Imagining Other:


Comments (to be sorted!) on liberalism today.


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Liberalism (i) Adam Smith


Liberalism (ii) John Rawls

(i) The problem with liberalism today

          (a)Peregrine Worsthorne: liberalism has lost its distinctiveness, as we’re all liberals now – even those seeking more state power

          (b) Francis Fukuyama                # link

(ii) liberal interventionism                     # link

(iii) liberals in American politics           # link

(iv) Right and left in politics

 - liberalism in economics = the right

 - in social matters = the left?               # link

(v) Ronald Dworkin (Will Hutton)       # link

(vi) ‘liberal’ literary criticism

 (Terry Eagleton book reviewed)         # link

(vii) see also...                                    # link



(i) The problem with liberalism (neo-liberalism?) today:


(a) Peregrine Worsthorne


In a speech that he gave at the Athenaeum club, (G 21/06/06) argued that liberalism has let us down:


- with regard to freedom of the press, only the Guardian tries to give intelligent information for voters to make their decisions (the rationale of freedom of the press)


- the autonomous individual today has too many rights – what was once a noble principle has been degraded into a crass and selfish “me-first-ism”


- on meritocracy – originally designed to rid us of the aristocracy, but now we have a self-made meritocratic ruling class (which is “deeply unattractive and unimpressive”), who are only gifted in the ability to get to the top….


Now, since the end of the cold war, liberalism suffers from “triumphalism” – as the only ‘ism still around. It can not only dream of world hegemony, but it can achieve it – absolute power corrupting absolutely. The Iraq war is the first move in a liberal jihad, the central tenet of which – free thought – will dissolve people’s faith in any transcendental religion [a bad thing?!] far more effectively than communism could.


Note, too, that Worsthorne blames Thatcherism… “the two restraining isms of socialism and high Toryism have been ground into the dust by the Thatcherite revolution.” He adds: “Politicians of all parties, including the Conservatives, are liberal now.” The problem now is that, having got rid of all its enemies, liberalism now believes it can conquer human pain and suffering – which means that it will require more governmental powers (“to enforce political correctness”).  

He calls for liberalism to return to its tendency to “doubt, [be] cynical about certainty and above all, [to be] suspicious of power.” That is, it must turn these ways of thinking on itself.


(b) Francis Fukuyama

May 2011: Book: The Origins of Political Order: from pre-human times to the French revolution, Profile, 2011, 25. Argues that there are three components to political order: state, law, accountability – sees the state in positive and conservative terms, as one of the foundations of sound political order (unlike the neo-cons, Tea party et al); the enemies of political order are cronyism, partisanship etc,  and shows e.g. how Spain failed because of economically inactive aristocracy; (like Plato, sees family ties as undermining good republic). Britain was the first to create the ‘trinity’. Hutton adds that Britain also had: ‘an entire Enlightenment infrastructure and value system that enabled it to support industrial entrepreneurship. A free press, free scientific enquiry, the development of banking, the spirit of Enlightenment progress.’ Not just (as Fukuyama suggests) a state and law. See The Enlightened Economy by Joel Mokyr. F. takes on Hayek, showing he was wrong that British state evolved without central political authority: it was the Normans who created a universal court system, which British common law grew out of.

See Hutton’s review at:


Oct 2014: interviewed by Sophie McBain, NS 3-9 Oct 2014. Latest book: Political Order and Political Decay (a follow-up to The Origins of Political Order). Three fundamental elements of a successful modern democracy are:

- a legitimate and effective state

- the rule of law

- democratic accountability

He now recognises how important mechanisms for accountability are, and how difficult to create.

Doesn’t think that Obama was right to talk of destroying ISIS – they are not that much of a threat.

When McBain asks about political Islam, and whether it is a response to the emptiness of western liberal ideas, she quotes his ‘end of history’ essay:

“The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.”

He says: “There’s always been a hidden contradiction just under the surface of modern democracy because it doesn’t really set goals for a good life: it just sets the conditions for people to seek the good life. A lot of people are very aimless and discontented for that reason.”

America, he says, has too many competing interest groups – too many ‘checks and balances’ – and the British parliamentary system is better in that respect.


Note also John Bew in the same edition (p31): “The contemporary political condition is one of disenchanted modernity, where science, materialism and technocratic managerialism have left a void into which other forces will move.” He cites the book: Sacred Violence: political religion in a secular age, by David Martin Jones and M.L.R. Smith, which accuses American political elites of underestimating the appeal of political religion...


(ii) “Liberal Interventionism…”


The characteristic of the hegemony of liberalism that Worsthorne calls a “liberal jihad” - its belief that liberals have a duty to “force others to be free” – is shown by the controversy over “liberal interventionism.”



