Friday, 29 March 2019

Neither chimps or bonobos – In Defence of Enlightened Humanism

According to the primatologist Frans de Waal, humankind is suffering from “anthropodenialism” – a refusal to accept the complexity of other animals. Because, he says, if we reject the notion that animals can feel pain, possess a consciousness, a mental life or self-awareness – that they are in many ways similar to us (or we are similar to them) – then any amount of cruelty or instrumental treatment is justified. I remember reading about vivisectionist monks in the 17th century, who following the philosopher René Descartes, were convinced that animals were merely machines so when they strapped dogs to tables and cut them open the resulting screams were, in their view, just due to air coming out.

This is where the humanistic arrogance that humans are somehow unique seems to lead.

There has been progress since then but it’s been slow, attritional and selective. In March last year, for example, Switzerland became one of the first countries to make it illegal to boil lobsters without stunning them first. Italy had already made the practice illegal and in 2017 an Italian court ruled that freezing lobsters in ice before cooking them was cruel. In 2008 Switzerland, which seems to be a pioneer in animal welfare, made illegal to own a single guinea pig because it will get lonely.

The reason why headway is so fitful, I think, is fear of where giving ground on this issue will ultimately end. If they are sentient and feel pain, is it ever right kill animals for food? Or should we grade them and exempt those with ‘higher consciousness’ like octopuses and squid?

Hiding from ourselves

However, there is also an opposite danger – though one that is rarely voiced. That is in asserting that there is no human-animal duality, but rather a continuum, we lose sight of how humans are different – as a result of evolution – from every other animal species on earth. And how, in indulging in such denial, we evade responsibility for dealing with our own creativity and intelligence.

In fact, de Waal illustrates the danger. On one level, it’s hard to disagree with him that insisting on human uniqueness has justified – and still does legitimise – cruel behaviour that, in reality, has no justification. But de Waal does not leave it there. Since our emotions are no different from the emotions of most mammals, and since like most primates, “we are a hierarchical species”, the putatively civilised institutions we spend our lives within bear the unconsciousness imprint of our animalistic nature. They are, in fact, eerily similar to the social structures of chimpanzees, our closest animal relative (we share 98% of our DNA). In denying this affinity, we are hiding from ourselves.

The English writer Will Storr, clearly influenced by de Waal, elaborates. “By observing behaviours the human self shares with the chimp self,” he writes in Selfie: How the West Became Self-Obsessed, “we might find clues to which parts of us are so old they predate our ascent to the top of the world.”

These mutual behaviours include hiding feelings to get your way, bearing long-term grudges and manipulating others. Above all, there is a common preoccupation with hierarchy – younger chimpanzees engage in conspiracies and coups to topple the ruling alpha male, group members form shifting alliances and engage in ‘political’ beatings and murders. And once in power, the leader doesn’t just need prove his physical prowess; he needs to be an arbiter of disputes, to disrupt bonding amongst rivals and act as a protector of low ranked chimps.

“… despite the din and wizardry of modern life,” writes Storr, “despite how separate we feel from the beasts, the truth is that we are great apes that sit in the primate superfamily Hominoidea. We are modern yet ancient, advanced yet primitive. We are animals.”

The other side of the family

But if the chimp-human analogy is a little too right-wing for your taste – all that hierarchy, dominant alpha males and violence – there is an alternative. Step forward the bonobo, the so-called ‘caring, sharing’ ape that we are equally closely related to (we share 98% of our DNA with both chimpanzees and bonobos). Unlike with chimps, female bonobos are at least as important as males and dominance hierarchies are much less pronounced. Bonobos, who live the Congo basin and are classed as an endangered species, also share food with strangers, express empathy, hug, kiss, and use sex, rather than violence, as a means of resolving disputes (male bonobos, apparently, get erections at the prospect of food).

                                         A group of Bonobo apes

So, we have a choice it seems – we can prefer to believe we are more like chimps or more in tune with bonobos. There is no correct answer – why de Waal, who has written books about both chimpanzees and bonobos, feels we have more in common with chimps is not immediately obvious.

But what if the answer to the puzzle, ‘Are we more like chimps or bonobos?’ is neither.

