Illustration by Michelle Thompson

The future of liberalism

Faced with creeping authoritarianism, liberals need to craft a new agenda—learning from their serious mistakes, and shaking shibboleths of both right and left
December 9, 2020

Writers have interpreted the failings of liberalism in different ways; the point, however, is to change it. Self-criticism is a liberal strength. The very fact that there are already so many books diagnosing the death of liberalism proves that liberalism is still alive. But now we must move from analysis to prescription.

This is urgent. The victory of Joe Biden in the US presidential election gives a fragile opening for liberal renewal, but more than 70m Americans voted for Donald Trump. In Britain, a populist Conservative government faces a Labour Party with a new, left-liberal leader, Keir Starmer. In France, Marine Le Pen remains a serious threat to Europe’s leading liberal renewer, Emmanuel Macron. In Hungary, the EU has an increasingly illiberal and undemocratic member state. The likely economic consequences of the pandemic—unemployment, insecurity, soaring public debt and perhaps inflation—will probably feed a second wave of populism. China, already a superpower, is emerging strengthened from the crisis. Its model of developmental authoritarianism is challenging liberal democratic capitalism. For the first time this century, among countries with more than one million people, there are now fewer democracies than there are non-democratic regimes.

Like Neptune’s trident, a renewed liberalism will have three prongs. The first is the defence of traditional liberal values and institutions, such as free speech and an independent judiciary, against threats from both populists and outright authoritarians.

The second is to address the major failings of what passed for liberalism over the last 30 years—a one-dimensional economic liberalism, at worst a dogmatic market fundamentalism that had as little purchase on human reality as the dogmas of dialectical materialism or papal infallibility. These failings have driven millions of voters to the populists. We must, then, be tough on populism and tough on the causes of populism. The third prong requires us to meet, by liberal means, the daunting global challenges of our era, including climate change, pandemics and the rise of China. So our new liberalism has to look both backward and forward, inward and outward.

The liberal values and institutions we defend with the first prong of the trident are well known, and central to any liberalism worthy of the name. This is a daily struggle in countries like Poland and India. The barbaric beheading of a French teacher outside Paris reminds us that, even in the oldest liberal societies, free speech has to contend with not only the heckler’s but now also the assassin’s veto. Populism abhors pluralism, so our pluralist, anti-majoritarian institutions have to be strengthened, along with diverse, independent media and a strong civil society. Trump’s refusal to concede the election and Boris Johnson’s 2019 attempt to prorogue parliament show that we cannot rely as much as we did in the past on self-restraint embedded in what Alexis de Tocqueville called moeurs—convention, custom and good manners. Yet if some of the threats are new, the ideas and institutions are familiar, and the task of standing up for them in dark times is one that liberals have often faced before.

A larger portion of new thinking is required for the second and third prongs. Before I turn to these, let me clarify what I mean by liberalism.

No liberalism without liberty

Liberalism is, in Judith Shklar’s illuminating formulation, a “tradition of traditions.” There is an extended family of historical practices, ideological clusters and philosophical writings that may legitimately be called liberal. All share a core commitment to individual liberty. (Only in the weird semantic universe of contemporary American politics could it appear possible to separate liberalism from liberty.) Beyond this, as John Gray has argued, liberalism includes elements of individualism, meliorism, egalitarianism and universalism. These ingredients, however, appear in widely varying definitions, proportions and combinations.

Since the 1930s, the word liberal has come to be used more broadly as an adjective in the compound “liberal democracy,” and cognate formulations such as liberal societies, liberal world and liberal international order. In this lower case (“small l”) form, it describes what distinguishes liberal democracies, starting with those at the heart of the modern transatlantic west, from totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and then authoritarian regimes all the way up to Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Rather as the language spoken by the English had the strange experience of becoming a dialect of itself, as English became a world language, the “big L” liberalism of liberal parties has become a dialect of a wider political language spoken also by liberal conservatives, liberal Catholics, liberal socialists and liberal communitarians.

