested and executed by the Hapsburgs in Vienna in 1848. This judicial murder electrified the revolutionary forces across Europe, but at the time they could do little about it.

John Gray is an English political philosopher and public intellectual, who contributes a regular column to The New Statesman and is prolific in a range of other publications. His Wikipedia entry listing ‘philosophical pessimism’ as one of his specialties certainly describes the tone of this work. It is not even a eulogy for liberalism, as the author is keen to expose its many conceits and also its suicidal blindness to the rise of authoritarian powers consciously hostile to liberal democracy.

“Under the aegis of a hyper-Hobbesian ruler, China is using illiberal Western ideas to bury the remains of the liberal West.”

The book is structured as a meditation on the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), typically seen as the defender of a powerful State (the Sovereign, or Leviathan). But Gray is rightly horrified that the State is no longer (as in Hobbes’s vision) a vehicle merely to ensure peace between humans, but rather one that claims all possible powers to prevent ‘harm’ to individuals and implements a surveillance State to enforce them.

Gray draws upon the British conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott to identity the four most salient features of liberalism:

  • Individualist: asserts the moral primacy of the individual against the claims of any social collectivity.
  • Egalitarian: confers on all men the same moral status.
  • Universalist: affirming the moral unity of the human species.
  • Meliorist: affirming the corrigibility and improvability of all social institutions and political arrangements.

Gray does not hold out much hope of a liberal revival (due to its internal contradictions and lack of popular support), but neither does he expect a conservative revival to be sparked by the modern reworking of older philosophies, such as National Conservatism (as led by Yoram Hazony), Christian Nationalism, or Integralism. (Integralism, as developed by political theorist Patrick Deneen, is an anti-pluralist variant of Catholic social teaching which calls for the State to be an active moral force and promoter of unity.)

The best we can hope for, according to Gray, is that we might revert to the insights of Hobbes (“perhaps the only liberal thinker still worth reading”) and hope the emerging Sovereigns will be better than the alternatives at achieving a modicum of peace and individual autonomy.

His book does a fine job describing the vulnerability of a West unsure of itself, just as Russia and China assert their power. He expresses concern that “under the aegis of a hyper-Hobbesian ruler, China is using illiberal Western ideas to bury the remains of the liberal West”. He discusses a geopolitical scenario in which our world will consist of “Leviathans surrounded by ungoverned zones, some of which will never emerge from anarchy”. This is definitely an antidote to the vision of Francis Fukuyama that liberal ideas and institutions would slowly but surely spread across the globe, and a sobering thought for Australia as we survey our troubled neighbourhood to the north and in the South Pacific.

The Alliance for Responsible Citizenship, an offshoot of the British Legatum Institute, is a self-conscious attempt to revitalise the values that have enabled the success of the West, defending them in particular against the corrosive intellectual currents of postmodernism, cultural Marxism, and the varieties of woke. The Chair of ARC, Baroness Philippa Stroud, put it this way:

We cannot address a negative story by being against the permacrisis, declinist, power-based narrative of today. We can only let go of a negative story by taking hold of a better story. Throughout history there has been a better story that has called us higher and not lower, into collaboration and not division, into responsibility and not passivity, into building and not tearing down. Our mission is to create a community that is committed to providing a positive and hope-filled vision for the future.

I am grateful to the organisers of ARC, and in particular the leading Australian contributor to its foundation, John Anderson AC, for the opportunity to attend the inaugural conference in London in late 2023, along with key IPA staff and supporters, Australian political leaders, and leading journalists.

The year 1848 was a ‘hinge’ in history.