This is not to deny that we ‘possess’ the suite of behaviours on show here. Clearly, humans can be aggressive, manipulative, deceitful, form informal alliances with others and jockey for power. They can also be empathetic, like the bonobo. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level say that we possess “mirror neurons” in our brain that enable us to make the same movements as others in sympathy. So, for example, people routinely flinch when they see someone experience pain in a film they are watching.

Open to subversion and change

However, crucially, our social arrangements do not simply stem from the way we behave towards each other. This can be seen in the hunter-gatherer tribes in which homo sapiens have spent 9/10ths of their time on earth, mostly dissipating from around 10,000 years ago. These were comparable in scope to chimp and bonobo bands. But they were qualitatively different and not just in terms of intelligence and the use of technology. Early humanity – in contrast to other apes or any other animal species – was quite aware of the danger of dominant individuals seizing power and took steps to ensure that the possibility of egalitarianism was preserved and that no social or political order became eternally fixed.

It’s actually not straightforward to establish how our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived. The assumption that traditional tribes that have survived into the present provide a window to life 40,000 years ago is a very big leap to make. But David Wengrow, Professor of Comparative Archaeology at University College and David Graeber, Professor of Comparative Anthropology at the London School of Economics, have together make a concerted attempt* to imagine what life was like many thousands of years ago, rather than relying on intuition or political preference.

Their conclusion is that hunter-gatherer bands consciously switched from hierarchical social arrangements at certain times of the year to resolutely egalitarian forms at others. “Strongly dualistic patterns of organisation” as the authors call them, existed, for example, in the glacial fringe of Europe during the last Ice Age (which began to end around 20,000 years ago), concurrent with tribes assembling in large numbers and then disassembling into smaller groups. “The same population might experience entirely different systems of economic relations, family structure and political life at different times of year,” they say. Features like territoriality, social ranking or material acquisitiveness would be put into effect at certain times of year and then reversed.

Note, this is not just a matter – as in chimp bands – of one alpha male seizing ‘power’ in summer, only for a rival to take the reins in winter. Human bands, by contrast, knowingly switched the nature of social arrangements.

“What makes us human,” say Wengrow/Graeber, “[is] the inherent complexity of our political repertories, and in particular the range of strategies for resisting domination, which far outstrip those available to other primates. At the psychological level, these include ridicule, moral censure and ostracism; at the social level they involve complex institutional arrangements to limit or subvert the exercise of power.”

The reference to institutions is significant because power in human societies is now mediated through institutions. In contrast to early humanity, social arrangements are not easily reversed because they are fixed in institutions which are intended to endure. These institutions control access to resources and political power. Within them, shifting alliances, coups, conspiracies, power grabs – ‘chimp-like’ behaviour if you will – may take place. But their existence and effectiveness does not depend on the prevalence of such behaviour. They rely on bare coercion and also obedience in non-privileged ranks – ideologically-induced feelings that their power is justified and morally correct.

'First' and 'Second' Nature

The social ecologist Murray Bookchin made an essential distinction between consciously designed human social structures and animal communities, the latter conditioned solely by instinct and idiosyncratic forms of behaviour. In this sense, no animal group is hierarchical; the word – derived from the ancient Greek meaning rule of the high priest – belongs firmly to the human realm of institutional power. When we speak of hierarchies among animals, we are merely projecting our own systems of social ranking, whose contingency and non-biological origins we can’t deal with, onto them. In his view:

… dominance and submission must be viewed as institutionalized relationships, relationships that living things literally institute or create but which are nether ruthlessly fixed by instinct on the one had nor idiosyncratic on the other. By this, I mean that they must comprise a clearly social structure of coercive and privileged ranks that exist quite apart from the idiosyncratic individuals who seem to be dominant within a given community, a hierarchy that is guided by a social logic that goes beyond individual interactions or inborn patterns of behaviour.  The Ecology of Freedom, p 94

Bookchin distinguished between ‘first’ and ‘second’, or social, nature. First nature is the realm of human beings’ animality. We are mammals, and primates and apes and have “natural, primal urges”. But at the same time – and singularly among living things – we exhibit choice and discretion about how we live together. Though human social forms might appear static, a cursory glance at history reveals that they do change both incrementally and explosively. Or as Noam Chomsky succinctly expresses it, “humans are unique in the natural world in that they have history, cultural diversity and cultural evolution”.

