Am I a liberal? This might sound like a peculiar question because surely everybody is these days. Even most self-proclaimed fascists and authoritarians will, upon inspection, turn out to be merely molesting a liberal hegemony that they do not actually have any sincere alternative to. President Putin, for example, is always criticising the West for hypocritically failing to live up to its own liberalism, but in such a way as to conspicuously reconfirm the pre-eminence of a liberalism that he cannot live up to either.
Adam Gopnik’s treatise A Thousand Small Sanities, which was published in May, might initially take you aback with the fulsomeness of its defence of liberalism. It is not so much raging against the dying of the light as insisting that there is still plenty of sunshine left. I admire Gopnik’s optimism but I am not sure how convincing or practical it is in the end. Indeed, having had liberalism explained to me, thoughtfully and imaginatively, for over two-hundred pages, I put down Gopnik’s book not knowing whether or not I like liberalism or even whether I am a liberal. So let’s walk back through the book again to see.
We will need to have our own definition of liberalism on hand, just in case Gopnik’s gives out on us. I should indicate that this review is written in the UK, where liberalism has the run of the political centre and it roams deep into both the left and the right. In the USA, where Gopnik is based, liberalism tends to be more at home on the left.
A liberal society is a very self-consciously organised one and it is invariably organised around the rights of its citizens. Yet liberalism does not just blithely issue rights and liberties, because such a system would quickly collapse into the most horrendous mess. For instance, one person’s economic freedoms might impinge upon the rights of other citizens to access essential commodities. With this, the focus shifts from the individual to society and to how society can be organised to minimise the proliferating chaos of conflicting individual rights.
A liberal would say that liberalism had emerged as a corrective reaction to the caprices of aristocratic, royalist, and tyrannical modes of government. A Marxist would say, probably more realistically, that liberalism is a bourgeois phenomenon and that it is basically an ethical lubrication for the machinery of markets.
Gopnik’s definition goes like this:
Liberalism is an evolving political practice that makes the case for the necessity and possibility of (imperfectly) egalitarian social reform and ever greater (if not absolute) tolerance of human difference through reasoned and (mostly) unimpeded conversation, demonstration, and debate.
When Gopnik describes this definition as “an infuriating sentence… I doubt that I’ve ever put down a clumsier one,” this clumsiness is actually the key to the definition, if not most of the definition itself. We are being here guaranteed that liberalism is not flashy and sloganistic. Gopnik can elsewhere draw fully upon the sloganising of the political centre, as when he toots Blairishly that, “liberalism is a fact-first philosophy with a feelings-first history.” But he generally maintains that liberalism is more muddled, more down-to-earth, and more relaxed than other ideologies.
Throughout Gopnik’s book he is dipping in and out of a conversation with his seventeen-year-old daughter Olivia. She never seems to solicit or encourage his advice and for a writer to use a child in this way is an expedient that is most infamous from Mary Ann Bighead’s columns in Private Eye. With Olivia, though, the purpose of her presence in the book is to surprise liberalism at home with the family, and to consequently imply that all other ideologies are like being at work, in the synthetic world of the workplace. Nonetheless, Olivia proves inadequate for saving liberalism and so, along with his daughter, Gopnik is soon herding a rhinoceros.
Liberalism is, Gopnik decides, a rhinoceros. With this, he updates the contemporary political cliché of “the Brexit unicorn” or renders it unexpectedly three-dimensional. The unicorn is “the dream image of the rhinoceros, the single horned animal reported on and then idealised by the medieval imagination.” Whereas unicorns are “perfect imaginary creatures we chase and will never find,” the unglamorous rhinoceros is real and it is “a completely successful animal.” Gopnik argues that liberalism:
depends on shadings and qualifications… Like the rhino, it aggravates by its ungainliness. Yet what liberalism has in its favour are the facts. Liberals get nothing accomplished – except everything, eventually.
One might observe that a rhinoceros is a gigantic moron that trundles around smashing things with a horn. This perhaps enhances Gopnik’s metaphor to show what the EU has done to several European economies. The problem here, however, is not actually the menace of the rhinoceros but rather its general want of sex appeal. Once we are politically cuddling up to the rhinoceros, we are being reconciled with how dreary politics and the world supposedly are. With the rhinoceros, Olivia is being told that, yes you might identify with that fancy Che Guevara for now, but soon you will be old and boring and grumpy, like me, your father. As Gopnik spitefully concludes, “liberalism accepts imperfection as a fact of existence.”
The second-rate is thus, like Aesop’s tortoise (no doubt an even more liberal animal than Gopnik’s rhinoceros) the ultimate winner. When liberalism’s heroes step forward, they are suitably unheroic. Gopnik claims of Adam Smith that “the uneventfulness of his life is part of its modernity.” Even when the heroes that are available for Gopnik to use as examples appear uncharacteristically splendid, his instinct is to go for even more modest and subdued alternatives. He favours Bayard Rustin over Mahatma Gandhi and Harriet Taylor Mill over Mary Wollstonecraft. He is obviously happier in the company of Michel de Montaigne than in that of William Shakespeare.
One fears for how this reviling of razzmatazz is going to fare within modern politics. The technocrat, with their lowering of horizons and dampening of mass enthusiasm, is implicitly the ideal liberal product. It is only unfortunate that these days technocrats are so widely and thoroughly despised amongst the world’s electorates.
