Henry George

The Will of Some People: Ideological Liberalism & Its Discontents

August 1, 2018

Many books bemoaning the decay (or fall) of Western liberal democracy–from Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism and Bill Emmott’s The Fate of the West: The Battle to Save the World’s Most Successful Political Idea, to Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying America—have been published since the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election threw the global liberal establishment into despair about the state of the journey towards what it deems a prescribed liberal, secular future. Though many of them, and the viewpoint they present, have something valuable to say about the pitfalls and risks of unthinking populist nationalism, they simultaneously display a rather narrow purview on both history and politics. That the most pervasive liberal reaction to the 2016 American election was the feeling that this wasn’t meant to happen, something’s awry and we’re suddenly on the wrong track shows not just that the ‘end of history’ was a working thesis for the liberal elites, but that their purported universalism has already hardened into an ideological dogma that blinds them to the possibility of outcomes other than those they believe ordained.

This essay will consider the challenges and rebukes to this worldview that have grown more prevalent over the last few years. The European situation will be looked at first. The focus will then move into the Middle East, where the practicalities of government will be considered in the context of a religious and civic heritage that seems to be even more at odds with the liberal perspective as compared to Europe. The trends and events analysed are not exclusively ‘good’ or ‘bad’, nor should they be read in such terms. There is far more nuance to them, and tracing their outlines with too broad or negative a brush can bring about the very backlashes that they were aiming to prevent. This doesn’t mean that these tendencies aren’t problematic, nor does it help to excuse them to any ideological avail. That only muddles the picture and our ability to see it clearly.

Over the past fifteen to twenty years, numerous events in Europe have shown that those who presume to govern—with or without the consent of the people—have, for the most part, got things wildly wrong. Successive failures in all areas, from domestic politics to economics, through international relations, foreign policy and strategy, have yet to shake the continent’s administration into facing just how grave and challenging its situation is.

The ‘return of history’ fever that gripped many in David Goodhart’s ‘anywhere’ circles since 2016 is ironic, since many people in Western Europe had already become privy to the fact that history had never ended (something that their Eastern European counterparts, it must be said, never contested). The shock exhibited following Brexit, Trump’s victory and the surge in populist movements across Europe is evidence of an ideologised worldview invested in historicism that sheltered its adherents from the realities of history and the world.

As Carl Ritter writes in Quillette, the political and opinion leaders of Europe persisted in their “dreams of a borderless world united in peace and understanding” and on a trajectory towards “ever greater cultural and political uniformity”, leaving behind the innately problematic concepts of nations, borders and (sometimes irreconciliably) different cultures. This particular historicism—the belief in inexorable progress towards a uniform utopia—was typically held by a small number of people and based on a flawed conception of tradition and history. The so-called “movement liberalism” adhered to by those who run the EU and the European nations increasingly came to resemble the ideology described by Ryszard Legutko in The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, where he argues that modern liberalism has become as ideologically inflexible as the socialism he dissented from. As he sees it, the two are skeptical—if not overtly hostile—to the past and they share the belief in a utopian terminus that must be reached through politics. Within this frame, persuasion—rather than indoctrination— is preferred to keep enthusiasts, and the enemy of progress is tradition and its institutions.

Though Legutko’s thesis is flawed, his overall point may be valid. As Shadi Hamid notes, liberalism today “does not necessarily entail ideological neutrality, since [it] itself emerges from a set of ideological and philosophical assumptions regarding religion, human nature, and the state. Liberalism only offers neutrality within itself.” In short, you can be whoever or whatever you want to be as long as you do it the ‘right’ way. This is what Dani Rodrik means when he writes on how “liberal” is emphasised over “democracy”. What we are currently observing is the pendulum swinging away from this perspective of the world, as evidenced by recent elections in Austria, Hungary, Germany, Italy and Poland. What the results of this may be, for good or ill, remains to be seen, but we should consider the deeper reasons that brought us to where we are now, and the defects in reasoning that led us to our current situation.

In Populism and the European Culture Wars: The Conflict of Values between Hungary and the EU, Frank Furedi explains how the European Commission—namely, the body that runs the EU—has a fundamental problem with the concepts of authority and tradition, and how the two relate to the idea of the nation-state. This translates into a contempt for populism, which is used as a term of derision for those who deal with these ideas and beliefs in current politics. He observes how the main points of contention between the EU and populist forces concern memory and the role of the nation-state. For the European Commission, history began in 1945. This ‘year-zero’ or historicist approach stems from an underlying distrust in the past and in how things were done before the end of World War II. But this approach to history is reductive. Under the sway of Habermas’ notion of ‘unquestioned tradition’ and the part it supposedly played in the rise of the Nazis and the end-point of the Final Solution, it shows a pathologised perspective that thinks of history, uncritically examined and informed by tradition, as a one-way street to the gas chambers. In some sense, this is the Whig interpretation of history, but leading inevitably to genocide.

