Liberalism as Drama

By Andrew SablJune 16, 2015

Liberalism: The Life of an Idea by Edmund Fawcett

WHY SUBTITLE A BOOK on liberalism “the life of an idea”? One might intend what histories try to do when they call themselves “biographies” — advertise themselves as accounts so animated that they can turn things into people. Edmund Fawcett, however, means by the life of liberalism something like the “life of a party”: the source of the brio that makes it what it is, always with proper names attached. His liberalism, portrayed in a style that matches its substance, is creative, dramatic, and above all, ever-changing. Fawcett takes liberalism to be primarily a response to change, to the shocks of industrial capitalism and 18th-century revolutions, heralding a new age of flux and uncertainty. Liberalism embraced the insight — both “dream” and “nightmare” — that modern political orders, in the face of such change, could never be static. 

Thus Fawcett, a learned and polyglot former journalist, has set out to write not a “philosophy” of liberalism, but a “chronicle” of it: a series of dynamic adaptations and compromises. Liberalism retains four core ideas: the inescapability of social conflict; a distrust of power, whether political, social, or economic; faith in human progress; and “respect for people whatever they think and whoever they are.” Tracking those ideas, liberalism consistently seeks an ethical order without divine authority or tradition; an economic order without monopolies and local barriers; an international order of treaties and trade rather than force; and a political order without absolute authorities or unchecked powers. 

What gives liberalism its variety and variability is not only the need to adapt to constant change but also the tension among these four ideas. Abandon any one of them and you’re no longer fully a liberal. Yet combining and vindicating all of them at once requires intellectual skill and political nerve. Fawcett, then, sees liberalism’s “endurance and life” as the work of thinkers who embodied skill and nerve — who creatively combined these ideas, in ways that differed across countries and times — and of leaders who pursued them all at once. 

Above all, the life of liberalism lay, and still lies, in a vision of conflict “turned to welcome ends in innovation, argument, and exchange.” While Fawcett acknowledges liberalism’s pessimistic or melancholy moments, he wants to stress liberals’ characteristic passions, the sources of their energy: hatred of domination and love of resistance; pride in one’s society with a view to making it better; outrage at maltreatment; “zest for competitive challenges.”

First of all, Fawcett aims to vindicate liberal politics in the face of popular and scholarly suspicions that liberals are good at everything (law, ethics, and economics) but that. In his portrayal, the politics of “bargaining” and “persuasion” triumphs not only over liberalism’s ideological enemies — socialists eager for classless societies, conservatives pining for old authorities — but also over those who hate liberalism for its methods: the radical and uncompromising who “would rather fight than trade.”

Liberalism is a history of liberal victories: against tradition and old elites in the 19th century; against the totalitarian enemies of a new, confident alliance between liberalism and democracy in the early 20th century; against the enemies of a “shared international practice of politics,” based on human rights, through the current day. These victories required both creative ideas and vigorous politics. Thus the “exemplary liberals” through whom Fawcett tells his story include Humboldt, Constant, Tocqueville, Mill, Keynes, Hobhouse, Popper, Rawls, and Hayek, and also Lincoln, Gladstone, Clemenceau, Stresemann, Franklin Roosevelt, Beveridge, LBJ, Thatcher, Kohl, and Mitterrand.

That’s a lot to take on. There is a vast academic literature on each of these figures, and on liberal ideas and movements. Fawcett doesn’t pretend to care — which is mostly a good thing. Free from the need to demonstrate mastery of all existing literature and to make a “contribution,” he allows himself a general, synoptic approach, without footnotes. More important, not needing to justify everything before peers assumed to be skeptical, he can indulge in brilliant, unprovable insights.

My graduate school roommate once said that The Economist, Fawcett’s employer for many years, led the world in hypotheses. Fawcett’s book is like that. He claims that liberals who supported imperialism were not flouting their ideals, but merely applying to the poor and illiterate abroad the same meliorist, paternalist policies they intended at home; that Hayek, Irving Fisher, and Keynes disagreed not about the need to save capitalism, but about who would pay the brunt of the cost; that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights represents a reversion to a style of natural-rights thinking that most liberals had long abandoned in favor of “workaday utilitarianism”; that Germany should be considered a pioneer “liberal” country both for its postwar constitution and for the fact that its Left formally abandoned socialism long before France’s did.

