Stephen Fry has pronounced the death of classical liberalism. As someone who watched their political party destroy itself after dredging up that ossified Victorian ideology up from the deep and find itself as coalition bedfellows with those who have always been liberalism’s (of all varieties) greatest opponents, I can only cheer. But I do find this mindset fascinating.
He was speaking at an Australian festival purporting to be about “dangerous ideas”, which predictably means trying (in vain in this case apparently) to give already triumphalist white supremacists as big a stage as possible – because apparently Steve Bannon’s already near-ubiquitous internet platform isn’t enough and he should be regarded as a victim of censorship. According to the Guardian:
“A grand canyon has opened up in our world,” Fry said. On one side is the new right, promoting a bizarre mixture of Christianity and libertarianism; on the other, the “illiberal liberals”, obsessed with identity politics and complaining about things like cultural appropriation. These tiny factions war above, while the rest of us watch, aghast, from the chasm below.
“Is this what is meant by the fine art of disagreement?” Fry asked. “A plague on both their houses.”
I’ll give him this: opting out and claiming that both sides are equally appalling is definitely dangerous; whether it counts as an actual idea is another matter. Since time immemorial there have been people who have claimed that all politicians are alike and dismissed any attempt to engage and change the world; we just didn’t use to pay them big sums of cash to sit in front of enraptured audiences and tell them that this is somehow a radical or heroic thing to think.
What I can’t quite figure out is how come people who ten, twenty years ago I would have considered myself as broadly aligned politically, can actually think that. How can you look at one side, calling for isolationism and the dehumanisation of certain already discriminated against groups, and another side which calls for human rights and an end to structured oppression which yes, at its extremes, has people calling for their opponents to be censored and even physically attacked, and see them as simply two sides of the same coin. How can a “liberal” of any shade look at an authoritarian and an “identarian” and genuinely be incapable of ranking them in order of desirability. I mean, I have my criticisms of classical liberalism; I’ve never understood how it can be liberal to sit back and let people starve. But there’s no version of J.S. Mill’s philosophy that ever endorsed white nationalism. And watching what is going on, particularly in the US, with the right in the ascendant, and declaring it impossible to take sides looks suspiciously as if you have taken a side after all. If you see someone raise a hand to someone else and declare that the person being hit is protesting too loudly, you really do start to sound complicit.
I mean, look: I’ve spent a huge portion of my life being endlessly disappointed by the left. I can’t see anything to inspire me about Jeremy Corbyn’s insipid posturing. I’ve witnessed friends beaten up for winning the “wrong” student election. I’ve sat in Stop the War planning meetings with people more excited than the protest opportunities military action in Iraq would give them than sadness that thousands of people were about to die unjustly. At it’s most extreme, I simply don’t think hard left ideology actually works. But it fails by its own standards; people abuse it. Totalitarian ideologies such as Nazism and white supremacism hurt vulnerable people by design. There certainly is a horseshoe, but you don’t avoid that by dehumanising the left; you avoid it by reminding the left of its humanity. Far right ideology is the rejection of universalism and humanism.
The fact that there are so many centrists out there determined to sit out the ensuing culture war says more about centrism and laissez-faire liberalism far more than it does about the people opposing Trump et al. It’s hard to ignore the fact that Trump and Brexit were offering people easy answers to issues that centrists were perfectly content to sit on their hands over. The reason the classical liberals of the Liberal Party failed one hundred years ago in the UK was because it offered the public little alternative but to give the nascent Labour Party a try. It failed, not because it was a radical or dangerous idea but because it had nothing to offer a changing world. If you look at the world burning in the way it currently is and can’t even distinguish between the arsonists and the fire fighters, then your ideology is similarly inadequate.