The other day, an article by Chris Deerin, a writer for the Scottish Daily Mail, appeared on my twitter timeline, retweeted and endorsed by several people I respect. The article argued Trump and Brexit mean that “liberal progressives” have lost and that “the model that has more or less dominated Western politics for the past three decades is defunct. It could not be more dead.” “We” misused that hegemony and are responsible for our own downfall:
We used our hegemony to take down barriers and borders, to connect and build, to (yes) line our own pockets and smugly luxuriate in the goodness of our ideas and intentions. Meantime, we forgot about those who weren’t able to take part, who weren’t benefiting, to whom free trade and open borders meant greater hardship and uneasy cultural compromises. Or, let’s be honest, we didn’t forget – we just chose to conveniently ignore. We stopped asking for their permission, ploughed on through the warning signs, and fell off the end of the road.
Now “liberal” is a funny old word, mostly used as an insult these days by the Jacobin crowd on the one hand and conservatives on the other. Still, I can’t help but feel that my politics is being condemned here as infeasible and dead whilst wondering whether it is in fact true that I’ve enjoyed such “hegemony” for the past 30 years, because that certainly doesn’t gel with my experience. To get pedantic about it, 30 years takes us back to 1986. Mrs Thatcher was still in power in the UK and her most illiberal single measure, Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 was still in the future, outlawing British local authorities from “promoting” homosexuality. In the United States, Ronald Reagan still had a few years to go, and would then be replaced by former CIA Director George H.W. Bush. So whenever this liberal progressive hegemony started, it was considerably more recently. Presumably, in the US it starts with Bill Clinton — a man not without his illiberal side — but then gets interrupted by George W. Bush, whose liberal progressivism included Guantanamo and waterboarding, before “normal service’ got re-established by Barack Obama. In the UK, you could make a plausible case that some kind of “liberal progressivism” took power with Tony Blair in 1997 and then ran on all the way to 2010, though the use of the word “liberal” to describe the attitudes and policies of successive Labour Home Secretaries such as Straw, Blunkett, Clarke and Reid would be curious. In the United States, the past 30 years has seen a massive expansion of the prison population, hardly the mark of liberal progessivism.
Since the article specifically identifies immigration as one of the areas of liberal triumph during this period, it might be worth directing some attention there. Whilst the opening of the UK to migration from new accession EU countries is a big element that supports the claim, pretty much everything else in UK policy in the area does not. As the Migration Observatory reported recently, British immigration law added 89 new types of immigration offences from 1999 to 2016, compared with only 70 that were introduced between 1905 and 1998. There was a massive increase in immigration detention in the UK over the same period and in recent years a series of moral panics about “foreign criminals” that have led to a serious erosion of the rule of law for some sections of society. Citizenship deprivation has become much more common, and is now used to punish not only those taking up arms against the state but also some criminals. A tightening of the spousal visa regime in the UK has separated tens of thousands of children from their parents and prevented many British citizens from living on the territory with their partner of choice. Meanwhile in the US, deportations of irregular migrants including people who entered the United States as small children, disfigured the Obama administration. My Facebook is full of people up in arms about Donald Trump saying he’ll deport 2-3 million, but where were they when Obama deported 2.5 million? Liberal progressivism, it would be nice to try some.
And from a social and economic justice perspective, the liberal progressive agenda has gone backwards rather than forwards over much of the period. The Rawlsian ideal of society as a system of co-operation that both guarantees basic liberties but ensures that society works for the benefit of everyone, and especially the least advantaged, looks further away now than it did in the 1970s. The “well ordered society”, in some respects recognizably the philosophical expression of the New Deal looks unimaginablly distant from our present condition. Now political philosophers worry about the relevance of “ideal theory”, which can seem like a Byzantine discussion of the architecture of castles made of chocolate: back then a fair society seemed almost close enough to touch.
(Not that there haven’t been gains also over the past 30 years. Though Section 28 was a setback, the cause of equality for women and LBGT people has advanced a lot, and in both the UK and the US we now enjoy equal marriage, an idea unthinkable at the beginning of the period. Racial equality presents a more mixed picture, notwithstanding the election of Obama.)
So what Deerin’s article actually means by “liberal progressivism” is a set of policies of free trade, deregulation and privatization, pursued aggressively by governments of all stripes over the past thirty years. These have indeed failed people, and policies of austerity coupled with bailouts for the banks have enraged the voters, so that many people, nostalgic for a more equal and more functional society but confused about who to blame, have channelled their resentments against immigrants and minorities.
I wouldn’t want to be misunderstood here. What is coming is far far worse than what we’ve had. For all of their many faults, Blair, the Clintons, Obama, and even, occasionally, Bush and Cameron paid lip-service to ideals of freedom and equality, to the rule of law, to the various international treaties and obligations their countries were parties to, even as they often worked in practice to evade them. Clinton practised interdiction of refugees on the high seas, but stayed committed to the letter of the Refugee Convention. Cameron denied poor people access to justice and removed “foreign criminals” to distant countries without due process, but he included the “rule of law” in the roster of “British values”. In the next period I expect a lot less of the shameful hypocrisy and a great deal more shameless assertion of power against people who have the wrong skin colour or the wrong class or live in the wrong country. But what has got us to where we are is not “liberalism”, let alone “liberal progressivism”, it is the systematic neglect of liberal respect for the rights of individuals coupled with the brutal assertion of deregulation and privatization. Liberalism didn’t fail and we need to defend liberal principles now.