Those who use populism as a pejorative think that anyone who looks to the past and the traditions that reside therein for inspiration is a hostage to nostalgia, and dangerous as a result. While it’s important not to live in the past at the expense of the present—a problem that afflicts both sides of the political spectrum—there should be little issue with looking to our Judeo-Christian heritage for meaning and guidance on how to conduct ourselves as individuals or as part of a collective with a common purpose. Traditions provide us with a ‘normative foundation’, as Furedi calls it, from which to build societal cohesiveness and invest our government with the prestige of historical legitimacy.

The idea of the terminal teleology of tradition is furthermore debatable. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt argued that the totalitarian state which arose in Nazi Germany resulted from the hacking away at the continuity afforded us by European traditions, one rooted in the confluence of Judaism, Christianity and the Hellenistic world. This was also a point presciently made by both Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche with regard to Russia’s rapid de-Christianisation and its subsequent embrace of Communism. In this light, tradition can be a safeguard against the horrors of the last century and the possibility of repeating them in ours. That it was so galling for the EU to include any reference to its grounding in Christianity in its own constitution because it might be thought of as exclusionary speaks volumes as to its confusion when it comes to history.

Furedi does quote Habermas saying that “[t]radition means, after all, that we continue something as unproblematic, which others have started and demonstrated. We normally imagine that these ‘predecessors’, if they stood before us face to face, could not completely deceive us, that they could not play the role of a deus malignus. I for one think that this basis of trust has been destroyed by the gas chambers”. But naturally, this doesn’t mean tradition was or should be thoughtlessly embraced. In Authority: A Sociological History, Furedi reminds us that, in medieval Europe, traditions were not often taken at face value, even as their assumed truth did serve as a guide for life. He also considers Joachim Friedrich, who argued that tradition was integral to reason itself and not just “unrelated to reason and reasoning [but] often the very basis of reasoning and rational argument”. Tradition is only a problem when it becomes an end-unto-itself: an ideology. Anticipating Jordan Peterson’s suggestion about bridging the divide between the conservative emphasis on tight borders and tradition and the liberal openness to new ideas and involvements, Friedrich stood for a balance between relying on past experience for wisdom and meaning and the use of reason for adapting to the present.

This is the central problem that the EU faces as an institution. Because it has no normative foundation, it relies on a technocracy for its authority instead, inspiring little loyalty as a system. Apart from when its actions directly impinge on our daily existence, it is nearly a meaningless abstraction. Ever since it expanded its mission beyond simply providing an avenue to economic prosperity in the seventies, it has been struggling to carve an historical place for itself. But this is extremely difficult to accomplish with its ‘year-zero’ historicism which, while perhaps understandable, carries the cost of estranging us from a past the benefits of which may still outweigh its negatives.

Furedi also mentions Arendt’s essay “What is Authority” from Between Past and Future, where she claims that “without a securely anchored tradition—and the loss of this security occurred several hundred years ago—the whole dimension of the past has been endangered”. Through the EU’s suppression of even the possibility of rediscovery for our historic, philosophical and religious traditions, it is much harder for the EU—and ourselves—to extract the ‘ought’ from the EU’s institutional ‘is’. As Arendt puts it, we risk depriving ourselves of an entire “dimension, the dimension of depth in human existence.” This depth can only be distinguished through reflection on the past in light of the present, as “memory and depth are the same [when] depth cannot be reached by man except through remembrance.” The EU’s refusal to consider this, and the recrimination that befalls whomever does, implies its project is erected on an historical vacuum devoid of memorial ruins,  lacking both meaning and grounded authority. The EU has appealed, instead, to Weber’s notion of authority on rational grounds (one based on the belief in the validity of legal rules as issued through legal authority.) But this coldly rational view of governance linked to faith in economic growth has its limits. As Jacques Delors put it, “nobody falls in love with a growth rate.”

Given the turmoil of the Eurozone in recent years, these matters make the EU increasingly unstable, a situation worsened by its repudiation of the nation-state. From the eighties onward, any interest in national history was perceived as suspicious and, in some circles, ‘national history’ was immediately partnered to xenophobic politics. This again revealed the fear that national sentiment, like historical, religious and philosophical tradition, would inexorably lead to the gas chambers, as evidenced by Jean Claude-Juncker’s 2013 remark that growing support for various nationalist parties reminded him of the thirties.