It is important to realise, however, that first and second nature are not isolated, abstract categories. As Bookchin emphasised, in the evolution of homo sapiens first nature gradually phased into second nature. Our propensity to function cooperatively with each other is a product of first nature, for example. “Quasi-biological institutions” around family, kinship, age and gender – neither definitively part of first or second nature – still play a major part in social life. Nationalism, racism and religious bigotry, for example, can be compared to the proclivity for chimp bands to aggressively attack strangers, in contrast to our awareness, however honoured in the breach, of the existence of a universal humanity. There is always the danger, said Bookchin**, of “our animality conspiring with our intelligence or cunning to yield unforeseeable terrors and unexpected horrors”. But the element – perhaps the burden – of choice is always present. This, at its most basic level, is what freedom means.

Beware the Lobster

So human beings are both like other animals and not like them. Perhaps this can be best illustrated by the aforementioned lobster. The psychologist and “classical liberal” Jordan Peterson, for example, claims that it’s inevitable “that there will be continuity in the way animals and human beings organise their structures”. The dominance hierarchy, he points out, is a “near eternal aspect of the environment”. Extreme economic inequality among humans has the same ultimate cause as the certainty that lobsters will fight over who has access to the best hiding places – a perpetual striving for dominance and survival that only a small minority can win. “It’s winner-take-all in the lobster world, just as it is in human societies,” says Peterson, “where the top 1 percent have as much loot as the bottom 50 percent – and where the richest eighty-five people have as much as the bottom three and a half billion.”

He is quite enamoured of the revelation that anti-depressants can be successfully administered to lobsters – a defeated, hunched lobster, low in serotonin, can be perked up and readied for battle again by giving it Prozac. It will “advance on former victors and fight longer and harder”. Despite the evolutionary gulf that separates them, humans and lobsters share basic neuro-chemistry. “The drugs prescribed to depressed human beings, which are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors,” says Peterson “have much the same chemical and behavioural effect.”

But the fact that humans and lobsters share the same neurotransmitters – and both can feel pain – does not mean we share the same social structures. For one thing, lobsters don’t have a social structure. And for this reason, anti-depressants, while they similarly affect personal behaviour in both lobsters and humans, are less than useless when it comes to changing human social structures. In contrast to the revived lobster, the mass prescribing of anti-depressants that has taken place in the developed world since they were first introduced in the late 1980s – by 2004 Prozac had been prescribed to 50 million people – has not made the slightest impact on social structures or made those structures more permeable to people of low social rank. The same period that has seen the wholesale dispensing of anti-depressants, undoubtedly one of great business success stories of the last thirty years, has also witnessed sharp declines in social mobility in the US and UK. Rather than opening up careers and better incomes to people previously shut out from them, they have instead simply relieved the pain induced by increasingly segregated and mapped out lives.

Social classes and social strata are, in Bookchin’s description, “made of sterner stuff” than individual behavioural traits. Changing them, therefore, cannot be achieved by reforming individual behaviour. Ironically, however, the belief that socially-created forms of domination and hierarchy ultimately stem from the way humans behave – are biologically determined, in other words – can shield them from change. To free ourselves, we first need to stop believing.

*Wengrow & Graeber’s first paper on the subject – “Farewell to the ‘Childhood of Man’: Ritual, Seasonality and the Origins of Inequality” – was published in 2015. Another joint essay – “How to change the course of human history” – was published in 2018 and touched on similar themes. And I believe a book is forthcoming.

** Bookchin, who died in 2005, is a neglected thinker in my opinion. His books include Re-enchanting Humanity (where this quote is from), The Ecology of Freedom and Remaking Society.

Thursday, 28 February 2019

The illusion of independence

I think it’s an unspoken rule of politics that the person who claims to be unideological is the most ideological of all. Thus one of the central assertions of the newly formed “Independent Group” (IG) of British MPs is that while the blinkered automatons to their Right and Left see everything through an ideological prism, they, by contrast, do not pre-judge but look at every issue dispassionately and according to the evidence.