The tone of much of ARC’s series of publications and the proceedings of the conference was what you might call conservative: a heavy emphasis on family, community, duty, responsibilities, functional hierarchies (Jordan Peterson there), and a fundamental belief in the West in the face of hostile foreign powers (Russia, China), and ideologies (decolonisation, Marxism, critical race theory, climate catastrophism). That said, there was also a hope that the best of the liberal institutions could be preserved, and in particular a form of the free enterprise system that has delivered so much prosperity. This vision was pitted not just against socialism but also crony capitalism, as epitomised by bank bailouts, the dominance of financial engineers masquerading as woke (BlackRock et al), and proliferating cartels. Paul Marshall, a driving force of ARC and himself a successful hedge fund manager, said this:

It is time to remind ourselves how free markets have transformed our use of energy, transportation and agriculture; have enhanced our ability to communicate, to keep warm or cool, to travel, to eat well; and have enabled us to become healthier and to enjoy leisure and opportunity. To enjoy what Socrates called a flourishing life.

It is time to remind ourselves of the foundational freedoms that made all this possible: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of association, freedom to trade and exchange goods.

All liberal values, you might note. The most pure and joyous form of this hope was provided by African entrepreneur and freedom activist Magatte Wade, who reminds me in some ways of the best of the generation of 1848. Africa is a continent of great potential with a terrible legacy of over-government, cronyism, and corruption. Wade’s campaigns to smash red tape, empower the people against governments, and unleash the creative potential of the vast populations of sub-Saharan Africa are inspirational. As are the stories she tells of those who are succeeding against the odds (see www.magattewade.com).

Accomplished orator and one-time comedian Konstantin Kisin, whose book An Immigrant’s Love Letter to the West (Constable, 2022) contrasted the achievements of the West with the backwardness of his native Russia, electrified the audience at ARC. He called in trenchant terms for the West to recover its confidence against the many rival ideologies and dark geopolitical forces (“We do not get to choose whether to die or not. The only choice we have is whether we live before we do.”). Speaking in the wake of the unspeakable crimes committed in Israel by Hamas on 7 October 2023, this included militant Islamism in the Middle East and also where it holds sway in migrant communities in the West. More recently he elaborated on these themes in his address to nearly 600 people at an IPA event in Melbourne, as part of a national tour organised by our friends at the Centre for Independent Studies.

Kisin, though, is an avowed ‘centrist’ and has confidence in the worth of Western values and achievements because he has looked at the alternative and can draw upon the utilitarian arguments (it works; it delivers human flourishing).

We will require something a little more muscular and martial than peace-loving pieties.

Australia’s Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price delivered one of the best speeches of the conference, as she combined an unapologetic defence of mainstream values with a concrete example of what leadership could achieve in the shape of her successful campaign to reject the Voice to Parliament.

At ARC, however, most of the speakers appear concerned that liberalism as an ideology is intellectually exhausted, that the individualism at its core has left men and women adrift without meaning in their life, obsessed with identity politics. The concern was that liberalism’s focus on each individual’s desires has undermined the family and the nation, and it cannot find a way back to a workable and sustainable order.

There was also a repeated call to action to ditch the naïve liberal belief that all the peoples of the world share similar desires and will cooperate due to ‘enlightened self-interest’. First, bad actors will do bad things to further bad ideas (hence Pol Pot; varieties of terrorism). Second, in the face of authoritarians’ claims to have created a functional Leviathan superior to that of the decadent West—be it from Chairman Xi or the Orthodox ‘Eurasianism’ of Putin’s Russia—we will require something a little more muscular and martial than the peace-loving pieties of solution-minded liberal diplomacy.

What then would provide a solid foundation for the recovery of Western values, and civilisational self-confidence (as opposed to the civilisational suicide that was frequently diagnosed)? The answer for many speakers was in religion, and specifically Christianity. Upon returning to Australia from the ARC Conference, I wrote this to IPA Members:

Opening the conference Jordan Peterson took us back to the story of Job in the Bible, a man who got a very hard time indeed. Peterson called once again for us to be a Job—refusing to become a victim—and take up the burdens of responsibility. To see the future we want to create as an alternative to the hell of despair, and to have faith that we can still achieve great things. I suppose if we didn’t believe that at some level, we wouldn’t be members of the IPA in the first place, trying to make a difference.

