Why I am not a Liberal and how we need to fight bin Trump and Brexit

Trumpism cannot be defeated by seeing it as merely irrational - nor by withdrawing from Europe.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
10 May 2018

Image: US President Donald Trump, March 2018. Credit: Niall Carson/PA Images, all rights reserved

In the year 2000, when post-1989 globalisation was at the zenith of its self-confidence, four of us got together in North London to plan how to respond to what we experienced as a growing problem with the way the world is governed. We felt the need for a serious space to question the suffocating future being offered us, with the socialist left defeated everywhere except Brazil. Along with Paul Hilder, Susan Richards, David Hayes and others, I initiated openDemocracy.

Perhaps because he confuses my commitment to openness with liberalism, Jan Zielonka, Oxford professor of European politics, has just tagged me as a Liberal; in openDemocracy, in his contribution to a vitally important debate over how to frustrate the hard right. The exchange began in March, when the historian of Liberalism, Edmund Fawcett, called for liberals like himself and leftists to unite in the face of danger. I then responded and welcomed Fawcett’s positive challenge. How to confront the grim international setting matters far more than my personal politics. And new and surprising allies, such as the ex-Director of the CIA, have emerged. I want to take the opportunity to explore the significance of this, especially for the United States as Trump shreds the Iran nuclear agreement. 

But first, I want to be clear about the direction I'm coming from to explain why Zielonka gets me completly wrong. While liberal in my personal views I have never been a ‘Liberal’ politically. I am an advocate and organiser of political openness, which is quite different. The way politics is conducted remains closed, indeed it invents new forms of closure. The brilliant Transformation section of openDemocracy now focuses on this with a coverage that is both granular and general. As its editor Mike Edwards recently argued, an open approach, "runs counter to the realities of modern politics, media and knowledge production, but the other options are much, much worse: a slide into authoritarianism, enforced artificial unity, or permanent division".

I am not a Liberal with a capital ‘L’ because the nature of its embrace of individualism is inseparable from capitalism, and I want to see the replacement of capitalism. By capitalism I mean a world run in the interests of those for whom accumulation is the measure of value and success. I am not saying we know how this will happen or that it will be soon, but I live my politics as a refusal of our present circumstances. In any society, however, a precondition for replacing capitalism is a robust constitutional democracy and openness. Rightly, voters will not trust a more collective form of government without a rock-solid framework of human rights, privacy, active toleration, freedom of expression and organisation and the equality of all persons. Liberty Before Liberalism was what Quentin Skinner titled his exploration of what this might mean. Liberty after liberalism, while standing on its shoulders, might describe my anti-capitalism.

In terms of British political parties I am also not a Liberal (nor Liberal Democrat, to use their current name), although I vote tactically for them where they are the best alternative to the Tories and I hold that progressives should work together – especially now. One of the drawbacks most (but not all) Lib Dems suffer is that they seem to represent only the interests of those who think like liberals. This can create a holier-than-thou righteousness and encourages a fatal conceit that they know best. (I can tell a few stories about this from British politics. From Ashdown via Kennedy to Clegg, I have been assured by Liberal leaders that they had no need for advice from the likes of me, before they toppled from the cliff). Alliances demand a two-way learning process inimical to self-righteousness, which is one of the reasons I welcome Edmund Fawcett’s call, that initiated this exchange.

I am much closer to being a Green than Liberal and the Greens should be part of this debate as they offer a universal platform. They have also done one thing of inestimable value in addition to their attempts to save the environment. The Labour Party in Britain, and Social Democrats across Europe, embraced the sectional interest of the organised working classes. As the industrial proletariat shrunk, social democrats switched their allegiance to globalisation and embraced neoliberalism as the vehicle to fund welfare. Often they achieved considerable gains for those in need. But social democracy lost the capacity to argue from the point of view of humanity as a whole. The Greens preserved, one might even say rescued, a dynamic sense of the totality. Not just in terms of saving the planet, but with their critique of the consequences if the human race continues to manufacture, trade, consume and speculate as it now does.

Before we launched openDemocracy I was the first organiser of Charter 88, from the late 1980s to the birth of Blairism. It campaigned for a new democratic constitutional settlement in the UK. That sure was liberal! Yet it has so far proven too revolutionary for the denizens of the British state. Nonetheless, patience is a revolutionary virtue and I have spent half a lifetime spelling out how democratic reform is a precondition for sustainable, egalitarian economic reform in Britain. I support the call for a constitutional convention set out by Stuart White. Recently, I showed how such an approach would have prevented, and must now be part of any response to, Brexit; in my recent book on Brexit and Trump, The Lure of Greatness.

So Zielonka could hardly be more wrong when he claims, "The question is, why do even the most enlightened liberals such as Fawcett and Barnett not really try to offer a set of specific policies…". Not just because I am not a liberal but because if anything I propose too many policies. In The Lure of Greatness I also respond with all the force I can muster to the vitally important issue Zielonka rightly poses: how have we got here? He is again wrong, therefore, to claim, "Both Fawcett and Barnett… stop short of asking why, in one country after another, voters have deserted liberals". Not only have I made a point of asking this, I set out the multi-layered answer: what I spell out as the ‘combined determinations’ that led to the victories of the hard right in 2016, with respect to Britain and the United States.

