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Why Edmund Burke is a philosopher for our troubled times

His work can help us negotiate a path between the extremes of radical right and revolutionary left.

Across the West, the old centre is coming apart. A decade of financial disruption, austerity and stagnant wages has produced a popular rejection of market fundamentalism. Weaker civic ties have left many people feeling dispossessed.

Part of the revolt against the elite liberal consensus comes from economic and cultural insecurity. It is fuelling support for anti-establishment insurgents on the fringes and in the mainstream of Western politics. The centre has not held.

Many in the governing elite still believe that Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn’s triumph are just headwinds. These will not blow the ship of liberal globalisation off course for long. But Trump and Corbyn defeated their party establishment. They enlisted mass support by discarding the dominant Davos dogma of low wages, industrial decline, job-exporting trade deals and never-ending foreign wars. Their politics threatens the bipartisan consensus around free trade and the promotion of liberal democracy. This consensus has been at the heart of the postwar settlement and the liberal world order after 1989.

Since then, there has been a series of setbacks – from the Iraq invasion to the financial crash – that are symptoms of a deeper and different kind of crisis. It is not cyclical because it is not a periodic setback in a linear history of progress. And we are not facing the terminal crisis of an entire system. We are witnessing a new kind of crisis. Liberalism erodes the foundations on which it rests. It brings about economic injustice and divisions in society that are threatening the social contract between the people and their representatives. That is the bedrock of the Western liberal tradition. The elites fail to understand that Trump and Corbyn are a consequence, not the cause, of the failure of liberalism.

Why liberalism has failed

Those progressive liberals on the left and the right – from Tony Blair to David Cameron – who complain about populism forget their own role in the present predicament. First, they fused politics with the media. They circumvented parliamentary democracy in favour of a more direct communication with the people mediated mostly by Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail. The writer Anthony Barnett is right to describe this system of government as a form of manipulative populism. It represents a political tactic exemplified by New Labour’s culture of spin and George Osborne’s “Project Fear” in the EU referendum campaign. Both were roundly repudiated.

Now the label “populist” is used for political movements with popular backing for ideas of which liberal elites disapprove. By pursuing an ultra-liberal project to which “there is no alternative”, the Western political class has sown the seeds of its downfall. The electoral success of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron shows how liberal leaders can defeat their anti-liberal foes. But the rising tide of discontent suggests that the liberal centre ground is hollow.

Since antiquity, philosophers have cautioned against the slide of democracy into oligarchy, demagogy and tyranny. Today, this warning applies to liberalism and the dangers that it poses to democratic rule.

Liberalism, far from defending open markets, maintains old monopolies and creates new cartels. Ten years after the financial crisis, banking conglomerates are still “too big to fail”. In 2017, two-thirds of the sectors of Western economies exhibit a greater concentration of ownership and control than in 1997. This is affecting prices, consumer choice and the quality of products and services from banking and water to food.

Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google are modern-day plutocracies with dominant market positions. They take over their online competitors and the non-digital retail world. By managing access to information and knowledge, Facebook and Google exercise control over public debate in ways that could threaten not just open markets but also free speech. Plutocratic power undermines economic competition and democracy.

This drift towards oligarchy also reveals how liberalism is a catalyst for demagogy. Liberal thought rests on the assumption that only liberalism can free us from the tyranny of “the good” – the imposition of a single conception of goodness, truth and beauty. The liberal tradition with its securing of individual rights has certainly provided more freedom from oppression.

Yet the price we pay is replacing substantive notions of the good with empty free choice. Liberty is now the absence of constraints on individual desire except for the law and private conscience. Legal permissions are given to some, while others feel they are arbitrarily refused. Without any sense of the good we share in common with others, liberal freedom cannot decide between what should be allowed and encouraged and what should not.

When rival rights and freedoms collide, power decides. And it is the liberal state that rules over individuals. Thomas Hobbes’s great book Leviathan sums this up. Liberal freedom to choose is manipulative, because the conditions under which choice is exercised are not up for debate.

