Global heating, environmental collapse and increasing global scarcity: no wonder the politics of perpetual advancement are failing to convince. Progressives must brace themselves for the return of some of their most detested ideas. But dismissing the nostalgists as reactionary can no longer be their response.
Political scientist Michael Freeden talks to Slovene journal Razpotja about rightwing populism’s sub-ideological fantasies, anti-liberalism and political dogmatism, and why there can be no such thing as a democracy without deficits.
You have been studying political ideologies all your professional life. If I asked you, in a straightforward fashion, ‘What is ideology?’ how would you answer?
A competition over the control of public political language. The standard definition goes something like: ‘Ideologies are a set of ideas and opinions, aimed at criticizing, transforming or protecting existing or envisioned social arrangements.’ But for me, the never-ending struggle over the control of public political language is the most fundamental feature of ideologies.
You have said that one of your aims, as a scholar, was to make the study of political thought less elitist: to expand it so as to include more vernacular expressions.
That is right. The main approach in the study of the history of political thought has been to focus on an extended canon of great thinkers. This is, however, not what political thinking is. All of us think politically. That is a very normal activity, in which most of us participate, although at different levels of sophistication and articulation. Of course, it is easier for people like us, trained in reading elaborate political texts, but we must keep an ear open to more vernacular manifestations of political thought, because they have a far greater influence on how societies think of themselves and conceptualize their political arrangements.
Since the fall of the Berlin wall, we have been constantly hearing about the ‘death of ideologies’. Yet in most western countries, political parties remained organized along traditional ideological lines: Socialists and Social Democrats, Christian Democrats, Liberals, Conservatives etc. In the past years, however, we have been experiencing something of a paradox. On the one hand, in many countries, the traditional party structures are breaking down – take the example of France or Italy. On the other hand, we can see a rebirth of extreme ideologies on what you would call the vernacular level: the alt-right is resuscitating the reactionary tradition, the radical left is returning to more belligerent forms of Marxism etc. What do you make of this historical moment?
First of all, ideology is not only what happens inside political parties. Parties are not necessarily good representatives of ideology. By default, they tend to be conservative in their structure and functioning: they are usually the last to accept innovation and to adapt to changes. Second, ideology has never died. Ideologies have continued to exist in subtler forms. Part of the reason why people believed ideologies are no longer relevant is that particular structures of the twentieth century began to falter: but they didn’t disappear, they were restructured under different combinations.
Whenever you think about politics, you ipso facto think ideologically. We all have preferences about the world we want or don’t want to live in, we continue to have arguments about what is just and what is unjust, about how people should be represented – these are all ideological debates. It is a complete mistake by many journalists and also by many academics to suggest that ideologies are dead. They have changed form. I wouldn’t even say that they have been reduced in their ‘traditional’ form: those big, all-encompassing structures that we have in mind when diagnosing the ‘death of ideology were typical for the first half of the twentieth century. People tend to take the interwar period as the measure of all ideologies. That’s why the phrase ‘end of ideology’ was first coined by Daniel Bell in the mid-1950s, when the tensions that characterized the political struggles of the previous decades seemed over. However, the forty-year period between the end of World War One and the post-Stalinist ‘thaw’ was a highly atypical manifestation of ideology. It was the exception to the rule.
What is the rule, then? What would be the typical form of ideology?
A much looser, more flexible, less articulate form, not created from above and parachuted down on society but emerging from bits and pieces of dialogue inside various social groups that coalesce temporarily and form variable shapes.
Can we say that with the internet, we are returning to a more bottom-up approach to ideology, typical before the emergence of centralized mass media such as radio and television?
Partially, but it’s an illusion to think that the internet creates public dialogue. It creates hundreds of thousands of semi-private dialogues, most of which are impenetrable, if anything because of their sheer number. More importantly, they don’t really compete over the control of public political language. They have an ideological political component, but they are too incidental and unstructured. Of course, you have islands of elaborate articulation, but on the whole we are dealing with a highly chaotic scene, which has yet proved incapable of creating much more than temporary disruptions of and contributions to public discourse, which is still originating elsewhere.