Thus when asked by Andrew Marr last Sunday whether the IG would support the renationalisation of the railways and the water industry, former Tory MP Heidi Allen replied: “My gut instinct is no but it needs to be based on evidence and, rather than just choosing ideological solutions, what will work and what we can learn from other countries.”

If you have that strange feeling of déjà vu, that’s because an insistence on ‘what works,’ as opposed to ideological prescriptions, was a staple of the New Labour years. Ministers could get way with claiming they judged everything according to the evidence because the evidence they relied on was produced by people whose ideological biases were so ‘baked in’ they thought they didn’t exist.

You’re only ill because you think you are

This can be seen most clearly in the story of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), the tick box questionnaire that determines whether sick and disabled people can receive benefit and, if so, what conditions are attached. Judged in terms of the amount of misery it has generated – it was revealed in 2017 that the number of disabled claimants attempting suicide had doubled over the lifespan of the WCA – I think the assessment has no equal among post-war domestic government policies.

But its introduction was surrounded by mountains of evidence that it was the correct policy, medically and socially. In fact that it would be grossly unfair, it was claimed, to leave disabled people ‘parked’ on benefits and shut out from the health-giving qualities of work. In 2005, for example, the DWP commissioned a report called the Scientific and Conceptual Basis for Incapacity Benefit. Co-written by the department’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Mansel Aylward, the paper recommended something called the biopsychosocial (BPS) model. This assumes that disability is caused in part by the disabled person’s attitudes. Illness was a belief, said the authors, and people could think themselves well.

They recommended, therefore, a “functional” non-medical assessment for all claimants on Incapacity Benefit, one that ignored diagnosis, prognosis and medical history. This became the WCA. The opinions of doctors weren’t mysteriously overlooked when the WCA came into being in 2008, they were deliberately ignored.

A year after the ‘Scientific and Conceptual Basis’ for the WCA was established, the DWP started funding a group of academics to run something known as the PACE trial, which compared the effectiveness of different treatments for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or ME. The results from the trial were published in 2011 and were presented as demonstrating the visible success of BPS interventions such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The then Conservative-Lib Dem government was miraculously bowled over by the evidence, with minister David Freud telling the House of Lords that “we have gone for the biopsychosocial model” which had “garnered very significant academic support”.

In fact, the research was very seriously flawed. An analysis by the Centre for Welfare Reform revealed that the supposedly “strict” standard for recovery was so loose that you could actually deteriorate and still be classed as having recovered. Another analysis of the whole BPS model concluded that it was “riddled with inconsistencies, misleading statements and ‘unevidenced’ claims”.

But so entrenched is the government’s faith in the ‘evidence’, that even Mansel Aylward, the man responsible for the adoption of the BPS model, admitting in 2012 that he now found it “unsatisfactory” and incapable of meeting the needs of disabled people, had no effect. The WCA steamroller, now over 10 years old, just continues on, oblivious of the collateral damage it causes.

I’m a banker so listen to me

But the WCA needed more than BPS philosophy – the idea that claimants were divided between real sufferers and malingerers – behind it to really fly. It also needed the evidence that there were legions of claimants who were ‘work ready’ and in fact, unjustly, left to rot on benefits. This was provided by David Freud, a millionaire and former investment banker, who despite admitting he knew nothing about welfare, produced the independent 2007 report Reducing Welfare, Increasing Opportunity: options for the future of welfare to work’, commissioned by Tony Blair just before he left office.

The ‘Freud Report’ was hugely influential – New Labour accepted its recommendations as did the Cameron government that followed. In fact, Cameron was so impressed he ennobled Freud and made him a junior minister in his government. The Freud Report achieved a ‘cross-party’ consensus. As a former Labour DWP minister put it in July 2010, “the Labour government’s regulations are now being tabled by a Tory minister who inspired them when he was a Labour adviser”.

Not only did Freud advocate using the private sector to conduct the assessments required to receive sickness benefit, and introducing sanctions, he also asserted that the 2.68 million people on Incapacity Benefit could and should be reduced by 1 million.