This helps. For the profound changes needed to renew the foundations of liberal societies will require a consistency of application that is beyond the reach of any single grouping. In a liberal democracy it won’t do for one party, even if it consists entirely of the most impeccably liberal “big L” Liberals, to remain continuously in charge. Liberal one-party rule is a contradiction in terms. So liberal renewal demands a degree of consensus across parties, such as there was when Christian Democrats helped build welfare states in western Europe after 1945.

[su_pullquote]“The fact that there are so many books diagnosing the death of liberalism proves that liberalism is still alive”[/su_pullquote]

Yet liberalism also abhors the notion that everyone should agree, since this would eliminate the vital battle of ideas. The contemporary west offers examples of the two contrasting dangers: in the hyperpolarised United States, there is too little consensus; in Germany, there has arguably been too much. As Goldilocks wanted her porridge to be not too hot but not too cold, so we need a balance between necessary consensus and equally essential conflict.

Nothing could be more absurd than to reduce “liberalism” either to the theory of John Rawls or to the practice of Goldman Sachs. Properly understood, liberalism offers an incomparably rich, four-century-long experimental history of a never-ending quest to find the best way for diverse people—and peoples—to live together well in conditions of freedom. It is a theoretical treasure trove and a practical experience bank. How telling, by contrast, that so-called “post-liberalism” cannot even come up with a proper name for itself; its very moniker reveals its epigonic character. The best of the recent books excoriating the failures of liberalism end up arguing not that we should abandon liberalism, but rather that what we need is a better liberalism.

Equality and solidarity

If only we had listened to Pierre Hassner. Already in 1991 that brilliant Romanian-born French political philosopher warned that, much as we should celebrate the triumph of freedom at the end of the Cold War, we must remember that humankind does not live by liberty and universality alone. The aspirations that had led to nationalism and socialism would surely return, he predicted, and then he named them: the yearning for community and identity, on the one hand, and for equality and solidarity on the other. One can organise under Hassner’s two prescient pairings both a diagnosis of what has gone wrong inside many liberal democracies and much of the resulting prescription. Community and identity are values (and human needs) often emphasised in conservative thought, while the socialist tradition has paid particular attention to equality and solidarity. In the half-jesting spirit of the Polish philosopher Leszek Koakowski’s celebrated 1978 essay “How to Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist,” I propose that we should be conservative-socialist-liberals.

Let’s start with equality and solidarity. It is a commonplace that we have seen a dramatic growth in inequality in many developed societies. The widening gulf in life chances starts with life itself. In one leafy corner of London, Richmond upon Thames, a man of 65 can on average expect to have another 13.7 years of healthy life, which is more than twice as long as the mere 6.4 years that his counterpart can expect at the other end of the same city, in Newham. Since the 1990s, the death rate for white men with a bachelor’s degree aged between 45 and 54 in the US has fallen by 40 per cent, but it has risen by 25 per cent for white men in the same age group without a college degree. You can’t be free if you are dead.

To diminish the inequity of life chances, starting with that most basic chance to go on living, liberals must simultaneously tackle multiple inequalities: most obviously those of wealth, healthcare, education and geography (rustbelt versus the coasts of the US, north of England versus Greater Londonia), but also that between generations, and less visible inequalities of power and attention. To redress this multidimensional inequality will require us to support more radical measures than most liberals have been prepared to contemplate over the 30 years since 1989.

A liberal approach starts not with the ceiling but with what Ralf Dahrendorf called the “common floor” from which everyone can, by their own energy and abilities, rise as high as someone who starts life in the top floor penthouse. Measures that could contribute here include a negative income tax (as proposed long ago by Milton Friedman); a universal basic income (supported by a staggering 71 per cent of Europeans in a survey designed by my research team at Oxford University); a universal taxpayer-funded minimum inheritance (particularly desirable where, as in Britain and America, the defining gulf is increasingly one of accumulated wealth rather than current income); and universal basic services such as healthcare, housing and social security. There are multiple national varieties of liberal democratic capitalism, so the appropriate mixture of such measures will differ from country to country.

