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Leith on language: Rebooting liberalism

"I want to say we need a liberalism worthy of the name. But before that, we need a name worthy of the concept"
February 14, 2017

What’s a liberal? The question is coming to seem, as liberals like to say, “problematic.” Now being a liberal myself—a “wishy-washy liberal,” a “member of the metropolitan liberal elite”—I’m ever more concerned as to what the word means. It’s a political problem wrapped in a linguistic one.

My late grandfather, for instance, stood twice for parliament in the 1940s as an “old-style Liberal.” The old style, be it said, would not be completely recognisable to the new style. He loved Margaret Thatcher, abhorred homosexuals, claimed to admire Jewish people but resisted letting them into his golf club, and described himself as a “racialist, rather than a racist.” I don’t imagine he’d have seen eye to eye on all that much with Tim Farron.

Nick Clegg, a former occupant of Farron’s unenviable chair, recently wrote of a global pushback against liberalism:

“The rush to condemn liberalism is everywhere,” he complained. “‘Liberal’ has long been a term of abuse rather than praise in the US, especially so in the era of Tea Party Trumpism. Then Theresa May declared herself against ‘laissez-faire liberalism’. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell, like many on the Left, fulminates against the ‘neo-liberal straitjacket’ and the Brexit press never misses a chance to give ‘liberal luvvies’ a good kicking […] Perhaps the most alarming condemnation was the recent outburst from Alexander Dugin, Vladimir Putin’s ideological mentor: ‘We need a Nuremburg trial for liberalism, the last totalitarian political ideology.’”

If we’ve got to the stage where liberalism and totalitarianism are regarded as the same thing—the former, at least notionally, being in some way associated with freedom and the latter, um, not—isn’t the word in need of some sort of reboot? Indeed, if the former leader of the actual Liberal Democrats can conflate neoliberalism, laissez-faire liberalism and luvvie liberalism in the same paragraph, I’d suggest the term is in strong danger of becoming meaningless. Certainly, Clegg’s own list of liberal values—“individual rights, internationalism, democracy, fair treatment and equality before the law”—seems, to put it charitably, a little general.

As Clegg rightly points out, in a country where “liberty” comes right between “life” and “the pursuit of happiness” on the national shopping list, the word “liberal” is now uniformly used as a term of abuse. Liberals call themselves “progressives”; it’s their opponents who call them “liberals” or, more illiberally, “libtards.” The Trump victory saw a lot of Twitter eggs with Pepe the Frog (a popular internet meme) logos fantasising about drinking “liberal tears” from mugs designed for the purpose.

At the root of all this is the old, old schism between economic liberals and social liberals. For reasons that seem to me theoretically obscure, these two find themselves, as a rule, on opposite sides of the barricades.

Your dinner-party luvvie liberal, for instance, will spend a lot of his or her time fulminating against “neoliberal” policies, which he or she will likely equate with fascists. Your bonk-eyed Ayn Rand neoliberal type, on the other hand, will tend to spend a lot of his or her time fulminating about “illiberal liberals”: no-platforming free-speech-suppressing snowflakes whom he or she will likely equate with fascists. President Donald Trump, being neither economically nor socially liberal, at least squares that circle.

When I say theoretically obscure, I mean that it’s on the face of it hard to square enthusiasm for the free movement of capital with mistrust of the free movement of labour, or vice versa. If you’re a believer in the individual’s absolute rights over his or her body, isn’t it then tricky to decide that the state should intervene aggressively in his or her economic affairs? Or, for free-market social conservatives, vice versa. But here we stray into deeper waters.

In any case, the division has sharpened noticeably in recent months and years—particularly over issues such as free speech. And it has been further confused by the twist put on it by “neoliberalism”—originally a badge of honour but one soon repurposed, like “neoconservatism,” as a boo-word.

The point I make, finally, is a linguistic one more than a political one. But as everyone knows, politics depends on being able to name things properly. And I think we’re in a pickle. I want to say we need a liberalism worthy of the name. But before that, we need a name worthy of the concept. In the spirit of reclaiming terms, how about social liberals start calling themselves “cucks,” economic liberals call themselves “swiveleyes.” And “old-style liberals”? Grandpa will do fine.