This number was subsequently cited endlessly ministers but, as geographer Danny Dorling pointed out, it was based on fiction. Freud “got his numbers” wrong by claiming the remarkable success of government ‘Pathways’ projects in getting Incapacity Benefit claimants into work could be replicated nationally. In fact, the success of the pathways projects was based on recent claimants only, not long-term ones.

 But this didn’t affect the Freud Report from becoming the lynchpin of government efforts to ‘reform’ the welfare state. The reason was not his academic rigour but who he was. As Dorling explained:

David’s report is titled Independent but was commissioned and published by the DWP. Independent no longer means independent. The point of independent reports to government and ministers is that they are not written by people who are independent of government but by folk whose lives and connections are intimately wound up in the machinery of government and elite civil society.

The fallacy of independence

Ironically it was Heidi Allen who confessed that, on becoming an MP, she was “staggered” that minister were not , in fact, experts in their field and MPs were handed “bits of paper” indicating what they should say to the media. But the fact that, in truth, they don’t know very much just reveals how reliant on outside evidence they are.

And that evidence is never unideological despite fervent claims to the contrary. While in 2007, a former investment banker was hired to produce a report arguing that sick and disabled benefit claimants needed to be reassessed into work, two years later the government commissioned two reports – Bischoff and Wigley – insisting the competitiveness of London as a financial centre had to be maintained at all costs. Group members and expert witnesses came overwhelmingly from the City of London. Finance, as one outside analysis pointed out, was reporting on “finance by telling stories about finance”. But all three, in eyes of the Westminster bubble, constituted ‘evidence’.

In truth, nothing is unideological and there is no such thing as pure, neutral evidence. Pretending you’re above the fray just reveals how deeply ensconced you are in its web – so much so that you don’t even notice.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

The Liberalism Nobody Knows

Liberal democracy (or liberal-democracy) appears as one of those natural pairings of the English language – a linguistic partnership that enhances, rather than does violence to, its constituents. It has become a modern truism that liberalism and democracy are inseparable bedfellows, soul mates even. Where liberalism is vanquished, democracy, at best, becomes a plebiscitary tool to vindicate the wishes of absolute rulers. Conversely, where liberalism is allowed to flourish, democracy – defined as free elections, an independent media and free speech – inevitably follows.

But this comfortable view, which permits its proponents to always feel they are siding with the angels, is a delusion. As Domenico Losurdo shows in Liberalism: A Counter-History, liberalism had quite separate roots from democracy and was fully prepared to countenance the seemingly illiberal tools of coups and dictatorship if it felt threatened from below. The much vaunted, and supposedly natural, coupling of liberalism and democracy was a slow, painful and fitful process, invariably achieved against the will of liberals and to which they have never been reconciled.

The rarely told history of liberalism

Losurdo traces the history of liberalism back to the Glorious Revolution in Britain in 1688. The subsequent Bill of Rights limited the power of the monarch and allowed a Parliamentary (though emphatically not democratic) system to emerge. From that point, liberalism was defined as opposition to concentration of power, in the form of the monarch and sometimes the Catholic Church. The other side of the coin was the liberty of people to be unrestrained by state power. But this liberty was never meant to be the birthright of everyone. Far from it, only “the community of the free”, in Lusurdo’s phrase, a small minority of male property-owners, were so blessed. The role of everyone else – the vast majority of people – was merely to be their servants.

Thus it was no accident that the liberal era was coeval with the slave trade, “the largest involuntary movement of human in all history”, and the establishment of a brutal system of racial chattel slavery in the United States – a British settler colony that achieved independence. In the metropolitan countries, the vast majority of non-property owners were not slaves but they were enchained as serfs or wage labourers. Freedom, to early liberalism, was the freedom of property owners to enjoy their property as they wished. In England, from 1688 (the Glorious Revolution) to 1820, the number of crimes carrying the death penalty increased from 50 to between 200 and 250 and these were almost always for crimes against property. In England at the start of 19th century you could be hung for taking an unauthorized clipping from an ornamental bush.

The newly independent United States of America was a bastion of liberalism. But as British loyalists pointed out, this love of liberty went hand in hand with the consecration of the ‘worst species of slavery’. The Britain derived from the Glorious Revolution, the rebel colonists shot back, presided over the horror of the slave trade and treated its white servants little better than slaves.