Collier, Paul: Wars, Guns and Votes: democracy in dangerous places, Bodley Head 20.

Sequel to The Bottom Billion – analysis of 60 poorest countries. Argues developed world should be prepared to intervene military – those in developing world who want to keep others out are the ruling elites… (entrenched elites who are exploiting the ordinary people). Current western policy is erratic: Somalia left to chaos after American soldiers killed there; 80,000 allowed to be butchered in Rwanda (partly because of Somalia experience?); over-reacted in Iraq. But a good job is being done in Sierra Leone, and Brazilian troops keeping the peace in Haiti. Potent signal when ICC issued warrant for arrest of Omar al-Bashir of Sudan on charges of war crimes, but it won’t make any difference in Sudan.. 60 poorest states are too large to be nations and too small to be states, also plagued by tribal and ethnic divisions. Too large because lack cohesion for collective action; too small because lack the scale needed to produce public goods effectively.


Holzgrefe,J.L. and Keohane Robert O: Humanitarian Intervention, Cambridge UP 2003, L18.95. Ethical issues around use of force to prevent grave violations of human rights without the consent of the target state, e.g. Rwanda, Iraq, Kosovo – was NATO action justified etc. 0 521 52928 X.


December 2008. A brief note on the legality of the Iraq war: Bingham in recent lecture … claimed that Security Council did not sanction the American and British action in its autumn 2002 resolution – not only Goldsmith, and Straw but Prof. Christopher Greenwood (UK rep. on International Court of Justice) take contrary point of view… And when problem in Security Council is vetoes by China, Russia does this mean that ‘legal’ action is that sanctioned by them? (Hmph!) Also US has breached international law and has been involved in 40 military actions against sovereign states in the past 25 years. (Noted 21/12/08 from incomplete cutting from G.)


May 2008. Simon Jenkins (G 14/05/08) argues we should go into Burma to aid its people after the hurricane, despite the opposition of its government. The UN’s “responsibility to protect” (or R2P) doctrine (agreed in 2005) justified intervention in negligent states. Surely it applies now in Burma? Yet “legal experts” – the same who tried to justify invading Iraq - are now trying to justify not sending aid into Burma: the doctrine, they say, does not cover natural disasters!!!


“What is sickening is the attempt to squeeze a decision not to help these desperate people into the same ‘liberal interventionist’ ideology as validates billions of pounds on invading, occupying, destabilising, bombing and failing to pacify other peoples whose governments also did not invite intervention. Offending national sovereignty is apparently fine when it involves oil, opium, Islam or a macho yearning to boast ‘regime change’. It is not to be contemplated when it is just a matter of saving hundreds of thousands of lives”.


(iii) liberals and conservatives in American politics:


Jan 2009. A more recent writer (Michael Tomasky, in the Guardian,  26th January 2009) says that liberalism requires that we consider the world as comprising competing interests, and therefore have to imagine what others’ interests and points of view are. (A position very close to my own – hence ‘imagining other’ – though I do not see it as inevitable that our interests must be in competition or conflict with each other). He goes on to describe the tradition as requiring a balance between individual interests and the common good. Of particular interest in this article is the statement from an American point of view, since American and British usage of the word ‘liberal’ is not the same – moreover it has become a term of abuse in recent American political discussion!


For Tomasky, the reason why Ronald Reagan and his like became so powerful in the 1980s was that ‘many middle-class Americans had come to feel that liberal governance was demanding far too much sacrifice of them.’  So long as, he says, the middle classes had been getting a trade-off for the high taxes they were paying, they were happy. When wages stagnated, and crime did not decrease (etc – but why was this happening?) whilst at the same time ‘liberals’ were trying to defend the rights of the least well-off, then the middle classes were likely to revolt. It was easy then for Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Fox News and others to ridicule the liberal attempts to protect what they saw as fornicators and socially subversive artists…


He goes on: ‘Now we are in the age of Barrack Obama. Now it’s conservatism that has broken down… And Obama’s project is nothing less than to revive this pre-1970s conception of liberalism as an ongoing civic project to which all contribute and from which all benefit…’  He quotes Obama’s words about the ‘price and promise of citizenship’.  He also contrasts the American right’s position: ‘America first’, with the liberal view that America must ‘restrain its hegemonic urges’.  Here, British usage might make a contrast between ‘right and left’…


To my mind, this article illustrates the kind of tension identified by Barbara Goodwin: within liberalism some claim individual rights, whilst others fight for social justice – in contemporary terminology, ‘the market’ vs. ‘a significant role for government’.