A crucial staircase up from the floor is education. The expansion of university education was intended by mid-20th century liberals to augment life chances and social mobility, yet now the great American universities increasingly look like another means for existing elites to perpetuate their ascendancy. Leading US colleges regularly admit more students from the top 1 per cent of households by income than they do from the bottom 60 per cent. The Economist has coined the term “hereditary meritocracy” to describe this self-perpetuating new class. Universities like the two in which I am privileged to work therefore bear a major responsibility to widen access, but they cannot achieve social mobility on their own. We also need high-quality state schooling for all, from the crucial early years up, better vocational education and, amid a digital revolution, lifelong learning.

Redistributing respect

Beyond education there is a broader cultural problem that may be described as disparity of esteem. People without higher education, often living in rundown former industrial towns, have felt themselves neglected, disdained or ignored by those whom the populists pillory as “liberal elites.” Deep cultural resentment can be found even where, as in East Germany, there is not so much acute material hardship. The legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin argued that a liberal political community must show “equal respect and concern” for each of its members. Can we metropolitan liberals honestly say that, in the decades after 1989, we showed equal respect and concern for people in the US rustbelt, or the neglected communities of northern England? Until, of course, the populist wave launched taxi-loads of metropolitan journalists on their domestic safaris to the former Yorkshire coalfields or the Appalachian mountains.

Comprehensive programmes will be needed to lift up neglected regions and cities. Localism is as vital to liberalism as it is to conservatism. Remember Thomas Jefferson’s credo: “divide the counties into wards.” One liberal answer to the Brexit slogan “Take Back Control” is to give back more control to people at the lowest possible level, reversing the over-centralisation characteristic of the UK in general and England in particular.

A sustained change in attitudes is as vital as that in policies. Polish populists are not wrong to talk about the need for a “redistribution of respect.” In the early months of the pandemic we saw something like this, with not only doctors and nurses but also care home staff, ambulance, delivery and rubbish disposal workers suddenly being lauded by politicians as “heroes.” Yet this already seems to be fading.

The technocratic liberalism of recent decades was spectacularly lacking in one vital ingredient: the liberal imagination. Martha Nussbaum has written about the “curious and sympathetic” imagination that is large enough to “recognise humanity in strange costumes.” Such imaginative sympathy is found at its richest in the work of poets and novelists. In her book Bleak Liberalism, Amanda Anderson singles out Charles Dickens’s moving meditation, in Bleak House, on the death of the illiterate street-sweeper Jo:

To be hustled, and jostled, and moved on; and really to feel that it would appear to be perfectly true that I have no business, here, or there, or anywhere; and yet to be perplexed by the consideration that I am here somehow, too, and everybody overlooked me until I became the creature that I am!

Oh for the pen of a Dickens today, to make the bankers pause as their expensive leather shoes step over the homeless person huddled in the entranceway to their bank, and, yes, the tenured professors on their way to a well-endowed university.

The civic virtue that such imaginative sympathy underpins is solidarity, an ideal that the left has long painted on its banners, but also a value that many conservatives cherish, deriving it from Christian social teaching. The two traditions of thinking about it, from left and right, met and blended in the 1980s in the Polish national liberation movement called Solidarity. Liberals need to join both conservatives and socialists in fullheartedly embracing the value of solidarity. And we need to understand that its subjective, cultural and emotional aspects are as vital as the more objective, social and economic ones. Only the combination of them will create a true “common floor.”

Checking the “liberalocracy”

Much of what I have discussed thus far can be fitted under the broad rubric of “levelling up.” What about levelling down? Theoretically, a liberal might argue that if everyone has enough for an equal opportunity in life then there is no problem with a few people having much more than enough. Practically, that argument fails for at least three reasons. Levelling up will be expensive and cannot be paid for without taking some more money from the super-rich, who have done exceptionally well out of globalisation, but also from the so-called “comfortably off,” that is, middle-class people like me. Extreme inequality at the top is in practice incompatible with equal life chances because, through educational and other forms of privilege, it perpetuates that “hereditary meritocracy.” Last but not least, this extreme concentration of wealth results in an acute inequality of power.

