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Liberals got walloped in 2016. Can ‘post-liberalism’ rise from the ashes?

Brexit and Trump hurled rotten fruit at a liberal consensus that included our own former Prime Minister Key. Is the emerging ‘post-liberal’ approach something to reach for, or a recipe for xenophobia? David Hall writes.

Who will defend liberalism now? Now that Trump is doubling-down on his sourest impulses? Now that far-right populists are empowered in Europe’s hinterland and in Europe itself? Is liberalism just the mulch that feeds whatever’s coming next?

I first heard the term “post-liberalism” in the United Kingdom, bandied about by David Goodhart, head of non-partisan think tank Demos. In a 2014 pamphlet, “A Post-liberal Future?”, he noted a curious convergence in the outskirts of Labour and Conservative Party thinking, a retreat from full-throated economic and social liberalism.

On the left was Blue Labour. On the right, the Red Tories. Both factions shared a nostalgia for “family, faith and flag”, a wistfulness for the days before mass immigration, fluctuating commodity prices, and predatory global capital. Goodhart saw this as the seeds of post-liberalism, a new consensus that might emerge “if the current fiscal orthodoxy fails”.

JACKSON, MS - AUGUST 24: Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump, right, greets United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage during a campaign rally at the Mississippi Coliseum on August 24, 2016 in Jackson, Mississippi. Thousands attended to listen to Trump's address in the traditionally conservative state of Mississippi. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

The men who ate liberalism: Nigel Farage and Donald Trump. Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Since then, this regressive agenda rapidly found its footing in mainstream British politics. Former Labour leader Ed Miliband dabbled in its rhetoric, but it took UKIP’s Nigel Farage to create something revolutionary, to merge this sepia-toned sentimentalism with the toxic passions of outright xenophobia. It was this – and The Sun – wot won the EU referendum.

The spoils of Brexit’s poisoned victory fell to Theresa May. As prime minister, she’s avoided Farage’s extremism, opting instead for a patriotic insularism that sounds remarkably like what Goodhart was anticipating. At the Conservative Conference in October 2016, she declared: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”

Clearly this was a pitch for the 52 per cent who voted to leave the EU. But it was also a snook at the 48 per cent who didn’t: the jet-setting elites, the tax-dodging bankers, the European integrationists, the whinging academics, and anyone else who believed that 20th century liberalism spelled the end of history.

Our former prime minister, John Key, was one such liberal. Indeed, he was often accused of being something worse: a neoliberal. But those were the days when “neoliberalism” was a term of abuse merely from the left. Nowadays, neoliberalism is also under attack from the right, from a volatile resurgence of nationalists, reactionaries, isolationists, and alt-right white supremacists.

This was never Key’s constituency. He steered the National Party away from the overt racism of Don Brash. In power, he resisted divisive language toward new migrants (except for his unnecessary meanness toward “boat people”) and oversaw a rise in working visa approvals. He is an internationalist, a migrant himself who lived for several years in Singapore and London. Key is precisely the sort of person that May slandered as “a citizen of the world”. He was also the target of blatant anti-Semitism during New Zealand’s 2014 election campaign.

But Key has left us – and he leaves precisely when the liberalism he represented is facing a worldwide stress test. This is sure to be top of the agenda at the ongoing International Democratic Union meetings in Munich, an international coalition of centre-right parties for which Key is Chairman.

Because Brexit challenges prevailing liberal ideas that capital and labour should be free to move, and that open borders are good for business. This is surely why Key was relaxed about immigration. But Prime Minister May is angling for a trade-off: she wants open markets without open borders. This is something that the European Union cannot countenance, so the United Kingdom looks increasingly likely to take the plunge, to defy the liberal presumptions that have fuelled globalisation.

So what does this mean for New Zealand? Prime Minister Bill English’s recent sojourn to Europe makes clear that the government’s commitment to trade is unperturbed. The major likely difference is that New Zealand will negotiate a deal not only with the European Union, but also with an independent UK.

But the curlier question is immigration. There is every possibility that New Zealand will follow other countries in making immigration a touchstone issue in this year’s general election. This won’t be driven only by xenophobia, but by voters who – rightly and wrongly – connect immigration to wider concerns about housing, wage stagnation, poverty, foreign ownership, and environmental strain.

This creates temptations for political leaders of all stripes. Certainly, I’d be unpleasantly surprised if English was any more prone to race-baiting than his predecessor, yet it isn’t hard to imagine him adapting aspects of the post-liberal agenda. There’s the small c-conservatism. The keen interest in real world outcomes. The commitment to social investment. The aversion from the severe austerity that Britain self-imposed. Indeed, one of Blue Labour’s architects, Lord Maurice Glasman, once enthused to me: “New Zealand is a very Blue Labour country!”

The real test is English’s willingness to “take back control” of issues like immigration and housing, where Key declined to. This will depend on his perceptions of how anxious New Zealand voters are to be sheltered from the winds of change. Personally I doubt these anxieties are as widespread in New Zealand as the UK or US. But the public’s ambivalence over the Trans-Pacific Partnership suggests that, even before the political shocks of 2016, the patience for business-as-usual was waning. Moreover, there are at least three other party leaders who appear to be betting that the electorate will warm to more protectionism, more expansionism, perhaps even a smidgen of paternalism. If this is the future that beckons, it could be a crowded space.

So does this spell the end for liberalism? Not necessarily. On Goodhart’s account, post-liberalism doesn’t mean anti-liberalism, but “liberalism for actually existing people”. He was interested in what might make liberalism sustainable in the long run – which neoliberalism patently cannot do. It is too disruptive, too self-centred, too unequal to create a society that people will continue to vote to remain in.

In Goodhart’s view, what “actually existing people” need in their lives is attachments – to family, home, work, and community. While conservatives are right to note that bureaucracies can undermine these attachments by treating people like numbers, post-liberals emphasise that global capital can do the same by treating people like extractive resources. To hold the social world together, the institutional forces of both state and market must pay their respects to the relational forces that produce them. Post-liberalism supports a demotion, not an outright dismissal, of certain liberal freedoms.

But there is a slippery slope. When does post-liberalism start looking less like Goodhart’s rose-tinted vision and more like the storm clouds gathering over the United States? After all, President Trump looks set to restrict not only the free movement of people, but also the free movement of capital, to subordinate both to the tyranny of the presidential tweet. How far can liberalism stretch before it becomes something else?

And how much faith should we have in the post-liberal obsession with immigration? Post-liberals are obviously right that many voters worry about immigration, but that doesn’t mean that these voters are right to view immigration as the cause of their problems. To a significant degree, the impact of immigrants depends on what rules and institutions are in place in the society that receives them. If the right regulations are not in place, this is something only hosts can solve, not new arrivals.

The danger is that the post-liberal diagnosis will reinforce public misconceptions without touching upon the real causes of social distress. Goodhart and Glasman spend plenty of time looking back to lost traditions and communities, but not so much time looking ahead to the disruptive effects of technology, to the machines and algorithms already putting workers out of work.

Post-liberalism is one route through the current political brambles – and a seductive one at that. But going backwards is rarely the best way forward.

David Hall is a senior researcher at The Policy Observatory, AUT, and a roving editor for BWB Texts.


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