Liberalism claims to offer security by guarding us against alien elements – the bigot, the racist, the welfare-scrounger and those deemed deficient in “entrepreneurship”. For liberals, human beings are rational, self-owning individuals who owe nothing to society. The name for this liberal philosophy, first developed by Hobbes and John Locke in the 17th century, is possessive individualism.

Liberalism also separates fact from value and privileges the views of the enlightened elites over the common sense of the people. That is why liberal democracy is caught between the factual truth of technocrats and the emotive “post-truth” of the so-called populists. For liberals, everything can be debated publicly – including the personal, private sphere – except the dangers of liberalism.

The liberal practice of oligarchy and demagogy ends up undermining the principles of liberality on which liberalism rests, including free inquiry, free speech and tolerance. Liberal politics thereby produces the threats that it supposedly protects us from – ideological tyranny and the closing down of argument. University “safe spaces” and echo chambers on social media leave people unprepared to deal with views other than their own. The result is a political culture that is increasingly narcissistic and unable to form broad alliances.

Paradoxically, liberalism brings about the kind of intolerant illiberalism that it ascribes to all non-liberal positions. What liberals demonise as populism is in large part a backlash against the liberal hollowing out of democracy.

Radical right, revolutionary left

It is not just liberalism that is being rejected. The political traditions that were dominant for much of the 19th and 20th centuries are dissolving. In the US and Britain, conservatives’ reputation for being competent and reliable lies in tatters. Their economic model of free-market capitalism is broken. Continental European social democrats and socialists have, on the whole, abandoned their traditional working-class supporters in favour of a largely urban metropolitan electorate. Their social model of multiculturalism divides society. And everywhere the liberal obsession with the identity politics of minority groups excludes a majority from the political mainstream.

None of the ideologies has much to say about what people share as citizens, or what binds them together as nations and cultures. The radical right and the revolutionary left have stepped into this void. Trump wants protectionist borders in order to have more “neoliberalism in one country”. The Tory arch-Brexiteers have similar plans for a low-regulation, low-tax economy boosted by free trade deals with the other countries of Anglo-Saxondom. So far, “America first” and “Take back control” serve oligarchic interests with more than an undertone of nationalism.

Corbynism is fusing 20th-century-style statism with 21st-century digital platforms. It offers a future for the new, networked generation of globally mobile cosmopolitans. The rest will subsist on a universal basic income funded by taxing tech and other big companies. Automation and artificial intelligence promise to create a “post-capitalist” economy without work or workers.

For all their differences over open borders and multiculturalism, the radical right and the revolutionary left share a certain anti-liberal outlook. First, both clamour for more central state intervention to shield citizens from the effects of globalisation. They combine protectionism with welfare to restore national sovereignty. Second, both invoke the supposed will of “the people” in ways that are reminiscent of 1930s authoritarianism. This poisonous propaganda ignores people as they are in their families, localities and workplaces.

Third, both demonise their political opponents while rejecting any criticism of their leader as acts of sacrilege and blasphemy. In a divided era when politics needs common ground more than ever, the extremes preach puritanism. Finally, both view human beings merely as bearers of individual rights and economic laws. They value technological forces far more than human creativity or real political agency.

This deterministic world-view is of a piece with top-down authoritarian control. Power is exercised by the leadership and patrolled by a praetorian guard – Breitbart News at the service of Trump and the vanguard of Momentum around Corbyn. Democracy is good as long as dissent is directed at the enemy.

There is a double convergence at work in Western politics. The liberal centre converged around variants of individualism. Now the anti-establishment insurgents are converging around variants of statism. Neither can be mapped according to the old opposition of left and right because both view politics as oscillating between two binary poles: either the isolated individual with her rights and liberties, or the collective power of the state to secure or override them.

Burke and the new times

Born in Ireland, Edmund Burke (1729-97) served as an MP for almost 30 years and was a prolific writer – a philosopher in action. As a critic of both rationalism and revolution, Burke can also be considered a thinker for the new times. Ours is an age when the radical right and the revolutionary left are determined to overthrow the established liberal order that is reminiscent of the ancien régime. Burke rejected monarchical absolutism, but he was equally critical of the French Revolution and the tyranny that followed it.

