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The Liberal Republic

No man is an island: This argument for a progressive politics based on "liberal republicanism" is me

The think tank Demos celebrates its 16th birthday with this pamphlet on “liberal republicanism”. Richard Reeves and Philip Collins argue that “the good society is one composed of independent, capable people charting their own course”. In support, they cite the 19th-century liberals Leonard Hobhouse and Thomas Green, and in doing so signal a broader intent: both Hobhouse and Green were involved in debates between social liberalism and ethical socialism that forged the spirit of the modern left. The pamphlet is an invitation to the centre left to travel back in time to its origins in radical liberalism and socialism, and to redefine progressive politics.

This comes at a crucial moment for the left, both inside and outside the Labour Party. Much has been made of the opportunity presented by the self-destruction of neoliberal capitalism. Yet the left is struggling to make an impact. If a new progressive politics is to emerge, a return to philosophical first principles is essential.

Reeves and Collins are confident that the future lies in the historical legacy of liberalism, though they acknowledge that the conditions for a self-directed life do not emerge out of thin air. Independence requires what Amartya Sen calls “capabilities” – financial resources, education, skills and health. Liberalism asks that individuals become the authors of their own lives, “but republicanism demands that we are also co-authors of our collective lives”.

But what is the nature of this co-authorship? How do we achieve a good society? Here Reeves and Collins are less convincing. The devolution of power they endorse is limited to a transfer from the bureaucracy to the people. They do not think that wealth inequality threatens political equality. Unlike social liberals, they do not recognise the interdependency of individuals. So, what holds their liberal social order together? Friedrich von Hayek argued that it was the economic relations of the market. Reeves and Collins offer no alternative explanation. At the heart of their political philosophy is the absence of society.

Reeves and Collins write that the “beginning of a liberal politics is the individual”, but their liberalism ignores the ways in which individuals are products of complex social, cultural and economic relations. They argue that the failures and tragedies in people’s lives belong to each alone. But individuals do not decide the inequalities that determine their longevity, or the statistical likelihood of their succumbing to poverty, poor housing, unemployment, murder, prison, disease, mental illness, obesity and educational failure. Such problems are socially produced and are not the responsibility of individuals alone.

Reeves and Collins share neither the social liberalism of Hobhouse and Green, nor their belief in the interdependency of individuals. Their liberalism slips its social moorings and shades into moral coercion: individuals must make themselves as independent as possible from the state, must free themselves from all conditions of dependency, and must follow that “most human attribute”, the ability to choose.

The authors’ advocacy of welfare reform, for example, is defined by the problem of recipients who are “unable to do without state handouts”. They echo the utilitarian liberalism of Jeremy Bentham, a man whom John Stuart Mill described as having no sympathy. There is a callousness in Benthamite and economic liberalism, and it is present in The Liberal Republic. Nothing holds this social order together except the moral imperative to gain maximum personal autonomy.

Ethical socialism also begins with the individual although, besides liberty, it values equality, because it recognises that there exists a common humanity despite people’s differences. It is based on a mutual recognition that the freedom of each individual depends on the freedom of all.

In the past three decades, what the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls “ethical intention” in public life has given way to the pursuit of individual self-interest. The business elite have become a law unto themselves, while the political elite are divorced from the people. Enterprise culture, the flexible labour market and welfare reform have all generated anxiety and isolation, rather than the “independence” valued by liberals such as Reeves and Collins. The values of kindness, care and generosity are out of keeping with the dominant market culture. And the liberal individualism of The Liberal Republic is no remedy for this.

Reeves and Collins have little to say about the defining issue of the economy, at a time when unemployment and inequality are increasing, the value of pensions is collapsing and there is a chronic housing shortage. There is food and water insecurity, and oil production will peak in the next few years. And looming over all these problems is the threat of global warming.

Two institutions have dominated the life of this country for the past 30 years: the state and the market. How shall we reform both in order to confront the huge systemic problems we face and create sustainable, equitable economic development? The progressive future belongs to those who can find credible answers to such questions, and who are able to strike a balance between self-realisation and social solidarity. This politics will emerge from the long-standing argument between social liberalism and socialism. Unfortunately, The Liberal Republic places itself outside what will be an epoch-defining debate.

Jon Cruddas is MP for Dagenham
Jonathan Rutherford is professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University
A longer version of this review will be published in Soundings in July

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Iran