What is your take on the rightwing populism that has gained ground in the past years? Can we treat it as a distinct ideology or is it a repudiation of coherent political thought altogether?
It has a minimal coherence. It lacks some of the most fundamental features you would expect from an ideology, such as aiming towards internal coherence, or a consistent plan for social justice. In many ways, rightwing populism reflects the direction in which the media have pushed public discourse: it’s very quick in its construction and its response. I call it fast-food ideology. Rightwing populism across Europe and North America has been boiled down to a number of very simple principles, all of which can be found in other ideologies. What is new, and arguably ‘appealing’, is its unusual combination of principles, which can be combined at will since they are not constrained by any effort towards consistency.
Yet they are quite successful in exploiting a real or perceived crisis of liberalismI wouldn’t say it is so much a crisis of liberalism as it is the crisis of prevailing institutional settings and power structures, which have been partially permeated by some basic liberal ideas. In most European countries, liberalism, as an ideology, doesn’t play a major role: various forms of Socialism and conservatism prevail.
J. A. Hobson wrote a book entitled The Crisis of Liberalism in 1909. That was a criticism of liberalism’s failure to move towards a progressive, left-liberal position: it was a critique directed against the liberal tradition itself. Today, I would contend, the crisis of liberalism and social democracy is in their inability to counter this acerbic and very corrosive populist discourse, which exploits very primitive emotions. In every ideology, imagination is very important, but in rightwing populism, we are dealing not with imagination but with fantasy, and not in a good sense of the word. These fantasies mostly consist of fear over the future, of wild speculations over inherent decline or degradation, of visions of imminent danger. If you let these sorts of fantasies loose on the world, they can spin out of control. The new populists thrive on, and enjoy, propagating them, in order to exacerbate a sense of disorientation, which enables them to present themselves as an anchor of determinacy in a chaotic world.
There is also an element of irreverence against the established order.
Yes, but it’s hypocritical. The populist leaders are themselves part of an establishment. Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage: these are rich people. They are not members of ‘the common people’ whom they claim to represent. Populism doesn’t embody the people in the struggle against the elites; it’s a struggle within the elites, with its more unscrupulous members trying to get a slice of power by claiming to speak in the name of the masses. However, the masses are not allowed to participate actively in these movements. Populists don’t ask the people what they think – they tell them what to think.
Is populism an appropriate term, at all? Wouldn’t ‘demagoguery’ be more appropriate, as the late political scientist Giovanni Sartori suggested?
It is certainly not populism as we know it from the history of the United States in the twentieth century or from Eastern Europe in the ninetenth century. It’s also not populism in the Latin American sense: the populism of Chávez, for example, had some grassroots form of social conscience, which is completely lacking in the rightwing movements which we now associate with this term.
The common enemy of these movements are the ‘liberal elites’ and the ‘liberal order’. The word ‘liberalism’ has become almost a synonym with the ‘established order’. And indeed, after the downfall of state socialism and the demise of Marxism, liberalism was seen as the victorious, default ideology. In the past decades, most political parties in the West and beyond have incorporated elements of liberalism in their program and policies, to the extent that the prevailing practices and institutions have become associated with the ideology that legitimizes them. Would you say that liberalism became the victim of its own success?
This is why I oppose the term ‘liberal world order’. It is liberal only in an extremely narrow sense, insofar as it recognizes some fundamental principles shared by liberalism, such as the rule of law and human rights; a very narrow range of human rights, to be sure. It is true that even this very narrow liberal consensus is now under attack, but I think that is a symptom of something deeper. The main issue is an attempt to recreate certain pasts: to control the national timeline. It’s a competition over whom the national past belongs to, who has the right to define what our history is. We are faced with an attempt by various illiberal forces to monopolize the interpretations of the national past.