Burke renewed Aristotle’s idea of a middle way between the extremes of despotism and mob rule. These are perennial problems that we encounter nowadays with the behaviour of the “alt-right” movement around Trump and some members of Momentum and other left-wing groups. Political leaders should be judged by whether they practise the virtues of courage and prudence. Courage is the middle way between the vices of cowardice and recklessness of which the ruling elites are often guilty.

Far from moralising, Burke thought human beings capable of both vice and virtue. The role of politics is to limit as much as possible the vices of greed and selfishness. It is also to encourage the social virtues of generosity, loyalty and duty that nurture the way we live in society. Appeals to the abstract ideals of liberté and égalité ring hollow. They overlook the relationships with our family, friends or fellow citizens, which provide substance to otherwise vacuous values.

Burke rejected the possessive individualism of liberal thinking in favour of social freedom. True liberty is secured by what he called “the equality of restraint”, not empty free choice. Freedom and equality require lived fraternity among citizens who have common needs. But the dominant political traditions have abandoned any sense of interpersonal solidarity. They have instead embraced the impersonal forces of collective state control and atomised market exchange that undermine society.

Conceptualising capitalism

The collusion of state and market in dispossessing people is something that Burke conceptualised more than two centuries ago. The French Revolution did not simply involve terror: it also gave rise to capitalism in France based on expropriation, speculation and dispossession.

First, the revolutionaries converted the confiscated property of the Crown and the Church into money, which was lent to the state. The money became public debt contracted by the government to wage war. This created a new class of “monied interest” that charged usurious interest rates, making money out of money and generating speculative profits.

Then the state taxed the people and robbed them of their assets to service the growing mountain of public debt financed by private creditors. State agents and private speculators formed what Burke described as an “ignoble oligarchy”.

What this shows is that the capitalist system does not primarily substitute one set of property relationships or one dominant class for another. Then as now, capitalism is driven by speculative capital. It ends up dissolving real value into nominal wealth because it is disconnected from the production of value or shared ownership. Burke called this “paper-money despotism”, and our economy built on debt and easy credit bears a certain resemblance.

Affection and attachment

There are other lessons from Burke’s political economy. His emphasis on covenantal ties between generations can help us think through the growing economic injustice between young and old today. Society is not a contract of individuals. It is a partnership between the living, the dead and those yet to be born. This conception balances individual rights with mutual obligations and contributions with rewards.

Today, we have a culture of entitlement that does just the opposite. Workers who have contributed a lifetime receive “nothing for something” – the same meagre Jobseekers’ Allowance as the young or new migrants who get “something for nothing”. Justice without compassion is empty, just as compassion without justice is blind. The path towards greater economic justice involves a renewed balance of interests among the generations and the building of a common good. Covenants endow social relations with meaning that is missing from Hobbes’s and Locke’s idea of the social contract because it ignores our social nature. Human beings are not atomised agents maximising their utility. And they are not anonymous carriers of historical laws.

We are born into social relations, “the little platoon we belong to in society”, as Burke put it, and these are the first objects of our affections. We learn to love and care for close family, extended family and friends. This love creates a sense of attachment and belonging that extends to our fellow citizens and humankind – the strangers in our midst who become part of our communities.

Liberalism and its enemies have little to say about our social nature. We are embodied beings who are embedded in relationships and institutions. They command affection and forge attachment as they are rooted in people’s identity and interests.

These “public affections”, as Burke terms them, are indispensable to the good functioning of the rule of law. They build the trust and co-operation on which a prosperous market economy and a vibrant democracy depend. Burke’s appeal to love and affection reflects the primacy of relationships over impersonal mechanisms.

Cultural association

This primacy of relationships extends from the domestic arena to international relations. The strongest partnerships that nations forge come not through treaties or trade but through cultural association. These social bonds take generations to develop. Britain, post-Brexit, risks tearing up the fabric of mutual ties with its continental European partners by privileging a free trade deal over cultural exchange and influence.