As Natan Sharansky argues in Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy, the EU would rather that the people who live on the continent simply gave up their national attachments altogether. As the EU federalists see it, the best way to legitimise their project is to weaken people’s ties to their nation and their national identity, and to redirect their loyalties to the EU itself. Furedi lays out that this attack on the idea of nationhood and national sentiment has been ongoing since the twenties and thirties. Pedro Martín Correa-Arroyo has even called for a more European history of Europe, “in detriment, to a certain extent, of the traditional national historical traditions”. He has argued that “we are witnessing the process of the ‘denationalisation of history’”, one that has gone hand in hand with the discrediting of feelings of national belonging, especially since the nineties, when the emphasis on cosmopolitan identity came to the fore.

In his recent book, Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen describes how liberalism leads to the removal of the communal instantiations between the individual and the state. These mediating entities were what gave individuals freedom and the ability to develop liberalism to begin with. Once freed from these constraints, the individual is left to rely on the state to continually ensure his freedom, producing the phenomenon of the atomised individual who is bound to, but lives in fear of, the state Leviathan. This encapsulates what the EU is seeking to do with the nation-state. It wants to free people from what it sees as the prejudicial and exclusionary concept of the nation but, in order to do so, it seems to be attempting to remove constraints on populations that, to use Arthur Milikh’s terminology, engender civility, encouraging a ‘re-barbarisation’ of the European continent. Influential thinkers such as Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens have stated that “from a cosmopolitan point of view, diversity is not the problem; it is the solution.” This has led to the attack by intellectuals like Habermas and Jan-Werner Muller of the very concept of speaking for ‘the people’ which, in its various forms, has always been the cornerstone of democratic representation.

This view of the nation-state is connected to the outlook on tradition mentioned earlier. Both are thought to be accountable for the horrors of the twentieth century. As such, the only way to secure peace and prosperity into the future is to do away with them in favour of a heavy-handed technocracy that bestows legitimacy to the EU apparatus. But people need constraints or rules within which to operate. Without them, one is lost in a sea of infinite choice, paralysed by inaction, which leads to misery and nihilism (i.e., the phenomenon that Zygmunt Bauman calls liquid modernity). To counter this, Sharanksy offers, the identity that people gain from their feelings of national attachment gives them something to hold on to, to live for and to engage with as a connection to the world beyond oneself, instilling a sense that one is part of something greater and layering our lives with meaning. This connection provides the links between parents and children and between fellow citizens; it also ushers in a sentiment of solidarity and obligation to those who are dead and, crucially, to those who are yet to be born. Instead of producing the weak atomised individual of Deneen’s book, identity is used to strengthen the individual, who is then linked to other individuals through a common sense of purpose, giving a sense of a communal self, of a singular ‘we’.

The EU seems not to realise that its ‘year-zero’ historicism has blinkered it to the risks it is taking by encouraging the disintegration of the nation-state and ignoring the strength that people can gain from the sense of identity it gives. If the public intellectuals and those in charge of policy looked seriously at history before the twentieth century, they might come to acknowledge that the nation-state is probably essential to providing the order that ensures stability, and that it has been one of the better protections against external and inter-tribal violence in the history of humanity. The EU consistently betrays its faith in technocratic government by presiding over a population split into different sub-national identity groups. Rousseau is much too celebrated, and too little heed is paid to Hobbes.

Were the European Commission not as wedded to this skewed historiography, it might be better able to appreciate it in its full complexity and not so hasty to dismiss the nation-state. It might not show such a profound disdain for those who still see value in it as a way of building a society that has cohesion and a sense of community and purpose. In doing so, the EU could be creating the conditions for the kind of violent turmoil it was designed to avoid in the first place. Pierre Manent explains that the attitude towards transnationalism that the EU exemplifies provokes resentment and anxieties that are now surfacing across the Western world. He suggests humanity is “too large and too diverse” to proffer meaningful communion. “I cannot prove that the nation-state is the only viable form”, he says. “But what I’m sure about is that to live a fully human life, you need a common life and a community. This is a Greek idea, a Roman idea, a Christian idea.” Given the growth of tribalism and the rise in postmodern inflected identity-politics throughout the Western world, the EU’s attempts to go all in on this seems foolhardy to say the least, especially considering the history of tribal violence that ravaged Europe up to 1648. As Spencer Case states in his essay on Orwellian patriotism, though love to one’s country must be disciplined and civilised, it does provide the best foundation for popular loyalty, and the attempt to suppress it—as the EU is trying to do—is counterproductive and could be destructive, given the tribalist forces it’s helping unleash.