None of these insights, or a thousand others in this book, is proven. Few could easily be proven — much less disproven, the great liberal Karl Popper’s criterion for possible truth. No doubt detailed argument and historical evidence would show some of them to be confused or even false. Yet the world is much richer for having claims like this in it: the products not of professional scholarship but of reflection, erudition, and wisdom. 

Wisest of all is the chapter on the compromises that gave us liberal democracy. Fawcett faces unflinchingly what too many of liberalism’s historians and defenders ignore: liberalism was, at its origins, an elite and elitist position. It was cool at best towards democracy and consistently determined to define equality in ways that prevented it from entailing political equality. Between about 1880 and 1945, this changed for good. Judith Shklar once wrote, in terms that Fawcett might endorse, that liberalism and democracy shared a harmonious and monogamous marriage — but one of convenience. Fawcett chronicles the courtship and the prenuptial agreement. Liberals “silenced,” though never “abandoned,” their doubts about democracy. Making an effort to shed its paternalist, improving disposition — swapping the schoolmasterly temperament of a Humboldt for that of the libertine, perpetually indebted Benjamin Constant — liberalism dumped its old favorite word, “character,” for a new one: “choice.” Democracy, for its part, changed substantially as well, from a radical and populist doctrine to one that made its peace with representation, elite-staffed bureaucracies, private property, and a definition of popular sovereignty that rendered it fairly empty rhetoric.

One could summarize Fawcett’s story like this: liberals kept their core ideas and gave up their deep, vicious prejudices regarding who could be trusted to live by them. Democrats, in turn, gave up the demos: they would no longer dream of “the people” acting, only of discrete people speaking and voting. The bargain seems, in good liberal style, mutually beneficial. Fawcett is persuasive in arguing that while few 20th-century mass parties called themselves liberal, most of them were pervaded by liberalism: they accepted the permanence of pluralism and compromise, toleration, and equal rights under the law.

Fawcett’s conceptual analysis is as fresh as his history. He stresses that what makes liberalism unique is not liberty nor individuality, but a certain way of thinking about both. Regarding individualism, Fawcett describes the distinctive liberal approach as one of “nonintrusion” (personal security and a distinct, inviolable private sphere), “nonexclusion” (a strong and ever-expanding presumption of universal human worth or dignity), and “nonobstruction.” Though he doesn’t stress it, the last may be the most distinctively liberal value of all: “an image of seeds of potential in everyone that might grow and flourish if properly nurtured,” a celebration of “initiative, openness, and originality.” Find someone, Left or Right, who’s made queasy by that list, who suspects it of slighting tradition, religion, or community, and you’ve found someone who’s not very liberal. 

This book’s liberal virtues — initiative, openness, and originality — sometimes entail the liberal vice: being too clever by half. Here are two big instances. 

First: Fawcett’s very honesty about liberalism’s discomfort with democracy leads him to embrace, pervasively though implicitly, a jarring division of political labor between liberal leadership and democratic citizenship. On his portrayal, liberal politics is more or less always middle-class and top-down. Liberal principles triumph through ideas, management, or clever leadership, never through raucous popular demands.

The result is sometimes ridiculous, not just in moral but also in narrative terms. We are given a history in which liberal rights arise without anyone having had to demand them. Women’s suffrage is portrayed as a proposition slowly accepted by liberal intellectuals and leaders, not a movement whose members broke windows and faced fire hoses. The Seneca Falls declaration appears in passing, in a discussion of Whig improvement. Abortion, rather placidly, “became legal” in advanced democracies in the 1960s or thenabouts. Fawcett’s admiring portrayal of LBJ lauds him for saying “We Shall Overcome”; he spares no praise for the marchers who sang it first, and needed more than political courage to do so.

As a result, Fawcett’s exemplars can only be those who ran things from the top, and were in a social position to end up there: so no nonwhites among his liberal political exemplars, and only one woman — Thatcher, of course. It seems this is deliberate. Having marveled at what “liberal leaders” accomplished in the postwar era, he writes:

“They” did none of that, it is easy to riposte. Larger historical forces were at work. Perhaps so. But it all happened on their watch. And the common rule in politics, for good or ill, is to credit the captains.