Distrust of any concentration of power is a quintessential ingredient of liberalism, which wants all kinds of power to be limited, accountable and dispersed. But in recent decades, Anglo-American liberalism, while continuing vigorously to question public power, has been far too indulgent of private power. This failure is all the more abject because the two types of power are not cleanly separated: a “revolving door” between public service and lucrative private sector posts heightens the danger of regulators being captured. The political commentator Mark Shields has offered a pithy “golden rule” of American politics: gold rules! The grotesquely distorting power of money in American politics is well documented, but the problem is not confined to the US.

Our entire societies are marked by the extraordinary power of very rich individuals and corporations, be they big banks, energy companies, media empires like Rupert Murdoch’s, or digital giants such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. The perverse result of liberals like the Clintons and Tony Blair becoming part of the plutocratic, “Davos Man” oligarchy is that liberalism itself has come to be viewed as the ideology of the rich, the established and powerful. In his anti-liberal polemic Why Liberalism Failed, the Catholic conservative writer Patrick Deneen coins the helpfully provocative term “liberalocracy.”

Practical measures to address these inequities could include going after the trillions of dollars hidden in tax havens around the world; a wealth tax; higher and more effectively collected taxes on digital corporations like Facebook; and a land tax, which has the great merit of addressing not just vertical but also horizontal (geographical) inequalities. We can also go back to what most interested John Stuart Mill about socialism: giving workers a stake in the companies in which they labour and therefore an enhanced sense of meaningful work. Other elements of “stakeholder capitalism” would help to correct the current, one-sided fixation on shareholder value in British and American business life.

One effect of globalisation has been to strengthen the power of capital in relation to labour within developed economies. Organised labour, an almost forgotten staple of the left, must be another part of the answer. Then we need a new generation of competition policy, known in the US as antitrust. Corporations like Google and Facebook are near-monopolies on an unprecedented scale. Here, Friedmanites and Hayekians should—if they are true to their principles—be more interested than any left-wing radical in restoring a truly competitive market. And, to be clear, properly regulated markets remain an indispensable part of the constitution of liberty.

[su_pullquote]“In recent decades, liberalism has been far too indulgent of private power at the expense of public power”[/su_pullquote]

Last but not least, we need a sea change of ethos—both among the rich and in attitudes towards the rich. In a lecture on “the problem of freedom,” delivered to the international PEN Congress in 1939, Thomas Mann spoke of the need for “a voluntary self-limitation, a social self-discipline of freedom.” Where has that social self-discipline been in recent years? When the Obama administration proposed to increase the tax on “carried interest” (typically a significant part of the earnings of hedge fund and private equity managers, but taxed at a lower rate than other income), Stephen Schwarzman, one of America’s wealthiest individuals, declared “it’s a war… it’s like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.” As coronavirus was beginning both to take many lives and to destroy the livelihoods of millions of workers, shopkeepers and small business owners in the US, the Financial Times reported that, “continuing a trend of flat or lower pay,” America’s top bankers had just paid themselves between $24m (Mike Corbat of Citigroup) and $31.5m (Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase) in a single year. This is obscene.

Politicians (needing money to fight elections), civil servants (looking for a job after early retirement), museums, orchestras, universities, charities and even human rights NGOs now bow, scrape and fawn before the wealthy Schwarzmans of this world, singing paeans to their magnificent philanthropy. Dickens again captures it better than anyone with his account, in Little Dorrit, of how the beau monde of London abases itself before the mighty financier Merdle. Yes, some rich and powerful individuals, such as George Soros, have truly earned our respect. But overall, we do indeed need a “redistribution of respect”: less for banker Merdle, more for street-sweeper Jo.

Identity and community

This brings us to Hassner’s second pair of values that liberals would forget at their peril: community and identity. The unhappiness that has accumulated over the last three decades is partly about a defective overall balance between individual and community, resulting from a hypertrophied individualism. But it is also about the kinds of community that liberals have favoured as against those they have neglected.