Populism is not directed so much against liberalism, as it is against pluralism. Its aim is monism: the attempt to reduce plurality in the name of singularity. There is no place for a mixture of viewpoints: there is the right view, the populist view, because it’s ostensibly the view of the people. And who can contradict the people?
You have stated that you see this phenomenon creeping in post-referendum Britain…
Yes, the Brexit process is a great cultural crisis. In a way, what is happening in Britain is more alarming than what is happening in some continental European countries, because the populist way of thinking has more subtle forms, and it has infiltrated the establishment. When you look at France, Italy or Germany, you have groups that try to impose their views on the mainstream, through fearmongering and demonization of the media and institutions. In the UK, the conservative mainstream, partly unintentionally, has swallowed these ideas. In part, this was from an instinct of self-protection, in order to neutralize the influence of UKIP, which has imploded. I predicted their collapse already last October: they are a single-issue party, and with the main issue gone, they have become irrelevant.
Britain has always been in a peculiar relationship with the rest of Europe, people here tend to speak of ‘Europe’ as if Great Britain wasn’t part of it. That’s why the soil is more favourable for a reluctance to share a common European project. Nevertheless, Britain remains split down the middle over the issue of EU membership. Fifty-two percent voted for leaving, forty-eight for remaining, which is almost the same proportion as in the constitutional referendum in Turkey. And yet, in the case of Turkey, British newspapers wrote about a ‘narrow victory’ for Erdoğan, while in the case of Brexit, all we hear about is ‘the will of the people’. The Conservative Party has assimilated this extreme populist language, without realizing its gravity. It has become very popular to say things like: ‘We cannot frustrate the will of the people.’ The phrase was coined by Nigel Farage, it was picked up by the Conservatives, and now the Labour Party has started using it. It’s an extraordinary language, if you stop for a moment to think about it. ‘Frustration’ is what the democratic process does! It’s a slow, frustrating process and that’s a good thing: you think, you deliberate, negotiate, you have a first reading in the Parliament, then a second reading, or a public inquiry that reports back six months later, polemical exchanges about in the media, discussions among experts and interest groups, etc. This is anathema to populists, who are fixated on the indivisibility of the popular will. Now, it is becoming anathema to Conservatives, as well.
Britain has, not exactly a two-party but, let’s say, a two-and-a-half-party system, which in itself creates a perception of a radical bifurcation. How do you explain that large segments of Labour voters are going to vote Conservative? Is it because they are suddenly attracted to conservative social policies? No: they are attracted to strong leadership. They have this sorry-looking man, Jeremy Corbyn, a man of conscience and principle who has a number of good ideas, unfortunately belonging to the 1970s, so they flock to Theresa May. You might think that Britain is a liberal democracy, and in part it certainly is, but it has always been very impressed with strong leadership. When the Chancellor of the Exchequer stands up in the House of Commons, he doesn’t say, ‘We did this and that’, he says, ‘I did it’. This is a convention, of course, but it does suggest a strong fascination with the idea of hierarchical power. And this imaginary resonates very well with populist ideas.
Why do you call Brexit a cultural crisis?
I’m afraid it will bring significant economic hardship, especially to those less well of, who mostly supported Brexit. But it’s foremost a ‘struggle over the soul of the people’, if I may resort, not without irony, to a popular Russian political catchphrase. There is a strong xenophobic, provincial mindset that wants to impose its views on the rest of society. This has devastating effects. You see scenes that would have been unimaginable a few years ago: young, educated urban professionals, desperate to find a distant Irish, Polish, Cypriot, Portuguese ancestor in order to apply for dual citizenship. You have queues in front of foreign consulates in London, overwhelmed by thousands of applications.
It is true that Britain needs the EU, but it’s also the other way around. Britain has been an important cultural component of the EU. The internal balance of powers in the EU will be changed significantly. For example, British jurists have played a crucial role in the development of EU legislation: some fields, such as environmental protection and social policies, would have been unimaginable without their contribution. The jurisprudence community in Britain is devastated by what is happening.
