21 October 2019

The real threat to liberalism is not the populist right

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Sometimes it seems the world can be divided in two:

Those who have read Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate and those who have yet to. Grossman’s novel, set mainly in the Soviet Union during the battle of Stalingrad, has been compared to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Its title consciously echoes its predecessor’s.

But whatever their comparative literary merits, as an historical portrait – Life and Fate is in an altogether different league. If one single document were permitted to survive from the last century, it would have to be Grossman’s account of the twin totalitarianisms of Stalinism and Nazism and their ideological symbiosis.

Beyond the immensity of the historical terrain it covers, there is something deeply amiss in our own times which Grossman’s narration speaks to. Last year the Russian theatre director Lev Dodin brought a staged version to London. ‘I firmly believe that we are experiencing yet another catastrophe: the failure of human memory,’ Dodin told the FT. Of immediate significance is the rampant anti-Semitism of today’s Hard Left, a feature also of German left-wing terrorism in the 1970s.

Last month, the FT’s Gideon Rachman wrote that Grossman’s argument for the primacy of the individual over the group ‘still feels vital and urgent, 60 years after it was written.’ Political ideas that emphasise group identity over individual rights are back in fashion, Rachman argues, as both the nationalist right and the progressive left slide toward identity politics and away from the liberal insistence on equal rights for individuals.

One can agree with this formulation while finding it unsatisfactory. Something important, indeed, decisive, is missing. For Grossman, freedom was the supreme political value. ‘There is no end in the world for the sake of which it is permissible to sacrifice human freedom,’ Grossman wrote in his final novel, Everything Flows.

At the core of that novel is an account of the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s and there are passages in Life and Fate that stand as paeans to freedom. ‘Man’s innate yearning for freedom can be suppressed but never destroyed,’ Grossman writes in answer to his own question as to whether totalitarianism changes human nature. ‘Man does not renounce freedom voluntarily. This conclusion holds out hope for our time, hope for the future.’

Grossman evokes Tolstoy in his telling of ordinary Russian soldiers fighting and acting autonomously from the state and Stalin to free their Motherland. ‘Freedom engendered the Russian victory. Freedom was the apparent aim of the war.’ It would be betrayed by the ‘sly fingers of history’ tipping the scales in the silent quarrel between the victorious people and the victorious State. ‘On the outcome of this quarrel depended the destiny, the freedom, of Man.’

By contrast, too often modern liberals are embarrassed by freedom. The real threat to freedom doesn’t come from the nativist Right, who have put virtually nothing onto the statute book, but from modern liberalism that has become little more than a conduit for the promotion of a progressive agenda, one that’s often at war with embedded social values.

In doing so, liberalism is widening the division between governors and the governed. Tolerance, for example of transgender people, has morphed into intolerance of the rights to privacy of women and girls. The rise of populism, which liberals blame on demagogues and the unenlightened, reactionary mass of the population, is their doing. Liberalism has become illiberal, bringing about a crisis of liberal democracy.

When the centre does not hold, things fall apart. Last year, the FT’s Martin Wolf spoke to Goldman Sachs about climate change and global governance. Global concerns were becoming more transcendent, according to the doyen of Britain’s liberal commentariat. ‘It may be, at the end, the democratic principle will go. It’s gone many times before and we may end up in more or less benevolent autocracies,’ Wolf suggested. ‘Thus, with tragic clarity,’ Grossman wrote in Everything Flows, ‘was made manifest a sacred law of life: human freedom stands above everything.’ Many of today’s liberals disagree. There are transcendent global challenges that stand above freedom.

Freedom of expression is freedom’s capstone. Before victory at Stalingrad led to the re-imposition of Stalin’s repression, a cast of Grossman’s characters relocate 500 miles east of Moscow and drink the air of relative freedom. They talk about censorship. Some give rein to forbidden opinions. Others stick to the party line. Back in Moscow and the return of repression, they find themselves isolated from each other, incarcerated in a state of solitary helplessness, something that can also be heard in the music of Grossman’s contemporary, Dmitri Shostakovich. Being forbidden from freely expressing one’s opinions and ideas is not to be fully human.

In liberal democracies too, there are ideas deemed subversive and against the public interest that are forbidden in the public square. Rather than direct state censorship, the mechanism is through the mass media.

This process was first analysed by the German pollster Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, who dubbed it the spiral of silence. ‘The fear of isolation seems to be the force that sets the spiral of silence in motion,’ she argued. The mass media shapes the climate of opinion, but reflects the views of a small section of the social elite and provides people with the words and phrases they need to defend a point of view. ‘If people find no current, frequently repeated expressions for their point of view, they lapse into silence; they become effectively mute.’

One can see the spiral of silence at work on the debate, or rather its absence, on whether climate change presages a planetary catastrophe. It is bad ideas, so it is said, in the form of climate denial that prevent action to save the planet, therefore people who hold those views should be muzzled. (In reality, global carbon dioxide emissions have been rising over the last three decades because the world was experiencing an unprecedented reduction in global poverty.)

Nor was it the media’s liberal elites who came to the defence of the sacked Cambridge academic, Noah Carl, but a mid-market tabloid. Liberal media outlets no longer believe in freedom to express dissenting views.

Media conformity is the enemy of a liberal democracy. The antidote is media heterogeneity. As Noelle-Neumann put it, ‘the apparent consensus arising out of a one-sided media reality can only be avoided if reporters of various political persuasions present their points of view to the public.’ This, though, is not enough.

The philosopher Karl Popper defined an open society as one based on the idea of not merely tolerating dissenting opinions, but respecting them. By this standard, modern liberalism has become an enemy of the open society. In embracing its antithesis, liberalism has destroyed itself as a coherent political philosophy.

Illiberal liberalism is no more – and no less – than the assorted prejudices and opinions of the most powerful group in Western democracies.

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Rupert Darwall is the author of 'Green Tyranny'