In Europe, people are connected across different cultures through shared customs and habits of life. This is true of nations as much as of individuals. These customs involve high cultural traditions of philosophy, literature, religion and the arts. They also include popular culture that is reflected in food, music, clothes, architecture and the tales of Tolkien or the Brothers Grimm. National identities differ, but Europeans have more in common than divides them.

Europe, like other civilisations, is what Burke called a commonwealth of cultures – an association of nations and peoples with a shared history and destiny. Today, social exchange and a common cultural inheritance are as necessary to promote peace and partnerships as political diplomacy or the use of military force. After Brexit, Britain faces a stark choice. It can pursue global free trade that will reinforce economic and social discontent at home, or it can help to build a new cultural alliance spanning the US, Europe and the countries of the Commonwealth.

Burke is often portrayed as an apologist of empire but that ignores his fight against American and Irish oppression and the exploitation of India. International politics has to involve a search for shared interest based on what he called “our common humanity”. On that basis, he condemned sectarianism at home and colonial injustice abroad.

Signs of the times

We live in troubled times. A sense of anger and abandonment is spreading. People feel humiliated, unable to live the lives they hope for and powerless to shape the forces that dominate them and those they care about most. Politics should be about nurturing a feeling of fraternity. A middle path of courage and prudence can renew the democratic promise of making people partners in power. 

Adrian Pabst, with John Milbank, is the author of “The Politics of Virtue” (Rowman & Littlefield)

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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Game of Stones: The power struggle at the heart of British curling

Dynasties, scandal and “the curse” behind the scenes of the only Olympic sport you can play while eating pizza.

At the 1980 annual Canadian men’s curling championship, the Calgary competitor Paul Gowsell ordered a pizza mid-play. With tangled red hair down to his shoulders, a thick beard and in his signature plaid trousers, Gowsell – or “Pizza Paul” – had become a cult curling figure in the late Seventies.

“The rebel of the curling world” was known for his drinking and partying on the curling circuit, and rocking up to tournaments – or “bonspiels”, to give them their proper name – in his battered VW van.

Legend has it that a stray olive from his pizza on the ice lost his opponents the game that day.

Since Gowsell’s heyday, curling has professionalised. It became an official Winter Olympics sport in 1998 (the previous and only time it had this status was in 1924), but remains one of the most peculiar competitions of the season.

“We do get made fun of a lot” 

The brooms, frantic brushing, screaming from the “skip” (the captain of the team in charge of strategy), gliding on one knee, and even the equipment itself – 44-pound lumps of granite known as “stones”, which look a bit like old-fashioned irons – make for bizarre watching, as competitors release their stones before the “hogline” in an attempt to reach the “house”: the target at the end of the rink.

The etiquette is to shake hands before a game, and say “good curling”.

Its quirks are not lost on curlers, who appear to embrace the gentle mockery of their sport. The array of outlandish patterned trousers worn by the Norwegian men’s team brought a goofy humour to Pyeongchang (pink hearts for Valentine’s Day were a particular hit), inspiring an entire Facebook page of half a million Likes dedicated to their legwear. Meanwhile, the moustachioed and red-hatted US curler Matt Hamilton has been memed as Mario by his own team.

A veteran curling commentator I speak to, who does not want to be named because he remains closely involved in the sport and wishes to speak frankly, says comedic takes on curling – like the 2010 episode of The Simpsons “Boy Meets Curl”, in which Homer and Marge accidentally discover their innate talent for the game – “generally help promote the sport”.

“People definitely make fun of it! There are a lot of awesome personalities in curling and I think part of it is because we do get made fun of a lot. You kind of have to have a really good sense of humour to curl,” says John Cullen, a 32-year-old Canadian comedian and competitive curler in the world-ranked Team Joanaisse.

Every time the Winter Olympics come along, curling manages to entrance audiences. It’s one of the few sports to be played for the entirety of the Games because of its “round robin” structure (where each country has to play the other, at least once).

Curling benefits from a lot of airtime. Matches can last three hours, and there are mixed doubles as well as separate men’s and women’s tournaments.

But it also captures our imagination because, unlike figure skating or alpine skiing, we feel like anyone could have a go. Curlers don’t all look like athletes. The dedicated viewer can watch them chatting, see their anguished facial expressions – and hear them swear when they mess up.