Jordan Peterson speaking at the Inaugural ARC Conference in London, 2023.
Photo: ARC/YouTube screenshot

Other speakers were even more explicit in calling not just for Judaeo-Christian ethics, but for an explicit turn to religious belief. For me the most effective of this ilk was (French Canadian icon carver and public speaker) Jonathan Pageau, who used COVID lockdowns as an example of how today—in the absence of a belief in a transcendent God who sanctifies the good—false idols like ‘Safety and Control’ take prime position and are ‘worshipped’, and unbelievers are denounced as heretics. It certainly resonated with the IPA delegation!

THE YEAR OF REVOLUTIONS

The year 1848 was a ‘hinge’ in history. As Clark describes, it is usually characterised as a conflagration as the spirit of revolution spread ‘like wildfire’ across the Continent. The great monarchies of Austria-Hungary, Savoy (Piedmont, Sardinia etc), the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and the princely states of the former Holy Roman Empire were all engulfed to one degree or another.

But, as Clark points out, this was an age in which news travelled slowly, newspapers were neither plentiful nor free, and there were linguistic and cultural fault lines which prevented any easy progress of ideas and models of change across borders. He provides evidence that far from being sparked by the early protests in Paris, risings in other capitals often pre-dated news from France.

He leans more towards the idea that the underlying social problems—including very hard times for peasants and workers in a time of industrialisation—were common across the Continent and that efforts by reactionary rulers to ignore them were doomed to fail at some point. A severe famine pushed the working poor and indigent to breaking point.

The backstory to 1848 is that the rationalist and egalitarian promises made by the French Revolution of 1789 were subsequently carried across Europe by Napoleon’s Grand Armée, but their spread was reversed by Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. At the subsequent Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) the Great Powers implemented a restoration of mostly reactionary monarchies, and also a system for the maintenance of peace and avoidance of social reform through the diplomatic system, coordinated most notably by Prince Metternich (for the Hapsburgs, 1773-1859), Lord Castlereagh (UK, 1769-1852), and Talleyrand (France, 1754-1838). But that suppression of liberty and national aspirations could not continue forever, and the demand for Constitutions (as opposed to autocratic rule) was unstoppable.

Clark concludes that so many centres rising up in protest at the one time was fundamentally due to common problems rather than mere mimicry of the French. Then there was also the aspirations of the rising bourgeoisie, no longer comfortable to defer to nobles and princes uncomprehending of merchant life and the opportunities of trade and commerce. (The arch-reactionary Metternich, whose long career stretched back to the Napoleonic era, was relieved of office by the Hapsburgs in Vienna as they sought to cultivate more contemporary sources of support.)

Undemocratic regimes gave liberalism a chance to consolidate.

The latter point was one made by a then obscure journalist, Karl Marx, who noted that while the middle class and the working classes were active in many parts of the revolution, it was the middle class that had usually consolidated power by the end of the revolutionary period (the workers’ revolution was bound to inevitably follow, he theorised).

There was also a resurgent nationalism which played out in ways not always obvious. In Denmark the national spirit led somewhat easily to a national settlement and a constitution that has survived to the present day. In fragmented Italy, it led to complex alliances but ultimately a vision of united and liberal constitutional monarchy, with the House of Savoy at its head. As the Hapsburgs re-asserted their authority and militarily defeated the rebellious Italian provinces, it was another two decades before this vision was realised (with Victor Emmanuel II in 1861 becoming the first King of a united Italy since the sixth century).

Elsewhere, nationalism did not always have popular appeal. When Hungarian and Polish nobles asserted their autonomy against the Hapsburgs, they sometime found the peasants and villagers of other nationalities within their sphere of influence preferred the distant paternalism personified by the simple (and inbred) Ferdinand the Benevolent.

LIBERAL OR DEMOCRATIC?