Still, one of the likeable things about Gopnik’s book is that it not only takes opposing arguments seriously, but it explores them empathetically and often details their nuances fairly. We get to know liberalism by considering quite why the right and the left “hate” it so much. These straw men appear in steel armour and they are given such freedoms that they are at times in danger of overrunning the entire book. And it is here that I fall into puzzling about where my own sympathies lie.
What of the right? According to Gopnik, the right views authority as deriving from “order” and the sources of this typically include tradition, the family, the community, and religious faith. The trouble is that there is usually more than one of these sources. I here agree with Gopnik’s counter-argument. I agree that there is no realistic moral alternative to the coexistence of different worldviews within a liberal society.
What of the left? According to Gopnik, the left views authority as deriving from essentialism. This is the idea that people have a “true nature” and that this quality will become apparent in the experiences of downtrodden social minorities or in the prejudices of more privileged ones. I here agree with Gopnik’s counter-argument. I agree that there is no realistic moral alternative to the pursuit of universal consensus that characterises a liberal society.
Aha!, shrieks Gopnik, pouncing, well if you agree that liberalism survives the left and right-wing criticisms of it then you have to accept all that comes with this. A dreary, small-scale politics that is based upon bargaining and compromise. A knuckling down for long-term, incremental, social reforms rather than any revolutionary wallop. Hang on!, I despair, what is this that I have signed up to?
Gopnik’s liberalism demands the cultivation of a wilful far-sightedness. We have to focus on those grand, powerful ideals in the background and try to ignore how unspectacular they look when they are up close and personal. Those ideals in the background are definitely very fine. Freedom of speech and democratic lawmaking have completed our politics and made modernity possible. Without them, we would be in a permanent crisis, in which nothing could be achieved politically until we had gone through all of the hard, violent work of restoring them again.
Even so, these institutions are also rather like good manners. It would be extremely peculiar to assume that they are the end of history or the climax of human progress. Liberal institutions are certainly a precondition of progress but they cannot in any respect replace the bitter power struggles that comprise politics. History is, I am afraid, an ongoing and escalating conflict between the haves and the have-nots. It is not merely a conversation, or even a competition, between citizens with different needs. One should never mistake the twittering of the birds for the law of the jungle. Just ask the rhinoceros!
Recently, phenomena such as Brexit or Les Gilets Jaunes have unnervingly clarified the flimsiness of liberal politics and the ominous lack of passivity amongst its discontents. If Gopnik is in peril of sounding naïve about how his liberalism operates in the field, here is a report from the Guardian this June:
About 200 gilets jaunes have staged a “march of the mutilated” through central Paris. Among them were people seriously injured in demonstrations since the movement started last November. Several had lost an eye or limb in clashes with riot police. The marchers called for an end to “repressive ultra-violence” and a ban on police use of explosive grenades and rubber bullets. The French interior ministry estimates 2,448 protesters and 1,797 police and gendarmes have been injured since the weekly protests began on 17 November.
These guys are trooping back to the liberal institutions. They have encountered the hidden state power that always underpins these institutions, a power that is rapidly unveiled whenever liberalism’s exquisite balance of interests is in danger of being tipped over by a majority of poor people who want better lives.
On Brexit, a liberal would be expected to remain detached and empathetic and to hunt for some ingenious compromise. It is rather telling that Gopnik is completely defeated by this subject. He comes to no useful position at all on it. In a high irony, he crowd-pleasingly dismisses the Brexiteer Nigel Farage as “a transparent nothing,” but Farage’s stance on Brexit is at least, when compared to Gopnik’s, coherent.
It is also potentially greatly more liberal. Brexit prioritises the practice and the institutions of mass-participatory democracy over the EU’s unending evasions of it. Gopnik’s liberalism is still fecund enough to generate a surprisingly sharp, non-economic critique of the Eurozone. For him, such universalist projects substitute “absurdly grandiose abstract ideas for the tragic wisdom of lived experience and end by offering their citizens nothing to live by or with except a currency.” He is undoubtedly correct about this particular “transparent nothing.”
To tweak a familiar criticism of the EU, when confronted with the failures of liberalism, Gopnik’s prescription is only ever more liberalism. His liberal compassion “tends on the whole to favour reform over revolution,” to cajoling the EU into better shape rather than wrenching its rottenness all away. But the EU’s malaise will increasingly haunt the onlooker with memories of those societies where a reforming spirit didn’t work or even had no serious hope: the Weimar Republic; the worthlessness of Russia’s February Revolution; or even, in extremis, the horrors of the Western Front, where a lack of any revolutionary challenge to the status quo had culminated in an apocalyptic societal breakdown.
Gopnik might point to George Washington and Tom Paine as evidence that “liberals are not afraid of revolution.” Yet the quaint affairs that these men had led were the sweet fruits of simpler societies, in which the mass media was unavailable and the power of democracy was largely unknown. Moreover, the nearer that we get to modernity, the more that Gopnik turns to individualism as his last trump. When he commends Bayard Rustin’s “possession of an almost perfect liberal temperament,” we might wonder whether a bad man can be a liberal. It is as if liberalism is now synonymous with common psychological wellbeing.
This is where Gopnik’s liberalism has been leading us to all this time: therapy. We might suspect that we have been herded, along with Olivia and the rhinoceros, into outright irrelevance. Gopnik exhorts us to stay sane and to let a thousand small sanities bloom, without recourse to any disruptive idealism or ambition. For a book that had begun with the slaying of a unicorn, its ending sounds remarkably otherworldly.