Both accusations were true and both exposed the underbelly of liberalism. The veneration of freedom for some people was dependent on the complete opposite – total subjection and domination – for many others. To work this required an intricate ideology of dehumanisation. The French liberal Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès regarded wage labourers as “bipedal machines”, while the British liberal-conservative Edmund Burke (a man considered to be the father of modern conservatism who incidentally subscribed to the most elaborate Jewish conspiracy theories) looked upon workers as mere instrumentum vocale.

And when these machines began to make demands, the sheen of opposition to ‘despotism’ miraculously fell away. John Locke, the most influential of the early liberals, regarded physical force as entirely justified in the event of a tax not authorised by those affected by it. Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, was intransigently opposed to attempts to legally reduce the 12 hour day, introduce progressive taxation or instigate rent controls and believed “nothing authorizes the state to interfere in industry”. He supported the idea of a temporary dictatorship to modernize France. In Britain, between 1790 and 1820, more than 60 Acts of Parliament were passed aimed at repressing working class activity. Liberals enthusiastically endorsed the discipline of the workhouse.

The story of the vote

This is not to deny the umbilical connection of liberalism to self-government and representative, elected institutions – ‘no taxation without representation’ as the American rebels famously proclaimed – but the section of the population to be represented was necessarily and intentionally tiny. Britain had Parliamentary institutions – powerful bodies that had succeeded in executing a King and, since the Glorious Revolution, formed part of a constitutional monarchy – but prior to the Great Reform Act only 3 per cent of the public were entitled to determine who their members were – about 200,000 out of a population of eight million.

In 1832, the franchise was extended to 13 per cent of adult males, but Chartism, a mass movement calling for universal manhood suffrage and annual elections, was bitterly resisted and above all by avowed liberals. “In England” Karl Polanyi reminds us, “it became the unwritten law of the Constitution that the working class must be denied the vote. The Chartist leaders were jailed; their adherents, numbered in millions, were derided by a legislature representing a bare fraction of the population, and the mere demand for the ballot was often treated as a criminal act by the authorities …. Inside and outside England, from Macaulay to Mises, from Spencer to Sumner, there was not a militant liberal who did not express his conviction that popular democracy was a danger to capitalism.”

Britain did not approach becoming such a democracy until after the First World War. On the eve of that conflagration, only 30 per cent of the adult population (no women and 60 per cent of men) could vote. Britain was thus less democratic than its illiberal adversary, Germany, which had manhood suffrage.

The community of the free in the US was more expansive – voting for all white men was in place by 1856 – but that was because of the existence of millions of black slaves and endless expanses of supposedly “unpossessed” land. Even so, the idea that wage labourers were, in reality, wage slaves – because of their material dependence on employers, their state was comparable to that of chattel slaves – was enormously strong in the 19th century.

And one of the strongest of the liberal “exclusion clauses” related to women. The vote wasn’t granted to women in the US until 1920. In Britain female votes were only achieved following a campaign of militant civil disobedience and hungry strikes and the massive turmoil of World War One. Women gained the vote partially in 1918 and, unconditionally, in 1928.

Far from being synonymous with democracy, liberalism, as Losurdo points out, regarded it with “coldness, hostility and sometimes frank contempt” – an attitude maintained for more than two centuries. Democracy and equal rights didn’t flow naturally from liberalism; they had to be prised from it:
… it must be borne in mind that the exclusion clauses were not overcome painlessly, but through violent upheavals of sometimes quite unprecedented violence. The abolition of slavery in the wake of the Civil War cost the United States more victims than both world wars combined. As for censitary discrimination [restrictions on the electoral franchise], a decisive contribution was made to its abolition by the French revolutionary cycle. Finally, in major countries like Russia, Germany and the United States the accession of women to political rights had behind it the war and revolutionary upheavals of the early twentieth century (Liberalism: A Counter-History, p 341).