Nowadays, we associate Britain with a more ‘neoliberal’ approach to governance, and people tend to forget that Britain was one of the birthplaces of the welfare state. You have stressed that, contrary to the prevailing view, it was the liberals, not the socialists or even the social democrats, who invented the welfare state.
That is right. If you look at the internal political debates in Britain between the 1880s and 1914, there were two alternative visions of welfare. One was Socialist, propagated mostly by the Fabian Society, which was much more elitist and top-down, with a clear set of ideas of ideas on ‘what is good for the people’. It was embedded in a ‘scientific worldview’ of social management. The winning paradigm of the welfare state was not that one; it was its liberal alternative. It consisted of a much more decentralized model that saw the welfare state as a tripartite relationship between the government, the employers and the workers.
Was it influenced by Bismarck’s Germany?
Not quite, because it was centred on the idea of a democratic state, and bottom-up negotiations of interests. The Socialist model, on the other hand, was heavily statist. The difference was that the Socialists – and this was true all across Europe – believed that the main aim of the workers’ movement was to gain control over the state, and then all will be well. The state, not society in its pluralism, was seen as the agent of transformation. For the liberals, on the other hand, the state was never an aim in itself, only an instrument of reform, that is, of solving problems that individuals could not solve on their own or on the basis of purely voluntary associations.
The first package of welfare legislation in Britain was passed between 1906 and 1914 by the liberal government. When the Labour Party took power in 1945, it built on this ground basis. The main intellectual force behind this reform was J A. Hobson, in my view the most underrated liberal thinker in Britain in the twentieth century, together with his friend Leonard Hobhouse.
The popular perception that British liberalism was devoted to laissez-faire is false, then?
Completely false. At least from around 1880 onward, a new generation of liberals begins criticizing the prevailing forms of liberalism. They had their own journals and debating societies. I edited the minutes of the Rainbow Circle, which met between 1894 and 1931, and had wonderful debates, which included many Socialists and Fabians. Rather than a clash between socialism and liberalism, you had a significant fluidity between the two. By 1900, the so-called laissez-faire model was rejected by almost all liberals.
The Scandinavian model was also influenced by British liberal ideas, right?
It is more correct to say that it was a two-way process of emulation. I think that the British ideas and proposals were older, but over the span of three decades or more, Scandinavian Socialists adopted and modified many of them, and their innovations resonated back in Britain. There was a lot of give and take during that period: there were vivid discussions within the intelligentsia that crossed ideological lines.
How did this evolution from a more economically libertarian to a more progressive ‘social liberalism’ take place?
The social costs of the industrial revolution became more and more apparent. There was copious literature on the matter, commissions were formed to look into the housing and health condition of the working classes: the squalor, the pitifully low wages, the problems with unemployment, all this became apparent. At the same time, there was a growing realization, within liberal thought, that individuals were not entirely responsible for their own fate, either positively or negatively. There were factors outside their control, and it was the responsibility of societies to protect their own members against factors over which they had no control. It became apparent that intelligent legislation can correct the negative impact of social and economic processes. The rise of the labour movement also played a role, providing the impetus for the reform of liberal thought – but the change happened long before that. Even if you look at a textbook-case liberal author like John Stuart Mill, you will find very subtle reflections on the dynamic between the individual and social forces.
What do you think about the notion of ‘classical liberalism’, frequently invoked by contemporary right-liberal commentators who want to distance themselves from modern forms of progressive liberalism?
What is usually understood under the term ‘classical liberalism’ never really existed. Already in the mid-nineteenth century, you had de facto state interventions in the economy, state-sponsored charities, attempts to nationalize the railways, etc. Gladstone, a paradigmatic example of nineteenth century British liberalism, already acted beyond the laissez-faire paradigm. The story of liberalism is much more subtle and complicated to fit into caricatures and simplified polemical exchanges.