Though tradition and national sentiment should never, of course, go unchallenged; neither tradition—which informs how we act in the present—nor the nation-state as the basis for communal existence are inherently harmful. In its use of ‘populism’ as a purely negative term with which to smear anyone who goes against its form of technocratic government, the EU should be wary of displaying the parochialism that is so characteristic of self-issued universalists and accept the possibility that those who disagree with its peculiar outlook on tradition and history are not intrinsically evil or wrong. Regrettably, this self-reflection is hardly on its horizon.

Moving to the Middle East, we can see similar tensions in the debate surrounding the role of religious tradition and its interaction with or direction of government. Shadi Hamid has explored these questions in his book Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Shaping the World. At bottom, Hamid’s basic argument “is that Islam is, in fact, exceptional in how it relates to politics, law and governance. In both theory and practice, Islam has been, is and will continue to be resistant to secularization. In other words, Islam is […] fundamentally different than other major religions.” According to Hamid, there are two reasons why Islam is different to Judaism and Christianity. First, and due to the different founding moments of each, the intertwining of religion and politics is specific to Islam. Christ, for example, was a dissident against the ruling Roman superpower, but the New Testament doesn’t contain much detail on law or governance.

Muhammad is an altogether different matter. He was a cleric, a theologian and a prophet as well as a statesman, a warlord and a politician. His religious and political functions were combined in the person of Muhammad and in the persona of the Prophet Muhammad, such that the politics and religion of Islam are inextricably joined, and—for most Muslims—inseparably so. From an external vantage, it could be safely claimed that the Quran resulted from a set of historical circumstances. We could even consider the counterfactual that the Prophet Muhammad was unable to capture territory—though, were this the case, the Quran would say far less about law and governance. However, and because he did go on to conquer territory, to hold it and to govern it, the Quran had to address these matters out of necessity.

As Hamid states, “while Muslims aren’t bound to their founding moment, they can’t fully escape their founding moment either. There have been secularists and liberals, particularly in the last century, who have argued for some kind of separation of religion from politics or some kind of privatization of religion. They can make those arguments, but it’s a hard sell because, in effect, they have to argue against the prophetic model. They have to deal with this fact of history that Prophet Muhammad intertwined both religious and political functions.” This leads into the second reason for Islamic exceptionalism: that of the Quran’s perfection. Christianity does not have an equivalent to this; the Bible is not literally the word of God, whereas the Quran is, literally, God’s speech: “there is no human mediation, or interference, or any kind of involvement of that sort.” In Christianity, the analogue to the Quran is not the New Testament, but Christ himself: the “Word made flesh.” All this is added to the fact that, in Christianity, there is a clear divide between divine and earthly powers—“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”. Islam has no such parallel.

These circumstances have profound implications for the way that politics is practiced in the Middle East. As Hamid tells it, the central question majority Muslim states are dealing with today is how Islam should relate to modern politics in the wake of the collapse of the last Caliphate, in the shape of the Ottoman Empire, in 1924. The fact that this has taken almost a century to process demonstrates the complexity of the issue. In Hamid’s view, what we call Islamism is a response to secular modernity, a way of asserting one’s “Islamic-ness”, the basic premise of which is that Islam was the natural setting for believing Muslims, thus resolving—or dissolving—matters of ideology at once. This, in turn, passes through strengthening one’s identity as a Muslim because, as Sharansky furthers in his defence of identity, it provides the strength of meaning through which to face modernity.

Movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, An-Nahda in Tunisia and the Turkish AK Party are modernist in that they are products of modernity, and the political expression of the effort to marry pre-modern Islam with modern politics in their own ways.  It’s undeniable that in some Muslim countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, a majority want Islam to play a major role in politics and governance; while in others, like Turkey, the levels are much lower. As Hamid admits, there is considerable variation between states in how much influence Islam has or will have, and he makes the argument that “it’s up to the people of the region to decide what’s best for themselves through a democratic process that would play out over time.” However, even where “secular” parties win in religiously conservative countries, they downplay their secularism and assert their Islamic credentials, as has happened in Malaysia and Indonesia. This gives rise to the phenomenon of Islamism sans Islamists.

