Conrad Russell and liberalism: Some thoughts in conclusion

(This is the final part of a series of posts about Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. You can find an introduction and links to all the posts here.)

After several posts and a lot of words, we’ve come to the end of my odyssey through An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism, and I hope it’s been of some interest. It’s been an interesting exercise for me, as it’s a good framework for examining liberalism, and the way Russell frames his vision of it allowed me to take a step back from current discussions and conceptions of liberalism to take a wider view. Progressing through the different chapters, I’ve picked up on a few different ideas that run across the book and the conception of liberalism I’ve developed from it, which I’ll go through.

Liberalism as radicalism. By starting back in the 1600s, Russell’s historical account of liberalism doesn’t begin with it as an already accepted and prominent ideology. He points out that British liberalism arose from a turbulent and revolutionary century when all the old certainties had been turned upside down, and early liberal thinkers and writers were on the side of those seeking to overturn the older, not those who wanted to maintain it. This sense of radicalism and of seeking to do things differently is a thread Russell picks up again and again, with the implication that the aim of liberalism is not merely to reform power, but to change it utterly.

Liberalism is concerned with power. I found this one of the most refreshing and interesting ideas from the book. We can too often become obsessed with the idea of liberalism as being about freedom that we forget about the existence of power, or simply wish it away, assuming that it will simply wither away once we have solved the problems of freedom. The problem with this vision — especially when it slides into libertarianism — is that it can tend to assume that the state is the only power that we need concern ourselves with it. To reach its potential, liberalism has to recognise that power — and particularly unaccountable power — can exist outside the state, and indeed the pattern of the future may well be that we need to be more concerned with that form of unaccountable power than traditional state power.

Liberalism evolves. Again, this comes from Russell’s historical analysis, but it frames liberalism as an adaptive philosophy, centred around core principles. Starting from (and always keeping) that principle of controlling arbitrary power, liberalism has been shaped by circumstance, picking up new ideas along the way, but never letting them become its entire focus or overwrite the initial purpose. That’s why talk of ‘classical liberalism’ as though it’s something that can be held up as a yardstick for assessing the value of contemporary liberalism is meaningless. To claim there is some pure form of liberalism that others must be subservient to is to miss the point of it.

Liberalism rejects utopias. Or, liberalism does not believe the ends justify the means. This does not mean that liberalism joins conservatism in denying that things can improve or that people can’t make a utopia but more that we cannot know or predict what utopia will be like until we get there. Decreeing that there is only one way, and we must get there elevates the importance of the end above the means, and allows illiberal measures to slip in from the sides. This can happen for good intentions, but it’s easy for those intentions to be corrupted into a Platonic utopia, where everyone is happy and fulfilled because they’re told that this is the only way they can be happy. A liberal society is an open society, and any power within it must be open to question and be able to be shown to be wrong.

Liberalism needs diversity. If the key to liberalism is to reject that there’s any one central authority that can be correct for everyone, then it needs that plurality of voices within it to provide alternatives and to challenge ideas. To come up with a way that’s good for everyone, everyone’s voices must be heard and no one can assume they can speak for someone else with a different experience to them. A diversity of power at different levels is also important — it may be that one solution doesn’t fit everyone and we need to try different things to see which is the best.

Liberalism must persuade and convince. This sounds obvious — what ideology doesn’t want to persuade and convince? — but we must always remember that consent is a vital part of liberalism, and a vital part of making power accountable. This isn’t just about getting their passive support, but rather their active participation in creating a liberal society which has to be built by the people, not for the people by some elite who know what’s best for them. A truly liberal society can make power accountable by ensuring everyone can control it and participate it, but to build that we need to go out and convince people it’s a good idea, not just sit around and tell ourselves how good we are.

I’m sure I’ll talk about these and other issues more over the coming weeks and months, but it’s been an interesting and an enlightening experience. For me, the most interesting part is to frame liberalism as politics about power, and the implications that come from that. I think we are sometimes very simplistic about power and its implications and tend to assume that going in with good intentions is enough to overcome the strategies of embedded and unaccountable power, and on others we become so obsessed with one form of power that we forget that there are other sources and forms of power that we strengthen by pretending they’re not important.

I think modern liberalism is often comfortable talking about freedom, but uncomfortable when it comes to talking about power, especially in admitting that power exists outside the state. This is shown a lot in a belief that shrinking the state is automatically freeing people, ignoring that removing the protection of the state opens them up to the whims of far more unaccountable and arbitrary powers. It’s also seen in the belief that a free market is intrinsically a good thing, not something that has the potential to be good, but also the potential to be corrupted if power within it is allowed to centralise and dominate.

Beyond these, I think we also need to think much more deeply about how liberalism adopts to the threat posed by climate change (and ‘pretending it’s not happening’ is not a response). Is it possible to develop a fuller ecoliberalism in the light of an understanding of the power we can wield over the environment, or do we continue with an environmentalist liberalism that regards it as an issue of policy and management, rather than one of fundamental principle?

These are important issues that we need to address as we move forward, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers to them. What I do hope is that those of you who have read this have found it interesting, and that it’s helped to spark off your own thoughts. Liberalism is not something carved in tablets of stone that can never be changed or altered, it’s a living thing that we are free to debate, discuss and persuade others to adopt, and I hope I’ve done a bit to encourage some more debate.

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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