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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