Is a “new liberalism” possible?

There is a lot to think about in this piece by historian Timothy Garton Ash in Prospect. He writes, “In the half-jesting spirit of the Polish philosopher Leszek Kloakowski’s celebrated 1978 essay “How to Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist,” I propose that we should be “conservative-socialist-liberals.”

A taste:

Here I have offered only a few notes towards this renewal of liberalism. I am building on the work of many others, and hope that others will build on mine in turn. I do not pretend to elaborate a normative theory. Nor do I propose a comprehensive policy programme. There is, Mill tells us, “no necessity for a universal synthesis.” Indeed, the pursuit of maximalist, one-size-fits-all solutions was part of the rationalistic hubris of technocratic liberalism over the last 30 years. It strayed too far from Karl Popper’s “piecemeal engineering.” For liberalism should never be a closed system but rather an open method, a combination of evidence-based realism and moral aspiration, always ready to learn from others’ and our own mistakes.

This new liberalism will be stalwart in the defence of liberal essentials, such as human rights, the rule of law and limited government, and the epistemic freedoms of speech and enquiry that are indispensable for liberalism as method rather than system. It will be experimental, proceeding by trial and error, open to learning from other traditions, such as conservatism and socialism, and equipped with the imaginative sympathy we need to see through the eyes of others. It will prize emotional intelligence as well as the scientific kind. And it will recognise that in many relatively free countries we have something close to a corporate-plutocratic-oligarchic stranglehold on the state. This needs to be broken, by democratic means, or else the electoral procedures of democracy will continue to be exploited to subvert liberalism, as populists (sometimes themselves plutocrats) stir up unhappy majorities against “liberalocracy.”

This new liberalism will remain universalist, but with a sober, nuanced universalism, alert to the diversity of perspectives, priorities and experiences of cultures and countries outside the mainstream of the historic west, and cognisant of the shift in world power away from the west. It will remain individualist, dedicated to achieving the greatest liberty of the individual compatible with the liberty of others, but this will be a realistic, contextual individualism. At its best, liberalism has always understood that human beings never are what Jeremy Waldron has called the “self-made atoms of liberal fantasy,” but rather live embedded in multiple kinds of community that speak to deep psychological needs for belonging and recognition. This new liberalism will remain egalitarian, seeking equal life chances, but understanding that the cultural and socio-psychological aspects of inequality are as important as the economic ones. Last but not least, it will remain meliorist, but with a sceptical, historically informed meliorism, recognising that history has cycles as well as lines, reverses as well as advances, and that human progress is, in the very best case, only a gradually upward corkscrew trajectory, with downward turns along the way.

Great writers and rhetorically gifted leaders will then be called upon to blend this into a narrative more emotionally appealing than those with which demagogic terribles simplificateurs are currently seducing millions of unhappy hearts. This will be a liberalism of fear (in Judith Shklar’s celebrated phrase) but it must also be a liberalism of hope. As in a double helix, fear of the human barbarism that can always return will be intertwined with hope for a human civilisation that we partly have, and of which we may yet build more.

Read the entire piece here.