While rightly paying much attention to the other half of the world in recent decades, we cosmopolitan liberals paid too little attention to the other halves of our own societies. We talked a lot about “the international community,” much less about national communities. By concentrating on the legitimate desire of diverse minorities for recognition of their complex identities, we failed to see how those whom early multiculturalists had assumed to belong to secure majorities now felt increasingly insecure and threatened in their own identities. This left the door open to the “white identity politics” of Trump and his ilk. The majority-feeling-like-a-minority resentment was heightened by liberal elites’ epistocratic contempt for the half of society without higher education, especially when that other half expressed simplistic and politically incorrect views. Witness Hillary Clinton’s notoriously condescending phrase about “the basket of deplorables.”

We also underestimated the traumatic impact of the sheer speed and depth of the changes wrought in people’s everyday lives by post-1989 globalisation and liberalisation. In the early 21st century, a globalised financialised capitalism came closer than ever before to Karl Marx’s unforgettable description, in the Communist Manifesto, of capitalism’s revolutionary impact:

all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all newly-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air…

As so much that is familiar is swept away, people cry: “Enough! Too much change! Too fast!” And they often add a melancholy “I don’t recognise my country any more,” a feeling which the populists exploit to focus the discontent on immigrants, highlighting ethnic, religious and cultural difference. Such sentiments run strong in central and east European countries, even though their real problem is mass emigration, not immigration. The alienated blame their alienation on aliens. While there obviously are significant elements of xenophobia and racism at work here, these feelings are also rooted in a much broader reaction to the revolutionary speed and depth of change in people’s life-worlds.

We liberals neglected the ur-conservative insight summed up in Mary Shelley’s line that “nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.” The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton defined conservatism as:

the political outlook which springs from a desire to conserve existing things, held to be either good in themselves, or better than the likely alternatives, or at least safe, familiar, and the objects of trust and affection. [Emphasis mine.]

What follows from this analysis is that, where possible, we need to slow down the rate of change to one that most human natures can bear, while preserving the overall liberal direction of travel. Joachim Gauck, a former German president, sums up this injunction in two words: zielwahrende Entschleunigung (goal-preserving deceleration). This means, for example, limiting immigration, securing frontiers, and strengthening a sense of community, trust and reciprocity inside them.

The state-nation

This is uncomfortable territory for contemporary liberals. Some are altogether unhappy with the stubborn persistence of nations. But rather than drawing up our battered troops on a marshy frontline marked “internationalism versus the nation,” we need to regroup on the more defensible high ground of the nation defined in liberal terms. In one of the last lectures he delivered before his death, Scruton asked where we find “the first person plural of mutual trust,” and proposed a modern conservative answer to this central political question not in terms of “faith and kinship” but “neighbourhood and secular law.”

These are surely terms on which liberals can engage, arguing not about the need for a national political community—which was, after all, one of the main demands of European liberals in 1848, the year Marx published his manifesto—but about the definition and character of that community. As overnight frontier closures and national government responses to the Covid pandemic have again demonstrated, the nation is just too important, and too strong in its emotional appeal, to be left to the nationalists.

Well before the populist wave hit us, liberal multiculturalism had already begun to steer away from the rocks of moral and cultural relativism—“liberalism for the liberals, cannibalism for the cannibals” in Martin Hollis’s gloriously provocative formulation—to which it came perilously close at the turn of the century. But in their necessary critique of “identity politics,” liberals must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Feminism, prefigured in the 19th century by liberals such as Mill, his partner Harriet Taylor, and the novelist George Eliot, has more recently effected one of history’s greatest advances towards equal liberty for all. Exploration of the experiences, needs and perspectives of all manner of social groups, be they ethnic, religious, sexual or regional, has enriched our understanding of how we can best combine freedom and diversity in multicultural societies.

The point on which liberals must therefore insist is that identity is not an “either/or” but an “as-well-as-and.” To be sure, there are acute clashes between particular identities, but there is no contradiction in principle between having subnational, national, transnational and supranational identities, any more than there is between simultaneously having religious, political, institutional and cultural ones, as most people do. We liberals do not stand on the defence of some cosmo-libertarian fantasy of disembedded citizens and disembodied “netizens,” but we must defend the right of people to be rooted in more than one way and more than one place.

