One of the most extraordinary trends of the last year, which has been slow-burning for the last five or six, is the fracturing of liberalism. A long-lasting trope used to defend broadly conceived notions of political and social liberalism in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries was that, whatever its faults, it was at least harmless. Whatever flaws there may have been in the philosophy behind a liberal precept of “live and let live”—of some kind of neutrality between different moral standpoints—it was a safe bet for our political arrangements because, if wrong, it was harmlessly wrong.
Unlike fascism, communism, and religious fundamentalism, it claimed little authority to impose its values on dissenters, so long as they did not try to impose theirs on anyone else. The great atrocities of the twentieth century, according to this narrative, were committed by men who claimed the right to impose their values with force, on the basis of a superior knowledge of human nature and its moral ends and purposes. We liberals, on the other hand, had eschewed such speculation, left any serious thinking about values to professional philosophers, and contented ourselves with adjudicating between values to produce a reasonably harmonious and functional social order. If we were wrong to do this, no one was about to die for our error, but they could very easily do so for the mistakes of any other ideology.
Whether or not it contained much truth, this narrative was immediately persuasive, for a very long time, to most citizens of well-ordered, affluent liberal polities. But the events of the last five years, and of this last year in particular, have shown it is now running out of steam.
The appeal only worked when the dominant form of liberalism did not seem to pose any direct threat to dissenters. But the major social and moral conflicts in the domestic politics of Western states, have, since around 2011, shown this to be false.
One of the largest of these conflicts has concerned debates around the rights and status of sexual minorities, which have intensified greatly since the start of the decade. In 2010, seven countries around the world recognised domestically-performed same-sex marriages; in three months, the figure will be twenty-one. The string of successes for the international movement styling itself “LGBT liberation” has led to an increasing reliance on liberal arguments by its opponents, where previously intrinsically conservative ones were standard. It is a mark of how rapid have been the movement’s successes that the standard centre-right fair of 2005 now sounds rather disturbing to most liberal ears in Britain. Homosexuality is not natural, it spreads disease and confuses young people, its normalisation undermines family values, and so on and so forth — standard arguments used by the country’s losing side on all the LGBT issues of the ‘90s and early noughties, but increasingly now encountered only on fringe corners of the internet.
Those who still try to oppose this movement—and there are far fewer of them: the Conservative government is quietly pushing through legislation to include “gender identity” in the list of characteristics protected by anti-discrimination laws—now do so mainly on the basis of an alleged threat to civil liberties. Evangelical and other Christian advocacy groups, previously fond of claiming to speak on behalf of an at least nominally Christian majority, began to adopt the rhetoric of a besieged sub-group in the wake of the Ashers case and of recent survey data suggesting that self-declared Christians are a numerical minority for the first time. Mainstream socially conservative columnists, such as there still are, spend a great deal of time fulminating over the supposed threat to free conscience posed by new norms concerning about gender pronouns, worrying about the civil liberties of churches unwilling to perform gay weddings—and of course, condemning the censorious activities of students.
And this is the great cultural reversal of the last few years. At the start of the century the main pressure for limitations on free expression still came from the socially conservative right. The voice of Mary Whitehouse seems to have long since faded from our increasingly short political memory; now, all the debates about speech and expression concern attempts from the left to limit it on the grounds that it contributes to oppressive and discriminatory social structures.
Though painted by its opponents as authoritarian, this tendency is deeply rooted in liberal ideas. The oppressive structures the left identify need to be dismantled because they interfere with equality and personal autonomy, and such interference is treated as axiomatically wrong. Both sides of the culture war in Britain are now using liberal arguments, and it has become a contest within the framework of liberal ideology—both sides accept some version of the idea that society ought to be arranged so as to maximise the autonomy of the individuals who comprise it: they merely disagree as to which aspects of autonomy are most important, and which social conditions can undermine it. The left ask for limits on traditional civil liberties (whether imposed by law or by social pressure) to help dismantle structures of norms and attitudes that limit the autonomy of individuals who belong to certain groups. The right retort that this misunderstands the nature of social structures—barriers to autonomy are not as deeply rooted in social structures or as influenced by unconscious attitudes or apparently innocuous utterances as the left assume; and in any case the right to speak one’s mind unmolested is simply of more intrinsic worth than freedom from subtle discrimination or subjection to social messages likely to undermine one’s self-esteem.
