“Our liberalism of melancholy.” That’s how Edmund Fawcett, journalist and writer summed up his sweeping tale of ‘liberalism’ as an idea and its impact on the west. Liberalism, in the historical sense of the word, “Liberalism is a political philosophy or worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality” as Wikipedia says (the source of all knowledge, I know…).
Liberty and equality. The story of liberalism is the story of humanity’s struggle between these two mutually desired, and often exclusive, outcomes. Liberty – to live an uncoerced life responsible only to ourselves, our consciences and our God. Equality – to not cling desperately on a hillside, naked babies playing at our feet while the rain pours through; squatting in squalor inside a self-engineered brick house, raw sewage running down the makeshift cement steps all the while gazing longingly below into the country clubs and garden parties of our betters.
This is what Edmund Fawcett’s audacious march through modern western history is about. Modern, not pre-modern, not post-modern. Liberalism is an idea that rests squarely in the realm of modernity; nation states and separate but equal powers and taxes; government programs and central banks and courts. All the systems that are fraying in our post-modern world.
It is very clear that Fawcett did his homework, and it would be despicable to throw rocks at so great a work of scholarship, so important a tome. He is in every sense a ‘liberal’, and does not use the word to paper over a multitude of sins as does the political variety of that tribe; and for that I am grateful. Nevertheless, there does remain some concern in my mind on issues of tone and focus, issues that I often debate with myself and others. Because, despite the extraordinary research presented in this tome, the question remains: Is liberalism a happy little nut to be found at the center of increasingly illiberal layers continuing out right and left until they arrive at totalitarianism of one or another extreme – or is in fact a continuum of degrees with totalitarian collectivism at one end of the spectrum and genuine ‘liberty’ at the other?
Edmund Fawcett is most obviously a ‘social democrat’, saving his most merciless contempt for what he calls the ‘hard right’, a term without definition but linked to certain conservative parties and movements in the United States. Given the tendency of ‘social democracy’ to slip easily these days out of the, oh let’s call it ‘consent of the governed’ – and into famine and death (modern Venezuela as only the most recent example) – I wonder if his criticism is not perhaps misplaced. Certainly any serious study of ‘liberalism’ that reduces Ayn Rand to ‘adolescent cult’ status and Ronald Reagan’s historic successes to ‘pushing at an open door’ risks a-priori alienating those liberals who see the philosophy of individualism and government restraint as central to their exercise of liberty; and conversely the social democratic philosophy of altruism and government overreach as too easily manipulated, especially in a post-modern world where the principles of ‘liberalism’ are not well grounded anymore in society. A world where, “After the collective highs of 1989, many liberals now worry whether liberal democracy can continue to work. They worry whether its inner tensions, once a strength, are not threatening to become a weakness. They worry whether liberal democracy is not losing its appeal.”
I have two main comments on this excellently researched and eloquently presented treatise. The first is that it focuses too much on individuals; and too many of those politicians or economists. Politicians follow philosophers and philosophers generally both create and then channel changing ideas in society; while many economists are notoriously deluded (Krugman, cough… cough…). Liberalism in the west was a result of ideological advances brought about by philosophical changes which have their roots in the renaissance, the industrial revolution, the mass-production of reading material and the dramatic increase in well-being and literacy following the end of the dark ages. This rebirth of philosophy set man, not nature nor God at the center of the human experience. Fawcett did not outline how this moved through art and literature and religion in a way that couched the advance of liberalism in its historical context. He could take as an example of how to do this from “The Cause of Hitler’s Germany.”
My second concern, related to the first, was that it was less a story about liberalism and more a chronological Rolodex of ‘liberals’; and again mostly politicians. Individuals who did feats great and small to advance the cause of liberal ideology; but not why, never outlining what was changing in the minds of men which allowed their work to have withstood the test of time. Taking this fact, along with the aforementioned concern that Fawcett leaned more on ‘social democrat’ politicians than others, means this book would best be read in tandem with “The Triumph of Liberty.” The ‘other side’ of the story, as it were.
All that to say, I am grateful for Fawcett for what must have been a herculean effort to deliver this awe-inspiring dissertation to print. He is obviously quite well-read and informed; and now so am I for having read his wonderful book. I highly recommend it, for those of you who love your liberty – who wonder where it came from – and who fear that we are losing it.
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