Ours will therefore be an inclusive, liberal patriotism, capacious and sympathetically imaginative enough to embrace citizens with multiple identities. Membership of the nation is defined in civic, not ethnic or völkisch terms; this is not a nation-state, in a narrow sense, but an état-nation, a state-nation. Such an open, positive, warm-hearted version of the nation is capable of appealing not just to dry reason but also to the deep human need for belonging and the moral imperative of solidarity. While the coronavirus pandemic initially triggered a bout of national self-isolation, it has also showed us the best in community spirit and patriotic solidarity. Liberal patriotism is an essential ingredient of a renewed liberalism.

The challenge of the global

Yet patriotism is not enough. Although the impact of specifically globalised financialised capitalism is one of the main causes of liberalism’s crisis, the remedies I have outlined so far have mainly been domestic ones. They are prescriptions for a territorially bounded, liberal democratic state-nation, and in some ways would actually strengthen the boundaries around the state-nation as well as the bonds within it. This begs an enormous question: what about everyone else? What do liberals have to offer most of humankind, not lucky enough to be citizens of such countries as Britain, America, Germany or New Zealand? That includes, in a grey area, the millions of people who are resident in such countries without being citizens of them.

This is at once a moral question and a very practical one. Some version of universalism is, as John Gray has argued, a core feature of liberalism. But a major handicap for liberalism today is that for centuries it came to most of the world in the form of imperialism. Recall that John Stuart Mill’s day job was in the East India Company and he thought that colonised peoples in their “nonage” were not ready for his refined liberties. Western universalism was, in practice, anything but universal. Some of the worst horrors that human beings have inflicted on other human beings—violent conquest, torture, genocide, slavery—were justified by reference to the highest ideals of liberty, civilisation and enlightenment. Countries like Britain—and the English in particular—have done a remarkable job of forgetting this; the rest of the world has not.

That memory of colonial oppression has been reinforced, in our own time, by what might loosely be called the west’s liberal wars, such as those in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq. The motives of the historical actors behind these wars were diverse, and many of them far from liberal, but in each case military interventions were partially justified by reference to liberal ends. While in the cases of Kosovo or Sierra Leone one can argue that liberal purposes were at least partly achieved, that can hardly be claimed for Iraq or Libya. The road to hell can be paved with liberal intentions.

To learn from these grim experiences does not require us to abandon the universalist aspiration to secure for other people the freedoms we enjoy ourselves, but it does imply both a healthy scepticism about what can be achieved by armed interventions for liberal ends and a postcolonial openness to the experiences, values and priorities of other cultures. This, as well as the stark reality of the west’s declining relative power, suggests a sober realism about the extent to which liberal powers can or should aim to transform other societies.

Yet even if one were to take the most selfish, narrow view of the agenda for a new liberalism—one that was exclusively about defending freedom inside currently (more or less) free countries—it would fail if it did not address some very large issues beyond our borders.

“Liberal international order” is a term that has gained prominence at the very time the thing it describes comes under threat. Recalling Scruton’s “desire to conserve existing things, held to be good in themselves, or better than the likely alternatives,” we might reflect that liberals now have a substantively conservative task: to defend the institutions and practices of international co-operation built up since 1945.

[su_pullquote]“To learn from the grim experiences of war does not mean we must abandon the aspiration to secure for other people the freedoms we ourselves enjoy”[/su_pullquote]

For two centuries, the influence of liberal ideas was—more than we might like to think—tied to the predominance of western power. Now liberalism’s influence wanes as the agenda of world politics is increasingly set by great powers that are not part of a traditionally defined west, or, like Russia, are ambivalent about whether they belong to the west. By far the most strategically important of these states is China, which is already a superpower.