This is, simply, obnoxious. If giving all credit to the captains is a “common rule of politics,” surely a dissenting liberal should improve on common idiocy — and recognize that it is not only “captains” who choose and act politically, whether in defiance of historical forces or as part of what becomes history.

Fawcett’s second bit of over-cleverness is that his aversion to combat, his love of mutually beneficial trades, leads him into excessive ecumenism. Determined that all liberals be friends, that they not “hunt for enemies inside the liberal tent,” Fawcett invites into that tent many unwilling friends. He also invites in a few flat-out enemies who disavowed, even hated, not just the label of liberalism but all its values. 

The postmodern neo-Thomist moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who has consistently portrayed the Enlightenment as a huge mistake and taken the existence of differing, incompatible, schools of moral thought to be a sign of a “new Dark Ages,” is called by Fawcett a “closet liberal,” albeit one who somehow dislikes “moral individualism” and likes “mental conformity.” Then there is Sartre, whom Fawcett repeatedly calls, along with Orwell and Camus, one of liberalism’s great writers. Sartre was one of history’s most consistent and fervent anti-liberals. He constantly rejected individual judgment, demanding that agents surrender themselves to causes; Fawcett himself notes that “romance with imaginary crowds led him into totalitarian foolishness.” Sartre supposedly qualifies as a liberal on the strength of his dissent from official stances, his fondness for underdogs, and his eccentricity. Here and elsewhere, Fawcett is too quick to confuse a nonconformist soul with a liberal mind. 

But surely liberal parties are made to be crashed, and picking the wrong heroes is a harmless error? Perhaps, but the problem is bigger. There’s a fine line between being ecumenical and being complacent, and Fawcett ends up crossing it. In writing that contemporary critics of liberalism see “no plausible alternative to liberal democracy,” he concludes that in their anxiety, however great, they remain “liberal worriers.” That doesn’t follow and is not true. Seeing no alternative to the liberalism one hates doesn’t make one a liberal. It all too often makes one an irresponsible, self-indulgent non-liberal, capable of destruction and demoralization, of alienating from liberal institutions and practices those who should be liberalism’s strongest defenders and internal critics: intellectuals, temperamental dissenters, the socially marginal. 

This is not a moderate book. Incisive, bold, engaging, witty, an outstanding introduction to liberalism for the common reader who could spend a day devouring it and a lifetime digesting the wonderful, idiosyncratic bibliography, Fawcett’s work is also careless, clubby, sweeping, quick to assert the likeness of things that are very, very different. Its claims are constantly original, rarely proven, often brilliantly right and sometimes dead wrong. Lacking the pedantry that results from an academic canvassing of alternative accounts or interpretations, it also lacks nuance and reliability.

So despite its style, force, and range, this book would be mildly intolerable if not for one thing: Fawcett gets liberalism basically right when so many others have gotten it almost all wrong. Liberal political philosophers have tried to make liberalism a coherent system, a set of reasons that fit perfectly with one another and aspire to answer ever-more problems with ever-greater certainty. Self-styled liberal ideologists have tried to make it a set of political slogans that all too often abjure complexity, conflict, and the suspicion of private and public power in the name of simpler idols: many liberals who fear capitalism embrace government power and dream of a society with a uniform love of social justice; many liberals who fear big government embrace a cultivated, culpable, insouciance towards economic and social power.

Fawcett fervently believes that liberalism worth the name must reject both of these easy answers, and all the others — and at his best, he draws vital attention to the honorable liberals who have seen that. A dynamic, maddening synthesis of not quite opposites; an inspiration to thinkers who sneer at orthodoxy and compulsory allegiance; a guide to leaders and citizens who need to fix their eyes on principles because the ground beneath them is constantly shifting: that’s Fawcett’s liberalism. And it should be ours.


Correction (1:54 p.m., June 16, 2015): Due to a reviewer’s error, this review as originally published contained a criticism based on a mistaken reading of a passage of Liberalism regarding desegregation. The two sentences containing that criticism have been deleted.


Andrew Sabl teaches in the Ethics, Politics and Economics Program at Yale University. He is currently writing a book on hypocrisy and toleration for Harvard University Press.

LARB Contributor

Andrew Sabl is Orrick Fellow and Visiting Professor in the Program in Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale University. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) and Hume’s Politics (Princeton, 2012). He is currently completing a book on hypocrisy and toleration for Harvard University Press.


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