And this is finally where we connect back to the European case. There is no guarantee, for instance, that Muslim majority countries—even if governed by supposedly secular rulers—will move along the same path towards secularisation we in the West have. As Hamid says, “[t]hese assumptions about history’s inexorable movement aren’t necessarily made explicit, but they colour much of our discourse about the Middle East”. There is a desire among many in Europe’s intellectual classes for Muslims to embrace Western secular liberalism, and a confused anger that many may not want to. We find it difficult to envision democracy without secular liberalism. As Francis Fukuyama explained, “[t]hat [liberalism] and individualism seems today like a solid core of our political behaviour is only because we have developed institutions that override our more naturally communal instincts”. Among the overwhelmingly secular intellectual elite and the public at large, there is also little understanding as to the depth to which religion matters, a point made by Douglas Murray. He further insists that increasing numbers among the political and opinion elite who argued that our Western values aren’t really Western, but universal, are perhaps beginning to wake up to the notion that the progress we’ve experienced in the West for the past 200 years may have been a blip in time, but no universal phenomenon.

On the other hand, when it comes to issues like Islamism and Islamist parties gaining political power, the picture grows murky. While Hamid’s arguments about Islam and its relationship to politics and how these differ from Christianity’s can be accepted, his idea that Islamism is probably the best answer to modern politics does not stack up. One need only look at the murderous chaos in Pakistan, where religiously motivated blasphemy violence against political figures is rife, to see that Islamism, as Hamid describes it, is not a recipe for a stable or prosperous society. As Claire Berlinski has noted, Hamid also seems to have little grasp of the fact that the conflict in Turkey is not between liberal determinist secularists and the Islamist AK Party, but between two Islamist factions: the AK Party and the Gulen movement, “an international network of schools, businesses, and media outlets led by the septuagenarian preacher Fethullah Gulen”.

While Hamid’s remarks about Western liberal determinism are worthy, there is also the danger of succumbing to the bigotry of low expectations. Berlinski quotes the Turkish journalist Nuray Mert, who calls the trend of recognising the Islamists’ point of view as “democracy bon pour l’Orient”, or democracy that’s good enough for the Orient. In other words, we shouldn’t expect too much of these people; they’re not advanced enough in their thinking to achieve the heights of our liberal democracy, so they can have a semblance of democracy, democracy that’s ‘good enough’ for them. Adopting this approach risks abandoning those whom Maajid Nawaaz calls the ‘minority within the minority’, those Muslims who don’t fit the right box: liberal Muslims, dissenting Muslims, gay Muslims, atheists and secularists. Undoubtedly, some of this undercurrent streams along the discourse round this subject; a fact made evident in the reaction to the events in Iran late last year. It is a concern that Hamid maybe excuses this—or feeds it—with his neutral-to-sympathetic portrayal of the organisations he describes, especially when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood, an entity responsible for much of the ideological fuel behind contemporary jihadism. These are not the doomed heroes that Hamid wants us to see them as.

He does, however, have a point when he describes the coup in 2013 that saw the democratically elected Mohammed Morsi and his Brotherhood government ousted by General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi. The remarkable thing about this coup was that the most liberal segment of Egypt’s population—later dubbed ‘anti-Islamist’—was overwhelmingly in support of it, which brings into relief the tensions between ideological liberalism and democracy. To put it neatly, liberalism is a set of ideas that developed in the West, expanding the set of rights and liberties available to more and more people gradually over time. Democracy as we know it came afterwards. But because democracy has become such an assumed good, it’s now impossible for the same process—liberalism, then democracy—to be replicated elsewhere.

It seems that those who supported the Egyptian coup were happier with an unelected ruler who was allegedly secular and might uphold their liberal values than with a democratically elected leader who was part of an Islamist party. This is reminiscent of the approach taken by the EU regarding Brexit, the actions of Hungary and Poland and countries voting the ‘wrong’ way in other referenda. The difference is the EU uses political and economic, rather than military, force to push its ideological agenda. The irony, at least when it comes to the Middle East, is that in order to prevent Morsi’s complete subversion of democracy, Sisi himself had to subvert democracy completely, repressing the same liberals that helped him come to power. He has also since proclaimed himself the guardian of the Muslim faith, thereby demonstrating Hamid’s point that one does not need Islamists for Islamism. By supporting Sisi, Egypt’s liberals not only undermined their own democracy but also the liberalism they had hoped he would protect. They, and those in charge of the EU, have mirrored each other; by taking the actions they did, they brought about the very outcomes they were striving to prevent.



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—–. The Origins of Totalitarianism. London: Penguin, 2017.
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The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society. Pew Research Centre: Religion and Public Life, 30 April, 2013.



Henry George is a freelance writer living in the UK. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London, and has written for publications including Merion West and Quillette.

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