In 2017 the ‘centre’ must realise politics is not a technical exercise

Post truth, fake news and Russian hacking are all helping liberals ignore that their politics is political (and disagreeable), but depoliticised liberalism cannot hold against xenophobic nationalism

Terry Hathaway2016 was a momentous year for politics, with two stand out events – the referendum result on the UK’s membership of the EU and the election of Donald Trump as US President – likely to be seen as defining moments of the year. However, the wider significance of 2016 appears to be the end of a 35-year period of a broad liberal hegemony.  This hegemony was marked by the continual advance of globalisation, by the portrayal of economics as a technical, rather than political, exercise, and by a continual shift rightwards by more left-wing political parties.

The intellectual response to this decline of liberalism has, so far, been disappointing. Liberal intellectuals and politicians have sought refuge in various explanations that allow them to hold onto the sense of a monopoly on truth.  Many expressions of this idea have popped up; post-truth, fake news, and Russian hacking have all been paraded as causes of liberal defeats.  Such thinking, in part, can be explained by the long-standing hegemony where liberals occupied an intellectual high ground that was easily defended – where liberalism was seen as common sense and liberal policies could be painted as simply pragmatic politics.  During this period, lazy defences deploying conformist unthinking were sufficient to maintain the high ground.

Now, however, the game has changed and liberals need to move beyond their football-manager-esque moans and quasi-conspiracy theories.  If they want to oppose the current shift to xenophobic nationalism (particularly through a ‘progressive alliance‘ of the centre and left) they need to start examining several of the assumptions – particularly about economics – that form the bedrock of many of their political positions and that weren’t explicitly discussed or critically explored during their period of hegemony.

One such assumption that liberals need to reassess is that economics offers neutral, unbiased and scientific advice for the running of the economy. This position was virtually unquestionable in the period of the ‘Great Moderation‘, when growth was continual, unemployment was low, and inflation was steady.  However, when the surface stability was massively disrupted by the underlying instability of deregulated financial markets, the narrative of economic competence and the illusion of neoclassical economic ‘science’ collapsed.  In academia, the crisis has resulted in calls for greater theoretical pluralism, and for moving away from abstract modelling based on absurd assumptions, such as humans being rational utility-maximisers who make decisions possessing perfect information about the present and the future.  Yet, in politics, neoliberalism was doubled-down on, as the banking crisis was transformed into a problem of state spending that required massive cuts to government services, with the promise – not realised – of a return to the pre-crisis economic good times.  With the academic consensus under sustained attack, and with austerity having failed to deliver, the liberal centre needs to again consider economic questions and make clear their answers in order to revivify liberal projects.

Another assumption that liberals must revisit – and probably abandon – is viewing globalisation as a natural force that has come from outside of the political system. While technological change has fundamentally altered global lives, ‘globalisation’ is something that has been negotiated and enacted by politicians; globalisation has been based upon a series of choices, consciously made, to increase interconnections between states.  Not only that, but globalisation has been constructed in an unequal and unbalanced way, where economic and technological integration have vastly outpaced political integration (see, for example, global rules on intellectual property compared to global rules on tax collection).  This lop-sided globalisation has spread benefits and costs unevenly, which has undermined support for a liberal global project.  Liberals need to recognise both the unevenness of globalisation and that the current political terrain is not (and has never been) primarily marked by a division between pro-globalisers and anti-globalisers, but instead is divided in multiple directions based on different visions of globalisation.  Liberals must be explicit about what shapes they want the global order to take and why, rather than using a blunt, depoliticised notion of globalisation.

One final assumption worth mentioning (although there are many more) that liberals need to engage with, is the idea that politics can ever divorce itself from the discussion of values and ideology. The consensus (often euphemistically labelling themselves ‘moderate‘ or ‘progressive’) politicians of the last few decades have sought to remove any sense that alternatives to the current system are possible, and, in so doing, have produced a stale sterile politics devoid of vision.  What, liberals need to ask themselves, is my utopia?  Equally, liberals need to consider who they are willing to ally themselves with when push comes to shove.  Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, both representing social democrat economics and liberal social policies, have been derided, attacked and dismissed by liberals and the right.  Yet, liberals may increasingly find themselves in positions whereby they need to hold their nose and make a choice – as many on the left have done for many years – between two candidates who only represent some of their values.  Those in the centre may well need to decide which of their values they prioritise and be strategic in their support.

In short, if a liberal centre is to hold against xenophobic nationalism, liberal intellectuals and politicians need desperately to stop whinging and instead to re-engage with their own core ideological arguments so that common ground with potential allies can be found and so liberals can work to persuade voters once more. They need to recognise that ideology is, and values are, central to politics; politics is not a technical exercise but an ever-changing, sometimes irrational process that continually requires arguments to be made, remade and justified.  Most of all, they need to abandon the bewilderment that voters can disagree with them and instead start a process of reconnecting with the diverse intellectual foundations of the liberal tradition.