There was in 1848-1849 a tension between the liberal and the democratic objectives of the revolutionaries. Alexis de Tocqueville, a French Deputy who had made a famous study of the USA in the 1820s, was a classical liberal who was supremely suspicious of ‘the people’. The franchise after the first wave of revolutions reached typically no more than five to 10 per cent of the male population, and for many liberals this was enough. As John Gray remarked,

Universal individualism and mass society are not opposites but different sides of the same form of life. This fact was noted by Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill, liberals who feared individualism would result in majority tyranny. Neither of them came up with any way of preventing the outcome they dreaded.

One of Clark’s reflections is that in the years after 1848-1849 when the monarchies reasserted their power and privileges in what became a series of counterrevolutions, they were nevertheless forced by the need for legitimacy to allow more of the freedoms desired by the bourgeoisie (particularly freedom of the press) as well as the social improvements desired by workers and peasants. Paradigmatically, it was the absolute rulers in Russia who abolished serfdom (which was virtually slavery) in 1868. While Clark does not quite say this, it could be argued that the undemocratic regimes for the most part gave liberalism a chance to consolidate before the later spread of democracy.

In contrast to many of today’s resurgent conservatives, Gray is not opposed to individualism per se. For Gray as for his hero, Hobbes, the individual is the fundamental unit of analysis in his philosophical system, and the provision of peace via the social contract by the Sovereign (Leviathan) is its sole source of legitimacy. What he most trenchantly criticises is the ‘hyper-individualism’ of modern society, and the nihilism to which it is prey. In one of many memorable takedowns, Gray observes:

A vapid brand of nihilism can be found in the writings of rationalists such as Steven Pinker … none of them has presented any justification for the liberal values they profess. Their belief in the liberating power of science is more contrary to reason than any traditional faith, for it ignores the well-attested fact that science can just as well serve oppression as freedom.

In passing he also has a criticism of Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992), the great liberal and winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics (whose biography I reviewed in the Summer 2023-24 edition). He says Hayek’s famous description of market coordination and social evolution as the results of a ‘spontaneous order’ is fine so far as it goes, but because it does not specify the end or purpose of that evolution there is nothing to keep it on track. Without purposeful direction, there is (Gray says) no reason to expect the institutions supporting freedom and security will be the ones that survive.

In a long excursion through various Russian literary and historical figures, Gray agrees with the diagnosis of nihilism made by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) but completely rejects the Russian Orthodox nationalism put forward as the remedy.

In Gray’s book the links from Dostoevsky all the way through to Russian far-right philosopher Aleksandr Dugin and the Putin Orthodox Christian klepto-KGB-State are very well delineated. (After Tucker Carlson was flummoxed by Vladimir Putin’s diatribe on Russian history in his recent interview, he would do well to have a look at this section.)

For Gray, the rights-based approach to liberalism has been a disaster.

Gray observes that under the Soviets (1917-1989) the Patriarchs of the Orthodox Church were on the payroll of the KGB, and cites strong evidence this is also the case for the incumbent, Kirill … which makes the official blessings conferred on ex-KGB authoritarian Putin and his wars of aggression much less surprising.

The tension between the quality of Dostoevsky’s assessment and the not-so-obvious quality of his solutions reappeared at the ARC Conference in London on 31 October and 1 November last year, when various quotes of his peppered the speeches.

As a Hobbesian liberal, Gray argues that the rights-based approach to liberalism taken to its fullest extent in the USA has been a disaster. It brought the law into politics, and politics into the law. He criticises Roe v Wade not because he is pro-life but because this was no business of the Supreme Court, saying “liberal legalism is Lockeanism in one country—a country that is profoundly divided”. In Western societies a settlement of fractious issues should be achieved by exercise of the Sovereign power, via a democratic process.