Periods of the rise and relative decline of great powers have historically been times of increased tension, and usually of war. How can we manage this tension, preserve as much as possible of the liberal international order and avoid war? Chinese influence now reaches deep inside liberal democracies, distorting our democratic processes and trying to use financial clout and outright bullying to impose self-censorship on journalists and academics, a process seen most dramatically in Australia. This calls on us to defend, in the heart of our own societies, such primary liberal values as freedom of speech and academic independence.

China’s unprecedented Leninist-capitalist version of developmental authoritarianism is now a systemic rival to liberal democracy, just as fascist and communist regimes were for much of the 20th century. It offers developing societies in Asia, Africa and Latin America an alternative path to modernity. The single most important thing the liberal world did to prevail in the Cold War was to make our own societies prosperous, dynamic and attractive. We must try to do the same again, hold true to the cause of persuading others that liberal societies offer a better way to live, and, importantly, keep faith with those in unfree societies who share our values. But realistically we must also recognise that we are in for a long haul of competitive coexistence with authoritarian regimes.

We need co-operation with them to avoid war, to vanquish pandemics and to face the defining threat of the Anthropocene era: climate change. The planetary struggle to slow global warming will also require us to curb the power of overmighty carbon-exploiting corporations, by means ranging from divestment to regulation. But that is only the beginning. We need a major reduction in our overall carbon consumption—counting not just our own emissions but also the carbon consumed in the production elsewhere of goods we import. The cost to our personal lifestyles will be especially steep if we take seriously the arguments for both historical and intergenerational justice: that the Global North, having already consumed a larger share of the earth’s ecological capital, should pay a higher price, and that present generations should make sacrifices for the sake of those yet to be born into a world suffering from the effects of global warming.

Is it possible to secure such sacrifices by consent, through liberal democratic politics? Answering another survey question from my research team, in 2020 an astonishing 53 per cent of young Europeans said they thought authoritarian states were better equipped than democracies to tackle the climate crisis. Our task is to show them they are wrong.

Meanwhile, the level of warming that is already unavoidable will sharply increase the already significant flows of would-be migrants from the impoverished Global South towards the Global North. The reaction to the arrival in Europe of just a few million migrants from Africa and the wider Middle East has destabilised well-established European liberal democracies. Blaming myriad social evils on people coming from Latin America has been a central plank of Trumpism.

The development economist Paul Collier argues that limiting immigration can actually benefit the societies from which immigrants come. There are, he writes, more Sudanese doctors in London than there are in Sudan. It is not good for any country if a large proportion of its younger, energetic, educated and enterprising citizens are seeking better lives elsewhere. It is not good for freedom in such places if too many local liberals choose to change countries rather than changing their own country.

None of this absolves liberals from the obligation of providing humane treatment for all those desperately trying to get into our countries. Nor does it absolve us from asking what we should do for that large majority of humankind whom we are not going to let in to our own countries. At the very least, we need to devote more attention to understanding what really helps countries develop, and how we can contribute positively to the process. Any prosperous democracy that spends less than the UN-endorsed target of 0.7 per cent of GDP on development aid should be ashamed of itself (and Britain’s populist Conservative government should reverse its recent move to abandon it).

Merely to sketch the bare outlines of these global challenges is to appreciate that the external agenda for a new liberalism is even more daunting than the domestic one. The greatest challenge, however, is to do all these things simultaneously, especially when there are tensions between measures needed on the three prongs. How, for example, do you prevent global warming rising beyond 2°C above pre-industrial levels without imposing stark curbs on individual liberty? How do you address fears about immigration while fully respecting the human rights of migrants? How do you stand up for the rights of people in Hong Kong and Taiwan while pursuing deep co-operation with China to combat climate change, pandemics and global economic disorder?

Towards a new liberalism

I recently read an interesting text by a German writer, Arnold Ruge, entitled “Self-Criticism of Liberalism.” It was published in 1843. Liberalism has been around for a long time and self-criticism is its characteristic path to renewal. Even “new liberalism” is an old term. It first came into wider use at the beginning of the 20th century, to describe a new wave of thinkers who enhanced liberalism with a stronger social dimension. They were followed by a more explicitly social democratic turn in liberalism, with FDR’s New Deal in the US and the construction of welfare states in western Europe after 1945. Starting in the 1980s, we then had the neoliberal—that is, new liberal—turn, back to free markets and away from the bloated “socialist” state. Now we need a new “new liberalism.”

