The reactionary liberalism of Tim Farron

Yesterday, my Facebook feed did the one thing it’s good at and reminded me of an anniversary. July 16th 2015 was the day the Liberal Democrat leadership election concluded and Tim Farron was announced as the party’s new leader. I don’t think any of us expected the five years that followed, not least that the party would now be in the midst of its third leadership election after that one, or that he would be marking the fifth anniversary of his election with a post like this:

In brief: “real” liberalism involves standing up to “cancel culture” (though he can’t define what that means); if you block someone on Twitter because you dislike them, you’re not a liberal; and liberals should stand up for marginalised groups, just like Christians do, which is why we should support JK Rowling while not mentioning trans people at all.

Yes, it’s rather odd and offensive, while yet again revealing that Farron isn’t very good at defining things and understanding some concepts, like that time he tried to claim that atheism doesn’t exist because it involves believing in nothing, therefore it can’t believe in itself, and seriously, I still have no idea what he was talking about.

There are lots of problems with the free speech absolutism that Tim advocates for here, much of which has been explored in the century and half since John Stuart Mill wrote On Liberty by many, many other writers. One problem modern liberalism faces is that there are far too many people who act as though everything liberalism ever is or could be was defined by a bunch of 18th and 19th century men who put together the Big Book Of Liberalism, and all issues can be resolved by looking back to what they wrote. The history and thinking of the 20th and 21st centuries is being interpreted through the experience of a privileged few from a long time ago and ending up as an odd Victorian cosplay liberalism. Yes, The Open Society And Its Enemies is a tougher read than On Liberty, but at least try to understand the Paradox of Tolerance before saying people should be able to “agree to disagree” with those who are calling for their elimination.

One of the most interesting essays on liberalism I’ve read recently is Osita Nwanevu’s “The Willful Blindness of Reactionary Liberalism” in The New Republic.

Nwanevu argues that there’s a reactionary liberalism that’s trying to reduce everything down to individualistic arguments about freedom of speech and the like, but what it’s pitted itself against is not illiberal but rather a broader progressive liberalism that takes a wider view of liberalism:

[S]ome of the major sociopolitical controversies of the past few years should be understood as conflicts not between liberalism and something else but between parties placing emphasis on different liberal freedoms⁠ — chiefly freedom of speech, a popular favorite which needs no introduction, and freedom of association, the under-heralded right of individuals to unite for a common purpose or in alignment with a particular set of values. Like free speech, freedom of association has been enshrined in liberal democratic jurisprudence here and across the world; liberal theorists from John Stuart Mill to John Rawls have declared it one of the essential human liberties. Yet associative freedom is often entirely absent from popular discourse about liberalism and our political debates, perhaps because liberals have come to take it entirely for granted.

… Some of our affiliations, including the major identity categories, are involuntary, and this is among the complications that makes associative freedom as messy as it is important. Just as the principle of free speech forces us into debates over hate speech, obscenity, and misinformation, association is the root of identity-based discrimination and other ills.

I could quote Nwanevu extensively but instead I’d invite you to read and think over the essay which I think makes a vital point about liberalism’s issues in dealing with conflicts between the material and the ideal. It’s not a new idea — you can date it back to at least Marx’s German Ideology — but I think it’s the stumbling block that Farron and others want to ignore and instead crash into when rushing to claim that defending free speech is the sine qua non of liberalism. The idealistic vision of liberalism is that we must make everyone free and so all constraints are equally abhorrent and must be challenged. The materialist response to that is that yes, constraints on individual action are bad, but — to quote an old song — freedom of speech won’t feed my children. It’s all well and good standing up for your ideals, but when people are hurting because of them, what good are you actually doing in the world?

Reactionary liberalism is the curdled form of idealistic liberalism, imagining that most or all big problems have been solved, and any critique of this position is almost by definition illiberal because liberal democracy has “won” and therefore anything other than the most minor critique is obviously seeking to bring everything down. Progressive liberalism challenges this worldview by saying that we may have come far, but there is still a lot further left to go and a lot more progress needs to be made in actually improving people’s lives. Progressives believe that liberalism has to be have something to say about how to improve people’s material circumstances so they can have practical freedom and power in their own day to day lives.

What’s frustrating about Tim Farron is that it always felt that he was strongly in the progressive camp and committed to that social liberal view that the material was of vital importance, that liberalism needed to be about giving real power to people, not just hope and ideals. The problem is that over the last few years, all this has been eclipsed by his desire to jump on the bandwagon of reactionary liberalism and proclaim his own oppression. This then culminates in the spectacle of “real liberalism” being invoked to provide cover for the already powerful to evade any responsibility for their actions while ignoring those who are suffering because of it. Liberalism should be about challenging unaccountable power and working to lift up those trampled underfoot by it, not providing a rhetorical smokescreen for them to hide behind. We used to think Tim Farron was keen on the former, sadly now he seems to have devoted himself to the latter.

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

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