Liberal war gestern | Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (£)
Liberalism belongs to yesterday
Margaret Thatcher took Great Britain to the heights of economic liberalism. That is a thing of the past – ahead of the General Election the big parties are seeking new ways: post-liberalism is the cure-all. By Marcus Theurer
It is the beginning of a new era, says Phillip Blond, just next door, approximately two minutes away from his office in Westminster. “Theresa May is serious,” Blond believes, Director of the London-based think tank ResPublica. The employees of the Prime Minister at Downing Street seek his advice. “I cannot speak about it,” he says. “But I am there weekly.”
Blond enjoys a split reputation in Westminster. Some consider him a dreamer and self-promoter, others see him as a visionary. The former theologian and his think tank offer a new political concept called post-liberalism. Never heard of it? No problem. Blond is able to explain in just a sentence what it is: “Post-liberalism is the belief that extreme liberalism is a political concept of the past.”
Post-liberals see it thusly: four decades the western world lived under the domination of liberalism – and suffered from it. The post-liberals diagnose a kind of overdose of economic and societal liberties that have poisoned the community. The political right pushed through the economic liberalism, unleashing market economies and globalisation. According to post-liberals this led to a debt bubble, the global financial crisis, and especially in the United Kingdom and the United States a rapid rise in economic inequality. The political left on the other hand encouraged societal liberalism. The result, from a post-liberal perspective, is a concerning relativism of common values, the ignorance of national cultural identities, and finally a wave of resistance against mass immigration, which led to Brexit in Great Britain and helped Donald Trump in the United States.
“The cultural and economic elites have kidnapped liberalism to advance their own interests,” says Blond. Such sentences make him a target for his opponents. “Blond is a charlatan. He has nothing interesting to say,” Sam Bowman dismisses, the Director of the liberal Adam Smith Institute in London. The Director of ResPublica deceives the audience into believing the return of an imagined pre-modern society is possible, a time before evil capitalism destroyed a supposedly whole world. “But in truth this world never existed,” Bowman says.
Blond does not engage with such criticism. “Great Britain is an innovative power again,” he says. In the late seventies it was Margaret Thatcher, whose radical market reforms pushed the Kingdom to the heights of economic liberalism. The reforms made their mark on the country till today. Now Theresa May governs in London and promises a similarly radical change of course – in the opposite direction of the ultra-liberal credo of Thatcher. Trump’s political agenda is incoherent and chaotic, says Blond. But May, who inherited government from David Cameron last summer after the Brexit vote, may be the first and thus far only post-liberal leader.
This Thursday the island votes, and the agenda of May’s Conservatives truly reads like a post-liberal manifesto: “We do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality,” it reads. Never has a British Prime Minister been so clear to distance themselves from liberal icon Thatcher.
May promises citizens the strong hand of the Government will intervene more strongly in future. Where she speaks of the responsibility of the individual for the community, Thatcher one celebrated individualism. Likely the most famous and simultaneously most contentious quote of hers is, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” May’s agenda literally states: “True Conservatism means a commitment to country and community; a belief not just in society but in the good that government can do.”
Post-liberalism is not just a project of the Conservatives in Great Britain. On the left, the political theoretician and member of the House of Lords, Lord Glasman, is the mastermind. Notably May’s staff have also sought his advice. Glasman stands for a societal conservative social democracy. Already in 2011, when he still advised Labour leader Ed Miliband, he provoked his own camp by demanding a temporary stop on immigration.
To Blond Brexit is like a lightning strike in this new time – an undeniable clue to the crisis of liberalism. “There is no dobt about it,” he says. May wants to draw a clear line with the EU, a “hard” Brexit: She wants Great Britain to also leave the single market, as only this will allow curbing immigration from other European countries. May wants to renounce societal liberalism of open borders and is willing to accept a limit of economic liberalism in return – as the Brits will face tariffs when exiting the single market.
But how do post-liberals imagine the alternative to liberalism? A call to John Milbank clarifies this. The British theologian was founder of a Christian school of thought named radical orthodoxy in the early nineties. He was an important influence on Blond, who studied under Milbank at Cambridge. Milbank considers liberalism and capitalism as nihilistic. The banks in London’s City are castigated as “monstrous vulgar Temples of Mammon,” which tower over the “exalted steeples of the people”. “What we are currently experiencing is the battle between liberalism and anti-liberalism,” says Milbank. Anti-liberals to him are Governments such as in Poland and Hungary. Liberals previously, more so than others, were Great Britain and the United States. “Post-liberalism seeks a position between those two poles,” he says.
In the previous year Milbank, together with the German political scientist Adrian Pabst, who teaches at the University of Kent, published a book that expounds on the principles of post-liberalism in detail. In The Politics of Virtue they lobby not for a bigger Government, but for one that emphasises and supports community engagement and empathy. “We need to find a new balance between the freedom of the individual on one hand, and the welfare of the community and a necessary stronger cohesiveness thereof on the other hand,” says Pabst. In the economy they see cooperatives as the better alternative to large privatised groups of companies and state monopolists. They should be supported by tax advantages. In trade they want to strengthen idea of “fair trade” with international social and environmental standards.
The standard recipe of economic liberalism to enable easy access to markets and subsidise the competition more or less is not acceptable to the post-liberal authors. “Instead we need to forge an economy that works just and fairly from the beginning,” Milbank and Pabst write. Ideas such as the universal income are thus not the solution. “A good economic order needs to create space fro a complex mix of self-interest and the consideration for the welfare of other people,” they postulate.
One of May’s favourite slogans is the promise of a people’s economy, from which all will profit and not just the privileged few. This sounds like an echo of Ludwig Erhard’s “prosperity for all” – and post-liberalism really is a try to move Anglo-Saxon capitalism in the direction of an economic model in the vein of continental Europe. What an ironic move after the Brexit vote last summer. The post-liberals on the island are not shy to admit that they see the social market economy of Germany as a role model, though they believe that by now the “neo-liberal” virus has infected it too. Similar to Germany, Milbank and Pabst want to establish craft guilds and in this way create better training models, leading to higher rates of employability. Cooperatives are supposed to mirror German health providers. What seems self-evident in Germany is radical change in systems on an island where anyone can work without an apprenticeship as a builder, and the national health service provides medical care.
For their campaigns the two largest parties adopt concrete suggestions of the post-liberals: May’s Conservatives, for example, want to legally enforce employee representation on boards and limit energy prices. The Labour party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, promises among other things to regulate rent more and to establish regional utilities by the Government.
Liberalism isn’t completely wrong or reprehensible to post-liberal intellectuals like Milbank or Glasman. But they consider it inadequate, because it has lost sight of the common good. Increasing freedom for the individual cannot alone ensure safety, wealth and a complete life for the majority of the population. One could also say: Liberalism went over their mark, in their opinion. The large liberal consensus created an uninhibited individualistic ego-focused society, no longer held together by anything in the end. In the words of Milbank: “When one gives up on striving for mutual values, then this leads to a vacuum of a liberal anarchy.”