“You still have people who make the Olympics who’ve got a bit of a belly”

“It has a big appeal for people because it seems – even though it’s not – like a game you could play, if you’re just a regular person watching the Olympics,” says Cullen, who has curled for 20 years. “Every Olympics, people think to themselves, ‘OK, if I started curling tomorrow, I could be in the next Olympics’.”

A bit like darts, he adds: “Curling is a lot more physically demanding than darts, but when you watch darts on TV, you think ‘oh these guys are drinking, they’re not in shape’.

“It seems accessible in a way other sports don’t… Curlers now are more fit than ever, but you still have people who make the Olympics who, yeah, they’ve got a bit of a belly, or they don’t really look like they spend that much time in the gym. They just kind of look like regular people.”

Adding to curling’s relatability, there are two real-life couples in the mixed doubles this year, and you can watch them bicker as they play. Norway’s girlfriend-and-boyfriend outfit Kristin Skaslien and Magnus Nedregotten admit to having heated arguments on the ice (she never sweeps for him, as far as I can tell from watching one of their games – you go, sister), whereas Russia’s wife-and-husband duo Anastasia Bryzgalova and Aleksandr Krushelnitckii have had their bronze medal tarnished by the latter’s suspected doping.

When a doping scandal reaches your sport, you know it’s made it.


Traced back to 16th-century Scotland, the sport nicknamed the “Roaring Game” – because of the sound of rolling across ice – was played socially with stones on frozen ponds and lochs by farmers in winter, when no farming could be done.

Competitions between neighbouring communities began in the 18th century, when Rabbie Burns would play and even wrote some poetry about it, and Scots took the game across the country with the arrival of the railways. They later exported it to places as far as North America and New Zealand.

But it took until 2002 for the general public to notice curling in Britain. The Great British women curlers’ unexpected gold at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City transformed attitudes towards the sport – it was the first time Britain had won gold at the Winter Olympics since Torvill and Dean’s Bolero ice dance in 1984 at Sarajevo.

 “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms”

An audience of 5.7 million people watched the tense final live on the BBC, when five previously unknown women from Scotland beat Switzerland with the final throw – since dubbed the “Stone of Destiny” – played by the skip, Rhona Martin.

“It definitely put curling on the map. We used to get wee write-ups in the back of the paper and that was it,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Ayrshire. “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms, and curling your hair, whereas now people see it as a sport because they’re more knowledgeable about the game.”

Rhona Martin delivering the Stone of Destiny. Photo: Getty

A flag-waving crowd greeted her team when they landed in Heathrow – adoration they hadn’t been expecting. They received a congratulatory message from then Prime Minister Tony Blair (“You have captured the imagination of the whole of the UK”), appeared on everything from Lorraine Kelly’s sofa to Ready Steady Cook, were put up at Claridge’s and received MBEs from the Queen, and sat in the royal box at Wimbledon.

Curling fever didn’t last long, however. The women returned to full-time work or being full-time mothers. Talk of a Hollywood movie about their victory died. Two of the five endured intrusive news reports about their marriages breaking down, and Martin (now Howie after a subsequent marriage) was at one point a “single mother living on benefits”, as put by one of her agents.

This became known as the “Curse of the Curlers”, according to the Guardian. Indeed, Howie’s gold medal was stolen from the Dumfries Museum four years ago, never to be recovered.


Has the curse on British curling finally been lifted?

Two dynasties of curling champions dominate Team GB this year: the Muirheads and the Smiths. Both are Scottish farming families from Perthshire, both have two or more siblings on the Olympic curling teams, and all the competitors are children of world champions: they grew up on farms about 40 miles apart, and were regulars at their local rink.

“We’re all super-competitive”

The only member of the men’s team who is neither Muirhead nor Smith, Kyle Waddell, comes from another Scottish curling dynasty: his grandfather Jimmy was European curling champion in 1979.

Eve Muirhead, skip of the women’s team, is the current queen of the dominant Muirhead dynasty. The three-time world medallist, now 27, was the youngest ever skip to win a Winter Olympic medal, when her team took bronze at Sochi in 2014. Her brothers Tom and Glen on the men’s team are making their Olympic debut.

