Neoliberalism is dead. Long live new liberalism!

The liberal consensus is over, says Steve Hanson. The chilling signs are everywhere as this year ends. The left must pick it up and reshape it rather than let it fall.

Steve Hanson
21 November 2016
 Kancelaria Premiera. Flickr. Some rights reserved.

EU President Donald Tusk. Photo: Kancelaria Premiera. Flickr. Some rights reserved.After Brexit, a new popular rightwing nationalism has taken flight, not just in Britain but across the globe. Donald Tusk, president of the European Union, in an interview with the German newspaper Bild, said: "as a historian I fear Brexit could be the beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also Western political civilization in its entirety." Jean-Claude Juncker agreed with him.

After Trump, the era of Neoliberalism is over. Even Fukuyama thinks so, the man who wrote The End of History in big letters on the remains of the Berlin Wall in 1989. We were already creeping towards Neoconservatism and now we have a new global populist nationalism. In the Financial Times, Fukuyama explained that the troubles are within, by which he means national economic troubles after the crash of 2008. Whichever way you look at it, he concludes, we are in for a 'rough ride' after Trump. I'm not a liberal in any everyday sense. I aligned myself with a Marxist tradition long ago that critiques the lineage of liberalism that sits easily with laissez-faire capitalism.

The Trump campaign has been one of rhetorical conflation, to understate things significantly, and one big conflation was that of liberalism with political correctness. In many ways there is nothing wrong with a general hegemonic structure of feeling that says we treat each other with respect. In others, it merely ices anaesthetic permafrost over the conflictual nature of social relations. I do have some issues with political correctness and what the last year has shown in great detail is that political correctness heals nothing. Richard Sennett's early, great work teaches us again and again that social structures are not bound completely by harmony and good feeling towards our fellows, but equally by small scale, low-level conflict. The Sociologist Erving Goffman pioneered this view, that cities function through a trillion tiny acts of self-defense and signals of aggression that never lead to actual violence.

What was happening in the political sphere underneath political correctness mirrors these processes. The smiling surface completely belies what is below. Now we see the price we paid for that temporary covering, as the repressed returns as a Monster. Fukuyama says that he isn't surprised this is happening in 2016, in fact he wonders why it took so long. Eight years of confusion and the realisation that the disaster of 2008 would never be righted, that no justice would be given, except for the odd token knighthood withdrawal.

Even those who do not understand this backstory in detail know that there is no justice. The new liberal consensus is over, so let's grasp and reshape the tradition before the centre right do. Let's move towards a new liberal tradition that allows and engages with agonism, meaning that to speak is to fight, not just to reach agreement. But we must move towards a tradition that allows and engages that in a very particular way. For Chomsky, in America, the older liberalism meant daring to discard traditional orthodoxy in order to try new democratic forms. For him, as for me and many other marxists, Enlightenment liberalism hijacked this tradition centuries ago.

In Britain, the history of liberalism is even older, and it is now even more fudged and lazy. Nietzsche described the original one-dimensional man, John Stuart Mill, as the thin reflection of the wider English polity. He still is. I'm not advocating some Nietzschean 'revaluation of values' here. He may not have been an anti-semite, but as R.J. Hollingdale once commented, the ghost of Nietzsche must take some responsibility for the ways in which his own work was used and abused.

But something does need to change at a wider constitutional level, in Britain, and not just at a city-region level. In Manchester, the rails and pavements are ripped up under our feet daily and made anew for the 'Northern Powerhouse' as its people sleep in doorways, in tents, in hidden alleyways. The Stockport Road, the A6, is resurfaced as this situation continues, as the temperature drops below freezing. The horrible, dirty secret that middle class liberals cannot face is that their polity of respect and tolerance called 'political correctness' does not touch these people and never did. In that sense, there was never anything correct, moral or ethical about it. Political correctness guarantees nothing. It always was a linguistic guilt sponge and a method of distinction.

We need to revisit other traditions of ethics and democratic rule. But we must be wary of old tropes, such as the Leveller revolution, as it was virtually a bourgeois revolution. John Rees's recent book on the Levellers reclaims the humans in the movement well, but their lineage has been hijacked again and again by the middle classes, including green groups who blindly bring gentrification to communities, pricing working class residents out of their homes. We need a new kind of 'levelling', of the sort the Ranter Abiezer Coppe gave us. We need a new liberalism that means the right to say the unsayable, but without ever flipping into real conflict. We also need to force those who make decisions on our behalf to listen and base their work on our discussions.

British liberalism, like the British constitution, is a fudge. It is up to us to define the kinds of liberalism we want, in politics, for everyday life, or have it shaped for us by the ugly forces that are emerging. What the left are now facing means that sectarianism and the snubbing of liberal traditions is no longer an option if progress is to be made.

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz once stated that culturally relative liberals would rather die than refuse other beliefs, but preferring death to other beliefs is precisely to refuse other, narrower beliefs. Richard Rorty, replying to Geertz, went so far to outline a liberal tolerance where we 'have become so open-minded that our brains have fallen out.' Geertz describes what Rorty calls a 'collapse of moral confidence' as 'the desperate tolerance of UNESCO cosmopolitanism.'

We might then, dare to extend this sentiment to the blinding glare of the departing European Union. In Manchester, the EU pays for pavements around the failed Co-op bank as it evicts tenants who protest on the roof of a building the Co-op are going to demolish. We need robust complexity. A stronger demand from below, coupled with a flexible, rather than a universal ethic.

It easy to criticise without offering a new way forward. One place we might start again is Robert Unger's post-necessary philosophy. This must be a starting point only, but that project is appropriate for beginning again in a fractured centre. Unger definitely dares to discard traditional orthodoxy in order to try new democratic forms. Unger argues that 'the best hope' for the radical project that 'leftists share with liberals' must come through 'a series of revolutionary reforms in the organization of governments and economies and in the character of our personal relations.'

We need to revisit the liberal tradition and actively rethink it on the left, and to face some uncomfortable truths about its problems, political correctness included. Doing that doesn't make you right wing or pro-laissez faire market ideology. Liberalism, like Postmodernism, might be derided on the left, and I understand why. But like Postmodernism, you might miss it when it's gone.

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