The new liberalism

But, it will be objected, all this refers not so much to the history of liberalism, as its pre-history. With the emergence of the ‘new liberalism’ in the late 19th century, the creed of liberalism changed beyond recognition. It became reconciled to – even championed – democracy, economic regulation and racial and gender equality. John Maynard Keynes, for example, an economist synonymous with scepticism towards laissez-faire capitalism, was a lifelong member of the British Liberal party. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, probably the most famous of 20th century American liberals (he never called himself a socialist), placed freedom of speech and freedom of worship on a par with freedom from want for “everyone in the world”.

The face of modern liberalism can be seen in the public letter of 30 writers, historians and Nobel laureates published in January who warn that European “liberal democracy” is confronted with “a threat not seen since the 1930s”. The liberal values espoused here are those of internationalism, anti-populism and toleration. Democracy is ostensibly defended, not derided.

But the older liberalism has not died. It is, in fact, arguably more influential than its modernised twin. Neoliberalism (‘new liberalism’) has been guiding force of the economy since the 1980s. Neoliberalism holds that market forces should determine economic decisions, taxes on wealth and corporations should be as low as possible and government budgets should be balanced (a feat always to be achieved by cutting public spending rather than raising taxes on the wealthy). Neoliberalism harks back very directly to economic liberalism, the doctrine of laissez-faire that asserted that contracts negotiated between ‘free’ individuals should not be interfered with by the state.

Except that economic liberalism is a misnomer. The original 20th century economic liberals, such as Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig Von Mises, did not regard themselves as economic liberals but consistent liberals. To them, the other liberals had abandoned the tenets of liberalism and embraced ‘socialism’. It was always a cause of some regret to Hayek that his ideas were taken up by the British Conservative party – he was a major influence on Margaret Thatcher – rather than the Liberals.

Taking the risk out of democracy

And Hayek and Von Mises retained the older liberalism’s coldness towards democracy. Hayek, for example, was full of praise for Chilean dictator Augustus Pinochet and believed that “liberal dictatorship” was infinitely preferable to “democratic government devoid of liberalism”. Von Mises, a generation older, regarded trade unionism as a form of terrorism and thought the merit of Italian Fascism – won through saving European civilisation from the workers’ movement – would “live on eternally in history” (and this in a book entitled Liberalism).

The temptation is to say that we are dealing with two distinct political currents that, by dint of historical coincidence, go by the same name. But that would be too hasty a judgement. Hayek, for instance, was very sympathetic to the idea of European federalism. To him it offered protection against the virus of democracy. “The absence of tariff walls and the free movements of men and capital between the states of the federation has certain important consequences which are frequently overlooked,” he wrote in a 1939 essay. “They limit to a great extent the scope of the economic policy of the individual states.”

Hayek’s praise for the virtues of “one single market” thus prefigures the creation of the EU’s single market which does indeed limit the economic policy of individual European states and enshrines the free movement of capital and people. And the single market – resolutely supported by Margaret Thatcher it should be recalled – is the core institution of a European Union whose “liberal values”, intellectuals warn, are under attack from nativists and xenophobes.  

But the clearest bridge between the two liberalisms can be seen in the outlook of the corporate elite at the Davos World Economic Forum. Their concern about the threats to what they term the “liberal order” has now risen to a crescendo. This order comprises the free movement of capital and commodities (globalisation) coupled with a cosmopolitan attitude and support for gender and racial diversity.

However their stance towards the arch destroyer of that liberal order – Donald Trump – is revealing. They are repelled by his protectionism, hostility to immigrants, sexism and xenophobia but irresistibly attracted to his indulgence of the immensely wealthy. When, in 2017, Trump massively cut taxes for the rich (reducing the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 per cent and instituting tax breaks for millionaires), Davos went weak at the knees at this long overdue “tax reform”.

Contrast this with the unrelenting hostility directed towards left-wingers such as Jeremy Corbyn, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Bernie Sanders who are in fact resiliently liberal in their opposition to attacks on immigrants, refugees or LGBT people but also in favour raising taxes, moderately, on the wealthy (and, in Corbyn’s case, renationalising public services). Should Corbyn become UK Prime Minister – which now seems likely – expect that hostility to ramp up into brazen attempts to bring down his government, by any means possible. And liberals will be at the forefront of that effort. The tragedy is, they will always return to their roots.