This essay, on radical and conservative critiques of liberalism, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 2 October 2022, under the headline “From Aristotle to Meloni, the ‘common good’ has been used to divide and rule”.
A prime minister elevated to her role on the basis of 81,000 votes from Conservative party members; the imposition of a regressive “mini”-budget; a policy that a majority of people oppose but the real challenge to which has come through the actions of a handful of speculators and financiers.
The mini-crisis that has followed the mini-budget has symbolised many people’s sense of a world in which bad things happen but over which they have little control. It’s a perception that has both underpinned the critique of liberal globalism that shapes much of politics today from the left to the far right and sown confusions about how to distinguish between progressive and reactionary critiques.
The success of the Brothers of Italy movement in last week’s general elections, following that of the far-right Sweden Democrats two weeks before, was the latest expression of public disenchantment with mainstream parties. In her post-election speech, Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni excoriated liberalism and globalism, condemned belief in universal rights and denounced the reduction of people to the status of “consumer slaves”. It caught the imagination of many mainstream figures, both left and right, who embraced Meloni as “saying what we all think”, or suggested that she presents a “communitarian challenge… to the Kantian universalism of the EU”.
Meloni’s themes have in fact long been embedded in the history of the reactionary right and are rooted in a regressive hostility to migrants, Muslims and equal rights. But her condemnation of contemporary capitalism also resonates much more widely, echoing many leftwing critiques.
In his new book Blue Labour, Labour peer Maurice Glasman attacks liberal globalisation in similar terms, arguing for the importance of communal bonds and mutual obligations in a world that emphasises individual rights and autonomy. Capitalism, he writes, “treats human beings and nature as commodities”, leading to “degradation, powerlessness and inequality”.
Glasman views the British labour movement as rooted in many sources, from Aristotelian virtue ethics to the ancient “freeborn Englishman” tradition. From these different traditions, he argues, the labour movement can derive an ideal of the “common good”, helping create a barrier to the depredations of capital.
It’s an argument echoed by many communitarian and “post-liberal” thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic; figures such as Michael Sandel and Thomas Frank, David Goodhart and Matthew Goodwin. Repelled by the excessive individualism of liberalism, many of these thinkers now take their cue from the “faith, flag and family” conservatism of Edmund Burke. Glasman himself calls Blue Labour a form of “Burkean socialism”.
The idea of the “common good” can, however, obscure as much as it illuminates, and is wielded as often to exclude and divide as to include and bind. When Aristotle wrote of the common good, he excluded the concerns of women, manual labourers, slaves and others deemed not to be citizens. In early modern England, Catholics were seen as outside the moral community, Jews even more so. Today, migrants and Muslims often play a similar role as the people against whom the moral community is defined.
“The real price of community,” the late philosopher Roger Scruton argued, is “intolerance, exclusion” and “vigilance against the enemy”. Scruton was no Blue Labourite or post-liberal but an authentic High Tory conservative. His Burkean views on culture and nationhood have, however, profoundly influenced post-liberal thinkers. In imagining the “common good”, many have come to see the “good” as defined through a restricted notion of the “common”.
This circumscribed notion of the common good can be seen in many contemporary claims, such as the distinction often drawn between “hard-working families” and “welfare scroungers”. Most clearly, though, it can be seen in attitudes to immigration from the support that many have given to the unconscionable Rwandan deportation scheme and Goodhart’s view that Theresa May’s “hostile environment” policy, which led to the Windrush scandal, was “obviously” right, the “only thing wrong” being “its awful name”.
The irony is that the appropriation of Burkean notions of community cuts against the grain of the Blue Labour stress on class. Much Blue Labour analysis observes how the embrace of globalisation and free-market policies has led to the marginalisation of class politics and hence of working-class needs. In asserting an exclusive moral community, however, the same voices obscure class interests in the name of community or nation.
Rather than seeing low wages or a lack of housing as the products of public policy that marginalise the needs of the working class, they come to be seen as the result of immigrants stealing jobs and housing. It’s an approach that only gives legitimacy to the real reactionaries, allowing the likes of Meloni to assert with Scruton that “the real price of community” is “intolerance, exclusion” and “vigilance against the enemy”.
Thinkers such as Glasman are right in insisting that any immigration policy, liberal or restrictive, requires a democratic mandate. But there is no requirement that you must therefore argue for unconscionable policies. There is no iron law that the public has to be hostile to immigration; indeed, over the past decade the British public has become more relaxed about immigration even as numbers have stayed high, a development that seems to have confused many Blue Labour and post-liberal figures.
Burkean conservatism is not the only critique of liberal individualism, nor the only way of thinking of “communities”. For much of the past two centuries there has existed a more radical challenge to liberalism and a radical notion of community, envisioned as a collective movement for social transformation.
It was a radicalism embodied in figures as diverse as the Chartist Ernest Jones, the great African American leader Frederick Douglass, Sylvia Pankhurst, the most militant of the Suffragettes, and the Caribbean Marxist philosopher and historian CLR James. They rejected liberal individualism and Burkean conservatism, embraced the significance of collective action, and were hostile to market philosophy, indeed often hostile to capitalism. That radical universalism has today largely disappeared as a social force, leaving many clinging to narrower, more Burkean concepts of identity and community.
The critique of liberal individualism and of globalisation is vital. How we critique them and what aspects we critique is equally important. Otherwise we simply normalise the reactionary politics of a figure like Meloni, even coming to believe that she is “saying what we all think”.