This diagnosis fits Britain more closely than other countries, but it is not inapplicable elsewhere. Britain has the longest tradition—over three unbroken centuries—of political argument within a quasi-liberal framework of any country in the world, and we are peculiarly prone to reducing concerns about other values to ones consistent with some kind of principle of value-neutrality when we turn them into political arguments. But the social right’s growing feeling of besiegement, and consequent reliance on liberal arguments, has happened all over the Western world.
Trump and Pence’s appeal to Christian voters, whilst also giving a good deal of attention to abortion and family values, focussed to a great extent on the alleged threat to religious liberty resulting from gay marriage and the climate of persecution that conservative Christians in the United States increasingly perceive. Although, unlike Britain, America still has a serious and organised religious right that would like to undo the social changes unleashed by the 1960s, there has been a significant shift in emphasis since the gay marriage debate gave way to the transgender bathroom debate, and since the intolerant behaviour of liberal activists on college campuses began to make weekly headlines.
In most of the rest of the Western world a similar shift in the rhetoric of the social right has taken place to a greater or lesser extent. Witness Dr Jordan Peterson’s stand against legislation regulating the use of gender pronouns in Canadian universities, for example, which made an abstruse argument salient to ordinary people by appealing to directly to a liberal belief in freedom of speech and conscience.
This trend represents the fracturing of what is now the hegemonic ideology in the Western world. There is no longer a broadly agreed direction of travel in the social sphere by people whose main value is individual autonomy, broadly conceived. More significantly, moderate socially conservative forces, who accept the framework of a liberal society and polity but seek to halt or reverse certain applications of the principle of autonomy—trading off a little here for more family stability, a little there to protect children from pornography—can no longer be accommodated without enormous strain in mainstream political discourse, because the dominant interpretation of liberalism now entails that their speech is intrinsically damaging. Such people, who ten years ago saw no reason for discontent with a big-tent conception of liberalism, now feel directly attacked by its radical new strains—their speech stifled, their thought condemned, their way of life increasingly hemmed in and regulated.
This is the sub-text to Trump, Brexit, and the other “populist” uprisings of 2016. Liberalism, once a comfortable family home for nearly all the population of the Western world, has witnessed a messy divorce. One half of the family now feel the other is launching an attack on the liberty whose value they once held in common—and doing so in the name of liberty. Mobilising people behind a broadly conceived liberal idea like “freedom” is no longer possible; when some people think “freedom” means protection from the consequences of their neighbours’ speech and conscience, the stakes seem far too high for consensus.
The specific issue of immigration was a far bigger causal factor in the year’s political ruptures, but we see in all of them an increasing number of voters no longer content with the categories of liberalism and seeking something (anything?—a brash billionaire; an inchoate nostalgia for the days of black beer and British Rail…) that stands in contradiction.
Part of liberalism’s intellectual tradition involves the idea of teleology—not belief in a utopia or shining city to which all roads must lead, but the notion that there is a direction of travel with natural momentum that societies fulfil their moral purpose by approaching. Two centuries of previously unimaginable technical and scientific development have made this belief plausible; and most of the time, liberals can believe we are on roughly the right road—that in general, we are making “progress”. But the teleology can fail. It has failed before, when large numbers of Germans felt their identity was under attack by the imposition of liberal norms and ideas by an international elite: and the consequence was one of the greatest atrocities of human history.
We do ourselves a huge disservice, however, to imagine that this is the only possible outcome this time—that the only options are Progress or genocide. Not every non-liberal state is murderous; contrariwise, the states responsible for the bloodshed and periodic atrocities of Western colonialism largely defined themselves as liberal polities.
Liberalism has been the Western world’s dominant ideology since the late 19th century, and 2016 was the year it broke apart. Fractured by its own radicalisation, it lost the broad church, default appeal it once had to the relatively comfortable, untroubled portion of mankind. We don’t yet know what—if it doesn’t recover its dominance—will replace it, or even if any coherent alternative will be offered by the movements that have challenged the consensus.
But in the uncharted waters that lie ahead, we can only begin to plot a course by starting to imagine possible alternatives. The belief in progressively increasing personal autonomy realised by ever-intensifying scientifically informed manipulation of the natural world has been our God for a long time. Now that confidence in His benevolence is waning, we would do well to remember that He is not the only thing man can worship.