That's enough of my politics, now to return to the present and its all-important history.

In June 2014, a year after Edward Snowden revealed America’s massive programme of illegal, warrantless surveillance, I interviewed General Michael Hayden. As head of the American NSA (National Security Agency) from 1999 to 2005, he oversaw the creation of the system before becoming Director of the CIA. I twinned the interview with a probing encounter with William Binney, who had resigned from the NSA in 2001 and went public as soon as he realised what was being done. My purpose was to publish a human, accessible and authoritative understanding of the hi-tech reach and nature of American power and its political project – along with its integration of such allies as the British state. It never occurred to me, or presumably Hayden although he cheerfully regarded me as ‘uninteresting’, that we might find ourselves on the same side against the White House. Yet today, perhaps because he has a special duty to protect the system he created from Trump’s unrestricted use, Hayden has called on the intelligence community he once headed to prepare to defy its Commander in Chief, even to the point of joining forces with journalists and academics. He has just written in the New York Times:

There have to be limits… These are truly uncharted waters for the country. We have in the past argued over the values to be applied to objective reality, or occasionally over what constituted objective reality, but never the existence or relevance of objective reality itself. …intelligence agencies are in the bunker with some unlikely mates: journalism, academia, the courts, law enforcement and science — all of which, like intelligence gathering, are evidence-based… The historian Timothy Snyder stresses the importance of reality and truth in his cautionary pamphlet, “On Tyranny.” “To abandon facts,” he writes, “is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power because there is no basis upon which to do so.” He then chillingly observes, “Post-truth is pre-fascism.”

Traditionally, Hayden continues, the US relied on the "truth-telling" of its intelligence agencies "to protect us from our enemies". Now, he concludes, "we need it to save us from ourselves".

I could gloat. I could say that my opposition in the face of his reassurance has been vindicated. Four years ago, in response to my questions, Hayden agreed that there is a "potential for abuse" - but he insisted that the intelligence the US agencies gathered on citizens was just that, raw information not based on "suspicion". It would not be used to deprive people of their liberty and therefore its gathering was not "Stasi-like" (The Stasi were the East German communist state security). Today, Hayden knows better than anyone the full Stasi-like tyrannical consequences, should Trump smash aside the USA’s constitutional restrictions as fake, and access at will and for his own purposes America’s security and surveillance systems. But of course I’m not gloating. It is tremendously important and very welcome that Hayden is appalled by the dangers of Trump unleashed.

Yet it seems (I’ve not read his forthcoming book) that Hayden seeks a straightforward restitution of America’s Enlightenment principles. What, however, if these are broken rather than being merely under threat? The three billion dollars a year spent on lobbying has captured Washington. Gerrymandering and voter suppression is being coordinated by the American oligarchy and its media. Domestically, the politics of what is now happening in the USA goes back to the neoliberal assault on government itself, launched by Ronald Reagan when he proclaimed that government is the problem not the solution. Abroad, recklessness was reinforced by the attempt to conquer Iraq. Those who fight a monster must beware of becoming one. Instead of treating him as a vile criminal, the US declared a trillion dollar ‘war’ on Bin Laden. The result is that it now has its own megalomaniac, pornophile, hirsute if bouffanty son of a property developer as its leader, who also supports teleological fundamentalism in the Middle East.

Hayden is right to see the arrival of bin Trump in the White House as a rupture. It does indeed represent a qualitatively new threat. All hands are needed to defeat it or catastrophe could ensure. But as part of this we are also obliged to take a measure of the forces that drive Trumpism.

The excruciating paradox of Trumpism is twofold. First, it is rooted in the anti-political, let-it-rip economics of Reaganism and the deceits and over-reach of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld: it is an extreme expression of the deceitful era that gave birth to it. Second, at the same time it rides the rage of opposition to that era and its consequences and presents itself as the most ferocious opponent of the fraudulent elite - which Trump in fact personifies.

This is a painful matter to try and understand; let me try to show what I mean with an example. In 2002, at the same time as Hayden created the machinery of warrantless surveillance under the order of George W. Bush, New York Times reporter Ron Suskind interviewed a Bush advisor. The advisor taunted Suskind as being from the ‘reality-based community’. Suskind responded by calling on enlightenment values and empirical facts, just as Hayden does now. He was waved aside and was told, "That's not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality". The advent of ‘post-truth’ that Hayden rightly excoriates did not begin with Trump, even if he takes it to a new, worse level. Hayden seeks to restore a tough-minded reality-based government, as if it remains intact beneath the debris of 2016 waiting to be saved. He was, I’m afraid, part of the advance wrecking team that began its demolition at the start of the century.

