August 30, 2019   5 mins

The word liberalism means different things to different people. Indeed, its meanings have become so many and various that, as a word, it may have stopped being useful. But the word won’t go away, so we continue to use it.

From an American perspective, for example, it is often linked with the Left. Which is a bit odd, because for Marx it was, broadly speaking, a philosophy of the Right. For him it represented “an individual separated from community, withdrawn into himself”.

In other words, the Right’s liberalism seeks to protect us from each other, by separating us from each other. To regard other people as a threat to our security and freedom is to undermine precisely the sort of human solidarity that is the proper basis for genuine freedom and human flourishing. And that is how I have always understood liberalism.

So for example, I see neo-liberalism — new liberalism — not as some sort of aberration, but as the authentic face of the liberal tradition. There is a direct line from Locke to Friedrich Hayek, which works on the basic assumption that the best way to oppose the imposition of heteronomous power – originally, the power of absolute monarchy — is by establishing the philosophical ramparts around the individual and their rights.

In the 20th century, capitalism made an easy alliance with this strain of liberalism, both philosophies agreeing with each other that the individual, and the choices the individual makes, are to be regarded as morally sovereign.

I believe, as a Christian and a Marxist – or, at least, someone who has taken seriously the Marxist critique of society, if not its solutions – that this atomisation of society has been responsible for a great deal of human misery, loneliness and alienation, separating us, one from other.

Capitalism isn’t threatened by a political perspective that makes individual choices the foundational move of moral philosophy. Thus, today, woke liberalism happily co-exists with Silicon Valley free market capitalism, both mutually reinforcing. This is the reason liberalism has long been a dirty word for me. Liberalism is a moral alibi for capitalism. And capitalism – at least, in the form in which we have it now – is ultimately a recipe for human unhappiness.

But maybe I have got this all wrong.

Last week, I sat down with the distinguished political philosopher Sir Larry Siedentop to record his Confessions podcast. One of the joys of this series, for me anyway, has been to open myself to the perspectives of others, and have my own world-view challenged. And the person who has managed to rock my understanding of things more than any other has been Sir Larry.

There is another tradition of liberalism, he explained. And, in this tradition, individualism is a dirty word. Read more de Tocqueville, he advised.

If you listen to the interview, you will hear the sound of someone changing his mind. Me. Not that the pieces of this new perspective are all solidly in place. I have lots of reading to do. But talking to Sir Larry, I saw something different. A new way to configure my understanding of things.

The point of Tocqueville’s liberalism, he explained, is to disperse power, not to establish the individual as some impregnable citadel with its fortifications directed towards our fellow human beings. Individuals are freed from the oppressive power of absolute monarchy or Papal proclamation, not so that they can become free-floating centres of self-government, but precisely so that they can form “associations”, and thus, through the power of these new collectives, disperse power throughout society.

The basic point is this: that the ultimate purpose of the strain of liberalism Sir Larry was pointing to was not to release the individual from any authority other than itself but simply to oppose over-weaning concentrations of power. And the best way to do this is through the power of human association, often expressed in terms of institutions – parliaments, the judiciary, the armed forces, the media, the church, even football clubs, even the monarchy.

Taking Jesse Norman’s Confession earlier this week – the episode is out on Monday – he suggested that Tocqueville lifted a lot of this from his hero, Edmund Burke. And there is certainly something in this idea of association that is reminiscent of the ‘little platoons’ that Burke famously talked about. But I will leave the provenance of this idea to the academics. My interest is in its explanatory power.

What attracts me about this dispersal of power idea is firstly that it makes sense of liberalism’s moral crusade against concentrations of power, without collapsing into atomisation. Also, it helps explain the need for resistance to concentrations of power other than that of the monarch or the pope. So, for example, the same logic can be applied to  the city of London or the tech monopolies.

In other words, liberalism does have the resources to take on capitalism, without destroying its wealth-creating potential. Society is an organism, and the various parts of the organism have their place, but should not get above themselves.

By this explanation, neo-liberalism – and its over-estimation of the market – is not a new, improved version of liberal logic, but a violation of its core purpose: to disperse power. In a piece I wrote on conservative anti-capitalism the other week, I looked at the emergence of conservatives who are starting to argue that the market has become a threat to many of its traditional values: family, church, even nation.

It was the Cold War that bent traditional conservatism out of shape: the binary nature of the choice it presented – communism vs capitalism – forced us to throw all in with the market as the basis for resistance to state authoritarianism, as expressed by the Soviet Union. But this was a temporary alliance, and the collapse of communism has now freed conservatives to ask whether market forces were ever really their friend.

Something similar may have happened to liberalism, with neo-liberalism having become so obsessed with the threat of communism that it didn’t recognise that it had justified a whole new apparatus of control: market forces.

This idea that liberalism is properly expressed as the dispersal of power has some unusual consequences. For example, I was astonished that Sir Larry expressed the view that the eradication of the class system in this country enabled power to be concentrated in London, the gentry having previously jealously guarded their regional power.

Not that anyone would seriously argue for a return to class deference as a means of re-establishing regionalism. But at least this should give us pause if we think of liberalism as a crusade to do away with the power of a few toffs pottering around their estates, dead-heading their roses and worrying how to keep the rain out of their castles.

These are old battles, long won. The new battles must square up to the power of Google and Facebook and Apple. Or, more controversially, resist the power of the judiciary to extend the application of rights language to areas of our lives that are properly political – as Jonathan Sumption has ably argued in his recent Reith lectures.

The idea of power dispersed is also at the heart of our debates about the EU. Some of us see the repatriation of powers to national governments as a means of resistance to the desire of the European Union to accrue ever greater power to itself. In a world of globalisation, the nation state is an important expression of regionalism.

Others, of course, see the EU as the guarantor of rights and freedoms that protect us from the power of big business and even the venal majoritarianism of political nationalism. Though my sympathies are firmly with the former position, both are arguments that seek the dispersal of power.

But there are some less controversial policy decisions that liberalism as power dispersal points to. Scrap HS2. Its too much about London being at the centre of things. Take seriously the northern powerhouse. An English Parliament is a must, with ever greater power devolved from Westminster to the regions. Oh, and I’d nationalise the trains, essential utilities and even the banks (no, the Marxist in me hasn’t gone away).

Sir Larry thinks Brexit will mean a federal version of the United Kingdom, and a written constitution. I’m not convinced, but these are the right things to be speculating about.

If liberalism is to survive as a positive force within society, it needs to move away from the idea that the human individual is sovereign and appreciate that human flourishing requires society. And that society – association, if you like – requires a continual revolution of power redistribution.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.