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Liberalism in Theory and Practice

Contemporary liberals are temperamentally conservative — and what they want to conserve is a morally bankrupt political order.

Emmanuel Macron waves as he arrives on stage to delivers a speech during a campaign rally at Bercy Arena on April 17, 2017 in Paris. Sylvain Lefevre / Getty

“In political activity . . . men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel.”

―Michael Oakeshott

Probably no one of my generation and background will forget where they were on the evening of November 4, 2008. Outside my then-residence at the University of Toronto, people streamed into the quad with tears running down their faces. It was a moment like no other I have experienced. The seemingly impossible had happened: Barack Obama had been elected president of the United States. Within minutes of CNN projecting the result, a collective feeling that was equal parts euphoria and disbelief seemed to burst forth all over. It took weeks, maybe even months, to dissipate.

The election of Barack Obama certainly isn’t my first political memory, but it may well have been my first really formative one. As embarrassing as it is to write more than a decade later, I’ll readily admit to having been swallowed up in the excitement and emotionally sold on the romantic promise of “Change We Can Believe In.” It offered a compelling narrative incorporating everything my political imagination craved at the time: an image of progress as I then understood it; a charismatic leader to take us out of the darkness and into the promised land; the negation of the hated Bush presidency and all it stood for, from the reign of the Christian Right and its dimwitted rubes to the evils of Fallujah and Abu Ghraib. I wasn’t even American, but Obama’s victory still felt like a moment of grand, even historic, affirmation.

I bring this up not because I have since become a left-wing writer and seek penance, or want to issue some embarrassed mea culpa (we were all nineteen once), nor as part of some reductive effort to trace the roots of my own politicization back to a single event or moment. I came to my politics the way most people do: by way of a confused and often contradictory jumble of ideas and idioms gradually clarified through learning and experience.

On a basic level, I am a socialist because I simply cannot fathom reconciling myself to a society where so many needlessly suffer because of circumstances beyond their control; where human dignity is distributed on the basis of luck and a social caste system is allowed to permeate every aspect of daily life; and where all of this is considered perfectly normal and acceptable in a civilization that has split the atom and sent people to the Moon.

But while it would be nice to attribute everything about my politics to pure moral sentiment, it would be a lie. Because the less noble truth, if I’m honest with myself and the reader, is that something else has played a formative role in animating my politics and anchoring me on the Left: namely, a searing dislike for liberalism as the hegemonic outlook in our culture and a deep, abiding disdain towards the political class that so self-righteously upholds it.

Maybe I was predisposed to democratic socialism; I always considered myself to be “on the Left,” even as a teenager. In any case, it’s become clear in retrospect that watching the liberal class respond to events over the past decade has been a powerful stimulus in my politicization.

Which is to say, I didn’t acquire radical politics simply through reading Marx in college (though it certainly aided the process). Nor did I become irredeemably frustrated with liberalism merely by absorbing some abstract argument about its flaws. I didn’t have a Road to Damascus revelation while thumbing through some volume by Chomsky or David Harvey. And while I would certainly count them as formative to my political evolution, it wasn’t the likes of Ralph Miliband and Tony Benn — let alone Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn — who ultimately imbued me with a burning hatred for anything and everything that calls itself “moderate” or “centrist.”

No, that instinct owes much more to watching Barack Obama summon forth a tidal wave of popular goodwill, then proceed to invite the same old cadre of apparatchiks and financiers back into the White House to carry on business as usual despite the most punishing economic crisis since the Great Depression; to seeing the “war on terror” become a permanent fixture of the global landscape long after its original architects had been booted from the halls of power, courtesy of supposedly enlightened humanitarians; to witnessing a potentially monumental hunger for change be sacrificed on the altar of managerialism and technocratic respectability. It comes from watching a smiling Nick Clegg stand next to David Cameron in the Rose Garden at Number 10 Downing Street before rubber-stamping a series of lacerating cuts to Britain’s welfare state and betraying a generation of students in the process; to seeing the dexterity by which Canada’s liberals gesture to the left then govern from the right; and from seeing the radical demands of global anti-austerity movements endlessly whittled down and regurgitated as neoliberal slam poetry to be recited at Davos by the hip young innovators du jour.