You have been quite critical of what some call ‘neoliberalism’, that is, the late twentieth century reconstruction of liberal ideology focusing on economic liberty…
It’s not even a serious attempt at ideological reconstruction: the one element neoliberalism seems to retain from older versions of liberalism is a great respect for the markets, but it misses the entire cultural and moral context of early liberalism. The supporters of market liberalism in the nineteenth century had a strong internationalist ethos, they stressed the role of commerce in overcoming territorial barriers and obsolete feudal institutions and bringing prosperity across the world. Nowadays, we rightly denounce or mock the discourse of ‘the white man’s burden’, but in spite of all the hypocrisy, most nineteenth-century liberals retained a genuine belief in the Enlightenment ideals of civilization, cultural refinement and social improvement, which are hard to find in today’s crass, profiteering neoliberal agendas.
Let’s take the ‘classical liberalism’ as famously reconstructed by Hayek in his Constitution of Liberty: do you recognize this ideological edifice in the nineteenth-century authors whom you study?
If both Hayek and I had died in 1850, I might have recognized his vision of liberalism in our contemporaries, yes.
But he doesn’t take into account later developments?
He dismisses them. There is an entry on liberalism in the Enciclopedia italiana that he wrote in 1973, where he accused the later John Stuart Mill of being a socialist. As for the liberal government of the early twentieth century, it was completely off the rails for Hayek. He was a very doctrinaire, old-fashioned liberal libertarian, who had no sense of time, and no recognition that ideologies emerge within a specific historical context and that they develop, evolve.
Which is highly paradoxical given his stress on adaptation and the theory of evolution… But isn’t there a paradox in your own approach, as well? On the one hand, you say that we cannot approach ideologies from a normative perspective, we have to look at how they evolved through time. But on the other hand, you seem to have a strong preference for a certain kind of left liberalism, which you put at the centre of your analysis of liberal thought.
When I am talking as a ‘normal’ member of society, I do have my ideological preferences. There is a difference, however, between normative preferences and value preferences in methodology. I can criticize various kinds of liberalism for not being aware of the history of their own ideology: this would be not only Hayek, but also von Mises, the ordoliberals in Germany, the United States certainly. There will always be those kinds of people. They have what they think is a valid understanding of liberalism. My point is that you cannot argue your position within a broader field of liberalism without knowing your own history and without realizing that liberalism contains a multitude of perfectly valid positions, which have diverged from each other at a specific point in time.
I have my own ideological preferences for a kind of left liberalism, but this is the person of Michael Freeden. As an analyst, I am saying that we are dealing with different versions of liberalism, sometimes one dominates, sometimes another. There are simpler, more rudimentary and then there are more complex and nuanced variations of liberal thought. As an intellectual, I prefer the latter, though not necessarily as a participant in the political process. My methodological values are for complexity. As for my ideological values, they are whatever they are, but they are not part of my research. I am certainly not recommending them. I am not saying we should all rush out and become liberals: you will not find such a line in any of my writings.
But you do frequently insist on the affinity of the epistemological values that we have in the humanities with the values promoted by liberalism.
Yes. The study of humanities gives you the broad material from which to become a liberal. If epistemologically you insist on the multiplicity of perspectives, if you are tentative about your own findings – which is one of the most important things about being a researcher, we don’t affirm ‘My view is right’, we say ‘My view is plausible’ – and if you then incorporate some of these professional values in other aspects of your thinking – which is not always the case, we know not all academics are very humble as people – this might make you sympathetic to what is a liberal Weltanschauung, although it is not the same.
Do you think this is the reason why liberals are so preponderant in the humanities, and why they predominate in the academia in general?
I do think so. There is a general convergence of epistemological and ideological preferences. If I look at some of my conservative colleagues at the university, I notice that their research interests tend to be much more confined, and they also tend to be quicker in affirming the validity of their own findings. I see less tentativeness in their approach, less readiness to entertain a variety of different perspectives and possibilities.
Do you think that the demise of liberal attitudes – tolerance, openness, eagerness to engage with opposite viewpoints – across the political spectrum could be connected with the ongoing attack on the humanities in the name of ‘applicability’, ‘social relevance’, ‘usefulness’, ‘efficiency’ and similar utilitarian mantras? Could the rise of dogmatism in the past years be related with the loss of the ethos inherent in the study of liberal arts?