It follows that Trump supporters are not completely mistaken in seeing the American constitutional and economic order as rigged. It was and is rigged unfairly against regular citizens. In a formidable and compelling talk, Michael Sandel points to the undoubted truth of this, now also published as part of the openDemocracy debate on the future of democracy. Of course, in all their whiteness, many Trump supporters seek an intolerable supremacist outcome. But even they want a society that works for and includes them in a way that the neoliberal settlement of the last thirty years increasingly did not. Today, what America needs is a democratic refounding of the republic, if it is to achieve principled, honest government.

This means we have to take Trumpism and the hard right seriously not only as an irrational threat capable of destroying the checks and institutions essential to democracy and liberty, but also a force that does have an empirical claim on reality. Its repudiation of the previous order has some justice to it, even if its response does not. Simply calling for Trump to be stopped is too feeble a response, therefore, and is unlikely to succeed; as Hungarians have just learnt with Orbán and the Brits are learning with Brexit. We have to dig deeper. The Hard Right is an ongoing process. Its claims need to be challeneged by an alternative vision and a different direction. It is not credible to call for a reversion to the way politics was conducted before 2016.

In America a small torrent of post-Trump books are struggling with this issue and its ominous implications – generating a ‘crisis of democracy’ literature. In a magisterial review of seven of them in Dissent, Jedediah Purdy observes, "What is missing from these works, and the commentariat that they represent, is a genuine reckoning with twenty-first-century questions: whether we have ever been democratic, and whether the versions of capitalism that have emerged in the last forty years are compatible with democracy".

At least in his new book, Counter-Revolution, Liberal Europe in Retreat, Zielonka poses the issue of whether democracy and neoliberalism are incompatible. He does not provide an answer; yet he emphasises, correctly in my view, there can be no way forward without a confronting what went wrong. In his article that started these exchanges Fawcett agrees that there has been a "long failure by the liberal centre to keep democratic liberalism in good repair". He provides a vivid list, both conceptual and strategic, from misbegotten wars to the financial crash. Yet the metaphor of repair suggests that these were merely accidents and there were no fundamental flaws with the way the world was run after 1945.

Seeking to flush him out, Zielonka concludes by posing a British question:

If liberals want to forge an alliance with the left, as Fawcett suggests, then the questions regarding the common program become pertinent. Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto envisages limited renationalisation, a state investment bank, £250 billion borrowing program, and a £50 billion tax redistribution plan. Are liberals happy to endorse this package? I hope they are, or else they can forget about a common front against the hard right’.

I’m looking forward to Fawcett’s answer. Mine is twofold. Certainly I support what seems to me a moderate, Keynesian effort to share the wealth and potential of a rich but grossly unequal country. I also back the radicalism implicit in it, of breaking from austerity. However, Labour will not be in a position to implement any such programme unless it also prevents Brexit.

Brexit is a hard right project, framed by xenophobia and certain to generate adverse international conditions that will frustrate any egalitarian expansion of the UK’s economy. ‘Lexiteers’ - those on the left who support a left-wing version of Brexit - claim that leaving the EU will free a Corbyn government to pursue a socialist path unconstrained by Brussels. They seem to believe that Wall Street and Frankfurt will become Corbyn’s friends; and will help ensure that Britain’s chronic balance of payments deficit continues to be funded so that the City of London can be taxed by radical social democrats who seek a new model of egalitarian government. In fact, of course, if it is outside of the EU the markets will exploit the UK’s isolation to break any such progressive project. The point of the hard Brexit sought by hedge-fund millionaires like the leading Brexiteer MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, is to ensure the United Kingdom’s vulnerability to global finance. Which takes us back to the need for alliance building against the threat of the hard right.

In my country, the starting point is to be positively European. Whatever the drawbacks of the European Union, especially its governing Lisbon Treaty, our continent is the battle ground for our future. The English need to be there to help win it, or our democracy could be lost.



The Lure of Greatness, England’s Brexit & America’s Trump – Anthony Barnett

“Brilliant”, Suzanne Moore, “Blistering”, Zadie Smith

“A dazzling, all-encompassing, big picture analysis of the Brexit vote, easily the best of its kind in print, brilliantly written and endlessly thought-provoking. Do read it.” Andrew Sparrow, Editor, Guardian Politics Live
“Responding to momentous events with deep and passionate arguments… for his verve, range and insatiable urge to take on vast themes, Barnett deserves loud applause… this is a very good book.” John Harris, New Statesman

“The best book about Brexit so far… brilliantly caustic, there is some comfort in that Barnett has been right about so much before.” Fintan O’Toole, Irish Times

“One of the most important political books of 2017”, The Guardian Editorial on Renewing the United Kingdom, 1 January 2018

“Essential reading for students of politics, constitutional law and international relations.” Professor David Marquand

“A wonderful and compelling page turner that artfully weaves together debates on freedom, security, liberty, sovereignty and nationalism. Cutting across a range of themes from the power of the press to the problems with the political establishment and manipulative corporate populism, this is a book that deserves to be read.” Natalie Fenton, Goldsmiths Professor of Media and Communications


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