Here I have offered only a few notes towards this renewal of liberalism. I am building on the work of many others, and hope that others will build on mine in turn. I do not pretend to elaborate a normative theory. Nor do I propose a comprehensive policy programme. There is, Mill tells us, “no necessity for a universal synthesis.” Indeed, the pursuit of maximalist, one-size-fits-all solutions was part of the rationalistic hubris of technocratic liberalism over the last 30 years. It strayed too far from Karl Popper’s “piecemeal engineering.” For liberalism should never be a closed system but rather an open method, a combination of evidence-based realism and moral aspiration, always ready to learn from others’ and our own mistakes.

This new liberalism will be stalwart in the defence of liberal essentials, such as human rights, the rule of law and limited government, and the epistemic freedoms of speech and enquiry that are indispensable for liberalism as method rather than system. It will be experimental, proceeding by trial and error, open to learning from other traditions, such as conservatism and socialism, and equipped with the imaginative sympathy we need to see through the eyes of others. It will prize emotional intelligence as well as the scientific kind. And it will recognise that in many relatively free countries we have something close to a corporate-plutocratic-oligarchic stranglehold on the state. This needs to be broken, by democratic means, or else the electoral procedures of democracy will continue to be exploited to subvert liberalism, as populists (sometimes themselves plutocrats) stir up unhappy majorities against “liberalocracy.”

[su_pullquote]“The most passionate voices for freedom come to us, like the prisoners’ chorus in Beethoven’s Fidelio, from among the unfree”[/su_pullquote]

This new liberalism will remain universalist, but with a sober, nuanced universalism, alert to the diversity of perspectives, priorities and experiences of cultures and countries outside the mainstream of the historic west, and cognisant of the shift in world power away from the west. It will remain individualist, dedicated to achieving the greatest liberty of the individual compatible with the liberty of others, but this will be a realistic, contextual individualism. At its best, liberalism has always understood that human beings never are what Jeremy Waldron has called the “self-made atoms of liberal fantasy,” but rather live embedded in multiple kinds of community that speak to deep psychological needs for belonging and recognition. This new liberalism will remain egalitarian, seeking equal life chances, but understanding that the cultural and socio-psychological aspects of inequality are as important as the economic ones. Last but not least, it will remain meliorist, but with a sceptical, historically informed meliorism, recognising that history has cycles as well as lines, reverses as well as advances, and that human progress is, in the very best case, only a gradually upward corkscrew trajectory, with downward turns along the way.

Great writers and rhetorically gifted leaders will then be called upon to blend this into a narrative more emotionally appealing than those with which demagogic terribles simplificateurs are currently seducing millions of unhappy hearts. This will be a liberalism of fear (in Judith Shklar’s celebrated phrase) but it must also be a liberalism of hope. As in a double helix, fear of the human barbarism that can always return will be intertwined with hope for a human civilisation that we partly have, and of which we may yet build more.

What if it’s too late? What if the influence of liberalism is inexorably declining along with the relative power of the west? What if anti-liberal Deneen is right to gloat over “a 500-year-old philosophical experiment that has run its course”? Speaking only for myself, I hope I will then go down with the good ship Liberty, working the pumps in the engine room as we try to keep her afloat. But as I breathe my last mouthful of salty water—glug, glug—I shall find consolation in reflecting on one last, peculiar quality of Liberty. Some time after the ship seems to have sunk to the bottom, it comes back up again. Odder still: it acquires the buoyancy to refloat precisely through sinking. It is no accident that the most passionate voices for freedom come to us, like the prisoners’ chorus in Beethoven’s Fidelio, from among the unfree.

For liberty is like health—you value it most when you have lost it. The better way forward, however, for free societies as for individuals, is to stay healthy.

Timothy Garton Ash is Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University