Senegalese-born entrepreneur Magatte Wade addressing the ARC Forum in November 2023.
Photo: ARC Forum

Similarly, the USA is at fault because it universalises its own peculiar circumstances and history. As we have seen with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and The New York Times’ ‘1619 Project’, a particular definition of racism that makes sense only in the USA has been taken all over the world by Critical Race Theory to the point where academics can no longer identify any other form of racism. They literally cannot comprehend the Holocaust (the victims were white therefore it was not racism) or the ethnic cleansing of the Balkan Wars in the 1990s (ditto). Neither, it seems, can it recognise the racism of the views of Hamas towards the Israelis or pro-Palestine activists towards Jews anywhere.

At ARC I heard more than a few times that the ‘woke’ outlook is a return to pagan values as our Christian civilisation collapses, but Gray is very much aligned with popular historian Tom Holland in listing woke as one of Christianity’s bastardised variants (see also Holland’s Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, Little, Brown, 2019). Thus we have in woke the ‘original sin’ of racism at the core of Western Civilisation, and so on.

In a manner similar to the IPA’s own Dr Bella d’Abrera, Gray in woke behaviour sees echoes of the Puritans who gained the ascendancy in the English Civil War of the 1600s (read Bella’s article ‘Puritanical rule in lockdown Australia’, Spectator Australia, 11 September 2021). Gray says:

Woke hyper-liberalism is Puritan moral frenzy unrestrained by divine mercy of forgiveness of sin. There is no tolerance for those who refuse to be saved … woke liberals use the groups they choose as victims to enhance their own self-esteem.

Gray’s pessimism is only exacerbated by the attention he gives the idea of the ‘death wish’ popularised by the psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Gray believes it is a real phenomenon derived from the dynamics of evolutionary psychology, and one which drives civilisations as much as individuals. The love of death displayed by Nazis, or Hamas, are just two of many variants. But there is a disturbing lack of engagement by Gray. Taking a lead from what he identified as the ‘absurdist’ streak in Hobbes, he eulogises and concludes with the absurdism of the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. While he rightly praises Beckett for serving in the French Resistance, it is not clear to me that an absurdist rejection of all non-material constructs (Platonic ideals and abstractions) and structures of meaning is going to inspire anyone to do more than passively watch the collapse of the modern world.

It seems to me that simple human aspirations for a better life, and to finding meaning in that life, means we are not doomed to always fall prey to the nihilism and the death wish that would otherwise drive us towards destruction. The ideas of liberalism and the West have the advantage of having created demonstrable improvements in human flourishing, and we have built complex communities bigger than tribes that are capable of cooperating for mutual gain.

Hobbes and Gray are dismissive of the idea of willpower, believing it to be a screen for nothing more than desire. But the story told at ARC—that with sufficient willpower we can fight back—is one that has power because it engages a yearning in humans to be something more than a sum of their desires, and to be something more than individuals seeking shelter from the Hobbesian war of all against all.

Some key speakers at ARC asserted that self-confidence and belief would only return if Westerners first became religious, though it was never clear to me why this functional argument would work with anybody. It is hardly how evangelists or missionaries have typically sought converts.

Jordan Peterson straddled this argument at ARC, describing Christian patterns of meaning (like Genesis, or the Book of Job) to encourage faith and belief, while avoiding metaphysical claims.

Thomas Hobbes.

But whether through the movement of the Holy Spirit, or from more secular motivations, I have hope that a new generation of revolutionaries can emerge, as they did in 1848, to overthrow corrupt institutions and take risks to create a better society. Even if, for the moment, this must be in what Gray calls ‘islands of liberalism’ defended against the depredations of extremely dangerous and illiberal Leviathans across the globe (Russia and China in particular).

Clark’s book is very thick, and Gray’s quite dense. ARC’s videos are more accessible. However we respond, I hope readers can see how even a consciously conservative revival must necessarily embed important features of liberalism.

This article from the Autumn 2024 edition of the IPA Review is written by IPA executive director Scott Hargreaves.

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