(iv) Right and Left and liberalism:


Jan 2010. David Selbourne: The Principle of Duty (1994, republished Faber Finds) – reviewed by David Marquand, NS 25/01/10: interesting point Marquand makes that the ‘default position’ of our ‘left commentariat’ is that it that believes in economic regulation, but socially is liberal, while the ‘right’s’ default position is for economic freedom but socially is conservative… [is this true? Cameron is branding the conservatives as liberal in social matters, and new labour has been pretty much for tightening up in social matters, especially crime – but then perhaps this shows how they both have tried to get away from their original/traditional (/true?!) perspectives].  Selbourne calls on the left to recognise that ‘casino capitalism, family breakdown, asset stripping, binge drinking, and welfare dependency are all part of a single web… the crisis of capitalism… [which] is part of a wider social and moral crisis.’ (My emphasis). Selbourne puts the problem(s) down to ‘ever-expanding demands for ever more extraordinary rights’… - the threat to civic culture comes from the ‘universal plebeian’ (who may be a banker etc at the top of society) – heir to Marx’s lumpenproletariat, and the ‘roughs’ who bothered George Eliot and Matthew Arnold. [A Conservative view, I guess, and how snobbish!!!]


Jan. 2015. Matthew Parris argues the Conservatives should go back to Adam Smith. The Times, 17th Jan has a piece in which he comments on the recent revelation that ‘comparison websites’ are not giving accurate information about prices of e.g. electricity. The websites were in fact ‘in the pockets of’ the Big Five... He says the public is ignorant of the workings of capitalism, and ‘profit’ is still a dirty word to many. ‘We know very well that the economic liberal is not automatically on the side of the CBI or the Institute of Directors. We remember the words of our hero Adam Smith: ‘People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment or diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public or in some contrivance to raise prices.... An intelligent Conservative’s duty is to show we understand Smith, and are on the side not of the conspiracy, but the Invisible Hand... Unless we on the right can dispel the very widespread public assumption that the Tories only care about big business, our cause is doomed.’ He is astounded that the Sun is taking up this campaign, whilst the Conservative party (which wants to be the party of ‘all the people’) is silent.


(v) Will Hutton in Observer 09/06/13 refers to ‘Professor Ronnie Dworkin’, who died earlier this year, and points out that we live in right-wing times, and what passes for liberalism today would have him turning in his grave: ‘Law and justice, which RD cherished so much, are seen as burdens on the taxpayer, whose costs must be minimised. If you want justice, you must pay for it yourself and [you] have no embedded civic rights to expect others to contribute. The good society and moral individuals are those who do without the state. The public sphere is derided and positive action to promote the common or international good is acceptable only if it involves less and not more government. Instead, what we are invited to hold in common is nationhood, national identity and hostility to foreigners and immigrants.’ In the Economist, it is argued that young people’s tolerance of ethnic and sexual difference, along with a growing distrust of the state and welfare, was proof positive of the emergence of a new liberalism...


(vi) Adam Kirsch, reviewing Terry Eagleton’s The Event of Literature in New Statesman 9 – 22 April 2012, argues that Eagleton does not recognise the strength of the liberal (as against the ‘radical’) literary critic: a liberal understanding of e.g. Dante adopts an ‘ingrained historicism’ so as not to get into questioning (anachronistically) Dante’s morals, which would get in the way of appreciating the literature. ‘...we provisionally imagine ourselves into Dante’s world-view, which we can do only because we are free to imagine ourselves back out again.’ And: ‘...the liberal – that is sympathetic, complex, self-distrusting – imagination of the reader can entertain things in a work of art that would be intolerable in real life.’


‘The question that divides a liberal from a radical understanding of literature, perhaps, is whether this freedom ought to be taken as a compensation for the unfreedom of life, or as a model for its liberation.’ And Eagleton hopes that Marxism will enable us to move from the ‘realm of necessity’ (or the pragmatic) on to the ‘domain of freedom’ (or non-pragmatic)...


For Kirsch, Eagleton is wrong to compare/equate works of art with ‘republicanism [which] means collective self-determination’ (a work of art is a ‘co-operative commonwealth’) rather than with authoritarianism – since a work of art is not simply the free creation of its author (who, rather, ‘tyrannises’ over it).


There are also interesting points in the review about ‘nominalism’ and realism’ – see


(vii) See also (notes to complete):


Karl Popper: Philosophy of science – falsifiability. Piecemeal social engineering. The Open Society...  

Isaiah Berlin….


pp19 - for Hayek (and CSR1, 8, pp19 brief refcs that need sorting!!!)


Notes on the Enlightenment…