I think it’s a more general failure of the education system to encourage some of the virtues I mentioned above: to regard a certain gentle kind of uncertainty as the norm, rather than trade in certainties. The opposite of this approach is what I call the assertion of de-contested notions: ‘This is what justice means. That is what liberty means.’ It’s an over-confidence in the selection of one meaning over another from a broader range of possibilities.
The welfare state has failed in that important aspect. It hasn’t failed so much in the material sense, in raising the living conditions of the poor, in providing a safety net, etc., but it has failed, in some of its overly monolithic forms, to encourage the dialogue on alternative visions of the common good and on different approaches how to attain it. We can see something similar in the discussions related to delicate social dilemmas. Look at the clash, in the United States, between the ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ groups: as if there were no meeting-point between these two positions. The idea of a zero-sum relation, of uncompromising approaches to social issues seems to be taking hold. This understanding of politics as a clash of stark contrasts is encouraged by political parties. This is of course always the case, but we can see a strengthening of this phenomenon all over Europe.
Do you think that this polarization on social issues and value – what some people call ‘culture wars’ – is a way in which political parties are trying to stay relevant and assert their authority in a time of economic uncertainty and ideological shifts?
I do think it has a lot to do with the demise of old hierarchies, yes. They have eroded very slowly, leaving a void in the schemes and ladders of representation. At the same time, the expectations invested in the democratic process have not been met. What is happening now is that ordinary people insist that their voice be heard. The problem is that they don’t always know what their voice is. So you have the populist leaders who tell the people what their voice is. All these movements, from Occupy to the indignados in Spain, are attempts by people to have their voices heard. But they run against brick walls, and not only in autocratic and semi-autocratic regimes. It’s because the representative structure of most European democracies is rather shallow and often quite obsolete. It doesn’t have enough working instruments for the bottom-up mediation of popular demands.
We must be aware that there is no univocal, enduring solution to this problem. We often hear of democratic deficits, but democracies run on deficit. There is no democratic system without a deficit – the question is which deficit you prefer. In Britain, for example, we have the moral deficit of the ‘first past the post’ system: from the point of view of representation, it’s a ridiculously unfair system, which often leaves more than a half of voters in an area unrepresented, and produces fantastic inconsistencies between the number of votes cast for a party and the number of seats in parliament. On the other hand, in proportional systems, where everyone’s vote is counted, you have the accountability deficit of coalitions that are formed behind closed doors after the election, with often unstable governments. You must choose your deficit… But this also means you can choose your deficit, and maybe come up with a way to make up for it somewhere else in the system. But you must not give up complexity under the pressure of simple, one-sided populist solutions.
In the past years, we’ve witnessed attempts to separate democracy from liberalism: Orbán talks about building an ‘illiberal state’ as the path to true democracy, while in the USA, influential rightwing libertarians are criticizing democracy in the name of individual liberty. At the other end of the spectrum, you have a leftist fascination with direct democracy, as well as with the charismatic rule for the benefit of the disenfranchised masses. The relation between democracy and liberalism used to be a complicated, tense one: but do you think they can part ways again, or have they grown so strongly together that there is no one without the other?
My immediate answer is to say that there are different types of liberalisms and different types of democracies. There can be no talk of ‘liberalism’ and ‘democracy’ in the singular. When we hear terms like ‘illiberal democracy’, our first reaction should be to disentangle the meaning of the phrase: what kind of democracy are we talking about? And what kind of liberalism is it contrasted with? What does this phrase really mean? Dichotomies are a useful way to blur more important, but also more complex, distinctions. The tendency to dichotomize is such an easy and attractive way of looking at the world. The real battle of the intellectuals is to introduce complexity and nuance where we are being served simple-cut dichotomies. But many of them fall to the same tendency… After all, when we teach undergraduates, we tend to put concepts in neat boxes of dual opposites: autocratic vs. liberal, liberal vs. socialist, conservative vs. liberal … It doesn’t work that way. If you look at Hungary today: the government is heavily autocratic, but I am sure there are liberal components. It’s always the question of tipping points. We always need a magnifying glass when dealing with political and ideological realities.
