Liberals Want Civil Rights – But Not the Protests Needed to Win Them

The response to yesterday's protests in Bristol is a reminder that the liberal commentariat would have bitterly condemned the very movements that struggled to win the rights they now claim to defend.

A number of recent books, penned by liberals of various stripes, have been dedicated to exploring an apparently concerning political trend in the UK and other advanced economies: the rise of ‘populism.’

Populists, it is claimed, seek to advance their political message by identifying and isolating a particular group that can act as an ‘other’ which can be opposed in order to build their coalition. This process of ‘othering’ is diagnosed as the cause of malaise in modern politics.

Against this conflictual or Manichean politics, liberalism is presented as the politics of the sensible centre. Unlike proponents of other ideologies, its advocates avoid name-calling, jumping to conclusions, and spreading ‘fake news.’ They are calm, composed and reasonable – the antithesis of the ‘extreme’ political ideologies to both their right and left.

Some writers have developed this centrist worldview into a ‘horseshoe’ theory of politics: rather than a continuum extending from right to left, they believe that the political spectrum bends on a curve – socialists and fascists, in other words, have more in common with one another than they do with their liberal cousins.

I experienced this outlook first-hand when Iain Dale walked of ‘Good Morning Britain’ after I tried to engage him in a debate about the underfunding of children’s social care services. One Twitter user claimed the escapade made me the left’s equivalent of Katie Hopkins. The comparison is telling: it implies that liberals view criticising austerity as equivalent to referring to migrants attempting to cross the channel as ‘cockroaches’.

Of course, not all liberals can be accused of holding such an absurd viewpoint. But while they may not ascribe to horseshoe theory, many can be found arguing that populism – whether found on the left or the right – compares unfavourably with the cool, rational, ