In recent years I have come to think a lot on the topic of “liberalism” as it is presented today and as I conceive of it apart from that presentation. Over the years I have often argued against liberalism, perhaps out of a sense of contrariness, and also because I feel in many ways insecure in the modern world and I am attracted because of that to some of the authoritarian solutions which seek to address that form of insecurity.
I have thought over it long and hard though, and I have come to the conclusion that I am basically a liberal. By that I mean in the way I conceive of it, not in the way it is presented. I am not a liberal because my particular views are in the minority generally either, I feel as uncomfortable with the idea of suppressing people with popular ideas I disagree with as with unpopular ones I agree with. I still believe it is possible for everyone to live together with very different world views and outlooks and not start killing each other or even repressing each other over our differences. A liberal polity is not impossible – even with Muslims, even with immense diversity of cultures that stretch the ingenuity of mankind to breaking point as how to resolve the conflicts of interest. It may not be easy, but it is possible.
So what of this “Muscular Liberalism”? Honestly I see very little liberal about it, and very little muscular about it. In terms of liberalism, it is a confusion of form and essence. “Liberals” being generally live and let live types tend to approve of various things, sexual freedom, the lack of distinct roles for men and women (or any other divided group of humans) and so on. Therefore it surely must be the liberal thing to do to force everyone to approve of those same things, or at least act as though they do in the public square? And in the forcing, isn’t that “muscular” – after all, you need muscles to force people.
But liberalism is not holding particular views. Liberalism means supporting and open and tolerant society – not approving – tolerant. It means creating a public space where a creationist muslim who believes women should not go out on the street without a guardian, a secularist who believes unfit parents should be sterilised – and surely all religious parents are unfit, and a wooly jumpered 60 year old church cake lady who thinks everyone is just lovely and why can’t we just all bake a nice cake, can all come together and peacefully, no matter how hard that is for all of them, deal with one another in the public square. After which they are free to go home to their respective private squares and live out their way of life, so long as none of the participants are in a state of capture and unfree to leave their respective private spheres.
There’s plenty of problems with liberalism, as illustrated by such luminaries as Marx and Joseph De Maistre. The arguments against it are strong and well worth engaging with. But basically, it’s a nice idea, and I think across the Anglosphere, it’s an idea that still has massive resonance.
A genuinely muscular liberalism is a liberalism that is comfortable enough in liberalism’s strength that it can allow people to be themselves in private – and even in public – so long as they don’t start fighting all out wars. They can fight all they want with words, so long as it never progresses to swords. The second the state sides with any set of popular opinions, even if those opinions be liberal opinions, and fights a war, a real war of batons and credible threats rather than mere verbal advocacy, on behalf of those opinions – the state ceases to be a liberal state.
I think most people in the Anglophone countries still aspire to having a liberal state, but there are taboos that seem so beyond the pale that they can’t help themselves but advocate for the state to war against them. Racism, sexism, homophobia, dressing in strange floor length black veils – these things go against what ordinary people see as fundamental, and they are frightened of what might happen if people were allowed to break these taboos. But when the liberal state was conceived (and it was a slow gestation lasting hundreds of years which could probably be said to come to fruition with the emancipation of Jews and Catholics in the 19th century) there were equally fundamental issues at stake, whether blasted papists might get hold of the throne, whether religious non-conformists might turn the whole world upside-down with their strange and surely unpatriotic views and attitudes, and what of the suspicious Jews with their strange manners and disproportionate wealth? The struggles between the strength of private convictions (and private prejudices) and the need to work together in peace publicly, were just as intense and heated as they are now – and the answer was found, after centuries of bloody wars failed to deal with all these sectarian and tribal differences – and that answer was freedom and the liberal state.
I’m not a libertarian by any stretch of the imagination, but I think I probably am a liberal, I think the natural cynical response that liberalism contains the seeds of it’s own destruction is laughable. The only way it can destroy itself is to stop advocating itself – to give in to the urge to say that peace in the public square is beyond human capacities and be pulled down by the undertow of sectarian tensions. Who really wants endless war? A little bit of war now and again to chasten the spoiled maybe, but war upon war upon war? One against the other until the other is bound in chains of domination or crushed underfoot? Does anyone really want that (maybe some mad souls do, so let them be restrained – in deed rather than in word)? And then what? Schism and back on the roundabout? Give me the liberal state any day!
Keep your sword sheathed, but speak your mind, and let us treat one another as brothers.