In his new book Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, the writer and journalist Edmund Fawcett makes the rather startling claim that “liberty is the wrong place to begin” when telling the story of liberalism. This will no doubt strike some readers as eccentric, especially if they’re political philosophers working self-consciously in the “liberal” tradition and are used to deriving conclusions about the legitimate activity of the state from a set of assumptions about liberty, consent and individual rights. But Fawcett’s book is not a work of political philosophy. And for him, liberalism is not a set of timeless principles susceptible of rational justification but a “modern practice of politics” with a distinctive history. It’s this history that is the focus of his book.
“”The idea that liberalism can be exhausted or fully accounted for by liberal philosophy in a set of timeless principles seems to me a mistake,” Fawcett told me when I met him at his home in London recently. “They are part of liberalism, but I don’t think we can really understand liberalism as a political practice if we think of it in purely academic, philosophical terms.”
JD: So liberalism for you is a political practice with a history. But the varied and diverse forms that practice has taken since the beginning of the 19th century, which is when your story starts, nevertheless have certain things in common in your view. You pick out four key ideas: tolerance of conflict; resistance to power; belief in progress; and civic respect. Can you explain why liberty is absent from that list?
EF: Liberty is a term that has been brandished by almost everybody and so worn bare. Every rival of liberalism has waved the banner of liberty. In my four guiding ideas, you can actually see liberty. Why are we interested in resistance to power—to state power, the power of markets, of majorities? Partly because we don’t want to bullied or pushed around. And that’s a large component of what matters to us about what people have called liberty.
There are different ways of construing that point, aren’t there? It doesn’t necessarily have to lead to anything we might be inclined to call “liberalism”. Take civic republican thinking about liberty, where all the emphasis falls on not being dominated by an arbitrary power. In a sense, that confirms the point you’re making about liberty not being the defining or distinguishing feature of the practice you call liberalism.
There’s a huge academic literature about whether one should take a liberal view of liberty or a republican view. I was trying to do something more basic. And respect also comes into it. Resistance to power and civic respect are clearly correlates.
Why “civic” respect?
That comes back to the point about liberalism being a political practice, as being essentially about what is public. “Civic” respect is the respect that is owed in public to you and me. It’s “civic” because it has nothing to do with personal respect. We can show each other civic respect without for a moment showing any interest in each other. I may disdain or even despise people, but I owe them civic respect. Liberals ought to be quite tough about maintaining the line between the public and the private. One of the difficulties the left has had, beginning in the Sixties, is making everything political. “The personal is the political” is actually quite a dangerous slogan. There are lots of ways in which the personal shouldn’t be political.
There are more ancient antecedents to the kind of view you’ve just set out aren’t there? There are civic republican or neo-Roman accents to the account of civic respect you’ve just given that can be traced back at least as far as the take-up of neo-Roman ideas about liberty as “non-domination” in England in the mid-17th century. Do you recognise that lineage or genealogy?
Yes. But I quite deliberately didn’t go back [in the book] to this vast drainage plain of ideas that fed into liberalism.
But making those historical connections explicit supports your critique of the ahistorical character of contemporary understandings of liberalism doesn’t it? One thinks, for example, of the work of an intellectual historian such as Quentin Skinner, who shows that there’s a conception of “liberty before liberalism” to be found in the civic republican tradition. And there are certainly republican accents in the way you speak about resistance to unaccountable power and so on.
This is no accident. It’s natural for left-liberals, or liberal leftists, like me to turn for our vocabulary to the republican tradition rather than the Lockean, Hayekian tradition, which has seized a number of important words for its own purposes.
You argue that civic respect requires, on the part of the state, “non-intrusion, non-exclusion and non-obstruction”. How do those things differ from so-called “negative liberty” or freedom from external interference?
You could put them all under the “negative liberty” heading, it’s true. I split them up because it seems to me that they each correspond to a different interest that we have. Non-intrusion, for example, is to do with privacy—it’s immemorial. It’s a very old idea, both legal and moral. Non-exclusion is also, morally speaking, a quite important idea in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Non-obstruction is a fairly new one. Why does it become important? Because in the early 19th century people started doing things they’d never done before. And there people who didn’t like change and said, “You can’t do that.”
The distinction between non-intrusion and non-obstruction is a rather subtle one…
It is. It’s subtle but real. I don’t think it’s a distinction without a difference. There’s a big difference between not battering on people’s doors in the middle of the night—that’s intrusion—and letting people build railroads, letting drug companies invest in certain things. Those are very different kinds of concern.
What about non-exclusion?
I call non-exclusion the democratic germ in an otherwise undemocratic creed. The democratic idea is that nobody can be excluded. Liberalism had to learn that lesson. And it was a long, hard fight. And out of that you get liberal democracy.
Liberalism and democracy are conceptually and historically distinct. I see liberalism as being guided by those four ideas—acceptance of conflict, resistance to power, faith in progress and civic respect. But they don’t tell you who you’re talking about, who is included in this happy circle. Democracy is about who is included. Only once everybody becomes included, do you really have true liberal democracy. Liberalism lays out the feast. Democracy draws up the guest list.
I was intrigued to see, alongside Isaiah Berlin in the section in the book on negative liberty, a discussion of the work of Michael Oakeshott. Now, that might strike some readers as a somewhat eccentric choice: Oakeshott wasn’t a self-described liberal after all. Presumably your decision to put Oakeshott there alongside Berlin has something to do with his scepticism about large-scale attempt to remake the world in the image of abstract ideals? That’s something one also finds in Berlin.
There was a certain tease here! I never said Oakeshott was a liberal pur et dur. What I was trying to get at was the thought there’s something liberal in Oakeshott’s hostility to systems. And that comes back to the primacy of politics—though he didn’t believe in politics. He was an eccentric in some ways.
In Oakeshott the hostility to systems comes out in a kind of quietism, whereas in Berlin it leads to a position more like yours.
In that section [of the book] I actually talk about three people: Hayek, Berlin and Oakeshott. And each of them in their way—Berlin perhaps the least, but Oakeshott and Hayek certainly—is a quietist. Oakeshott was both a political and economic quietist. Hayek was a political quietist but an economic radical. He believed that politicians should keep out and let the market do its work.
Since you mention Hayek, could you say something about the “neoliberal” turn in the mid-1970s and its relationship to the liberal tradition as you understand it?
It’s a very confused doctrine when you look at it. It takes individualism for granted. It neglects history. It neglects the fact that there’s nothing natural about property relations—all of that is a social construct and is determined by politics. Above all, the neoliberals’ economic theory does not seem to have been borne out by experience: markets do not correct themselves. There has been, over 30 to 40 years, a degradation of public space, public goods. And a degradation of belief in what governments can do. And I think that’s going to take a long time to correct.