These triangulations, and many others like them, helped me realize that the malaise was the product of a congenital trait rather than a temporary blip. The problem, in other words, wasn’t that contemporary liberalism was failing to live up to its ideals, but that it was living up to them all too well.

From an early age I had been trained by mainstream political culture to think of liberalism as an orientation synonymous with change, progress, even dissent. This, in theory at least, remains its official branding in our moment of looming climate catastrophe and ascendent right-wing nationalism. Yet throughout the particularly dark decade spanning 2008–2018 liberals have positioned themselves as the persistent agents of caution, hesitation, and reassurance, often directing greater hostility towards constituencies on the Left than those on the Right to which they are ostensibly opposed. Faced with the choice between a radical, populist figure and an orthodox machine politician in 2016, the executive officers at Liberalism Inc. made this antipathy all too clear — and we are now living the disastrous consequences.

In an era where a deranged former reality star possesses nuclear launch codes, many liberal elites still adamantly insist that things have actually never been better and that, beneath the chaos of our tumultuous present, the species is doggedly marching in a straight line towards Something Very Exciting Indeed. (This is why the beaming Steven Pinker, not the dour Jordan Peterson, is arguably the figure who best reflects our liberal order in crisis — watching the world burn around him and proclaiming like some postmodern Professor Pangloss as the flames lick his feet that, actually, this is fine.)

Modern liberalism, of course, has in its past a rich and diverse philosophical tradition from which socialists and conservatives alike have occasionally been able to draw resources and inspiration. But perhaps because it’s been a victim of its own success or because it has failed to meaningfully adapt since its most recent high watermark in the 1990s, today’s liberal mainstream seems less concerned with ideas than with temperament and more driven by mood than mind.

This may be the reason liberal thought endlessly obsesses over the language used in political debate and often seems to place a higher value on its tone and quality than on its content or outcome. It’s also why, I suspect, today’s grinning Trudeaus and Obamas seem so much more preoccupied with how things are perceived to be going than with how they actually are, and value the sanctity of procedures over the implications they may ultimately have for ordinary people’s lives.

The animating mission here is less to combat injustice than to efficiently manage discontent: to take the temperature of the popular mood, strain it of radical aspiration, then serve it back wrapped in the most aesthetically pleasing package liberalism’s practitioners can assemble, and pray like hell nobody notices when the gold paint loses its luster at the first sign of a market hiccup, budget deficit, foreign intervention, or genuine challenge from the left.

Over time, the act wears thin and the package must be redesigned according to the evolving tastes of prospective consumers in the voting electorate. Borrowing from the world of marketing, liberal politics have thus become an endless and growingly absurd quest to ever so slightly reconfigure rhetoric and blandly repackage the same old policies and ideas as exciting new chapters in our twenty-first century story.

Thus, teflon politicians like Massachusetts representative Joe Kennedy III have trained themselves to confidently issue bold pronouncements that amount to little more than glorified rebranding efforts — the latest being a radically new system of thought the congressman calls “moral capitalism.” (In its own way, this is an even better metaphor for liberalism in crisis than Pinker’s quixotic Enlightenment: the third-generation scion of an aristocratic dynasty trying to seize the mantle of novelty with a slogan you might see used to advertise a seminar out by the airport that turns out to be a pyramid scheme.) It’s an impulse identical to the one that drives Hollywood mega studios to reboot the same franchises over and over again, and it’s also what enables some liberals to believe they will discover the negation of the Trump era in Oprah, Michael Bloomberg, or Beto O’Rourke.

In theory, modern liberalism is a set of ideas about human freedom, markets, and representative government. In practice, or so it now seems to me, it has largely become a political affect, and a quintessentially conservative one at that: a set of reflexes common to those with a Panglossian faith in capitalist markets and the institutions that attempt to sustain them amid our flailing global order. In theory, it is an ideology of progress. In practice, it has become the secular theology of the status quo; the mechanism through which the gilded buccaneers of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and multinational capital rationalize hierarchy and exploitation while fostering resignation and polite deference among those they seek to rule.

Etiquette above equality, manners before morals, procedure ahead of program, conciliation over conflict, private vice over public good, the modern liberal increasingly does politics as the Tory philosopher Michael Oakeshott once recommended: keeping things on an even keel and refusing to set a definitive course. Problem is, while its sun-kissed officers so cheerfully steady things from above deck, the ship is sinking and many of the passengers below have already drowned.