You have provocatively referred to liberalism as a ‘parochial ideology’. What do you mean by that?
Liberalism is parochial in the sense that it emerged from a particular European dialogue, and was later exported to the United States and a few other countries. I stress this as a reaction against a philosophical viewpoint according to which liberalism has universal principles. To be sure, there is no contradiction between the two: you can promote principles that you think are or ought to be universally valid, you can try to elaborate and present them according to what you consider to be universally valid considerations. At the same time, you must understand that, like any other ideology, these principles come from particular social and cultural contexts and historical periods. These contingencies have gradually moulded together to form what we call liberalism. If we forget that, we overburden liberalism with expectations that it cannot deliver.
This brings us to the pressing issues related to multiculturalism and the compatibility of western notions with practices in other parts of the world. It is an issue often raised in regards to the Muslim world: the failure of the Arab Spring to bring about tangible improvements is often cited as an argument for the incompatibility between ‘liberalism and Islam’. Does the parochialism of liberalism mean that it is unlikely to see it flourish outside the countries of European cultural legacy?
Not at all. I think you can have local liberalisms all around the globe. We can think of them with the analogy of the ‘local Latins’ that emerged in late antiquity and gradually evolved into French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish. The same will most probably happen with liberalism: you have forms of liberalism in India, other forms in Thailand… in China, too. Every ideology goes through the cultural filter of a given society, very often through various cultural filters in one society. There are, after all, usually many liberalisms within one society. We would get off on the wrong foot if we said there is one known model of western liberalism against which we check the liberalism in other countries to see how well it conforms and what it gets wrong. There isn’t a western liberalism. There are many variants of liberalism present in what we call ‘the West’, they are in constant flow, sometimes in competition, sometimes they meld together, sometimes they clash with each other. It’s not unreasonable to think that something similar will happen in other parts of the world.
There are some, shall we say psycho-social tendencies in human life which will elicit broadly speaking liberal responses; not necessarily following any particular textbook, but we will be able to recognize them as liberal. The desire for freedom, for respect, for rights… These might differ significantly: what counts as a right in one society might be different from what counts as right in another, but the idea that people, or groups, are entitled to a certain treatment in equal measure – that, I think, has universal validity. Those entitlements might become the basis for a set of ideas about correct behaviour and proper political arrangement – some of which might be assimilated to what we call ‘the liberal family of thinking’.
So you are optimistic about the prospects of the ideology you study?
I think that the prospects of liberalism are as good or as bad as they have ever been. At the moment, we are in a slump. Europe is going through a bad period. Eastern Europe has been going through a bad period for at least a century, but I lived in the ‘western bubble’ from about 1950 to 2000, and things seemed to be going wonderfully. Then came the Twin Towers, the war on terror, the economic crisis – and things began to look shaky. My generation lived with certain certainties that my children do not have. I was socialized with a clear trajectory in mind: kindergarten, school, university, getting a job, getting married, having children, a house and a car. I am exaggerating, but this was the model: a job for life. I’m probably the last generation to have a job for life. It is understandable that these deep changes have a powerful influence on people’s psychology. The present rumbling and dissatisfaction have a lot to do with the rise of uncertainty: people can’t see how their future and the futures of their children are about to develop. And yet, I remain fundamentally optimistic. Even when we have periods of slump, as we have now, they are followed by periods of regeneration.
Interview conducted with Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič and Oskar Mulej.
Published 3 July 2017
Original in English
First published by Razpotja 27 (2017) (Slovene version); Eurozine (English version)
Contributed by Razpotja © Michael Freeden / Razpotja / EurozinePDF/PRINT
A conversation with James Miller
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