The Muirheads’ father Gordon, a sheep farmer, is a world champion who competed at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Eve was inspired to begin curling at the age of nine.

The Muirhead siblings on their farm. Photo: Getty

Kyle Smith, the skip of the men’s team, is head of the curling house of Smith. His younger brother Cammy is on the same team. Their father David, a dairy and potato farmer, was a world champion skip in 1991, and their uncle Peter (known as “Pistol Pete” in the curling world, for his sharp-shooter-like accuracy) represented Team GB at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Known as Team Muirhead and Team Smith, they still help out with their respective families’ farming duties. While training for the Olympics, Kyle Smith fed the calves before going to the gym in the morning or milking at weekends, and the Muirhead brothers combine their sheep farming duties with training (they’re missing the lambing season to be at the Olympics). But Eve – who also plays golf and the bagpipes – prioritises curling practice.

The Smiths and Muirheads playing together. Photo: Getty

The Smiths are trailing the Muirheads medal-wise and see themselves as “the underdogs”, but there’s more rivalry between siblings than between the two families, who often play on the same team.

“I know we’re all super-competitive,” Eve tells me down the line from Pyeongchang. “We all support each other to the bitter end. To have my two brothers here is really special, I guess it makes this Olympics a little bit more special than the other ones.”

Just last season, the Muirhead brothers were on different teams and went head-to-head, competing for the same Olympic spot, which made working together on the farm temporarily tough. They had to check up on each other’s flocks while the other was training to beat them.

“Our local rink has unfortunately now closed down”

“I have learned how to wind him up over the last year so I have a few tricks up my sleeve,” Thomas, the younger Muirhead, quipped at the time. All the Muirhead siblings are so competitive that no board games were allowed at home.

Curling isn’t seen as a “posh” sport, like skiing (although curling clubs have been linked to freemasonry in the past), and it’s likely that such a small pool of talent is down to the sport’s decline rather than a privileged elite.

Eve Muirhead tells me that her “local rink at Pitlochry” – where she played as a child – has “unfortunately now closed down”, and this is part of a trend in Scotland. At curling’s peak in 1993, Scotland had 31 ice rinks which offered curling. The number is now down to 22.

The veteran curling commentator I speak to says the Olympics have benefited the sport’s image, but the money spent on elite competitive curling “to ‘buy’ GB medals” in this country “hasn’t helped grassroots curling much; only a few curlers benefit”.

It’s even starker in countries with no curling legacy. China has just two curling clubs for a population of 1.4 billion and still sends teams to the Olympics. Cullen confirms this, from his experience of international play. “Once curling got us [Canada] in the Olympics, a lot of countries recognised this as an opportunity to get a medal,” he says. “So what they’ve done in some of those cases in China, Japan, Korea, is they’ve found athletes from other sports and converted them into curlers.”


But this doesn’t mean curling is easy; it just makes it a more competitive sport. With my only background in curling being an episode of Pingu I watched as a child (he sweeps with his foot, the innovator), I rounded up some colleagues and went to the Sliders Social Fun and Games Club at Queens ice rink in West London to try it out for myself.

The banging beats, disco ball, and giant projected episode of Pointless on a rink-side screen didn’t exactly scream 16th century loch, but we pulled on our studded grippy rubber soles and took to the ice.

While one colleague discovered that she was “actually sick” (her words) at curling, most of us found the stones impossibly heavy and rolled them nowhere near the target.

New Statesman staff curl

The author attempts to curl

After a few failed attempts, I tried a double-handed curl, but that didn’t work at all. One bolder team member developed a special “one-knee thrust” move, which worked quite well.

Even the brushing was quite tough, because you fear falling over at any moment. Some men on the neighbouring rink told us we were “rubbish”.

Essentially, curling is really hard. A lesson that adds to its status as history’s most misunderstood sport. But its players remain dedicated, and audiences engrossed. As Rhona Howie, the master of the “Stone of Destiny”, tells me: “Never, ever give up, and keep fighting, one stone at a time.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special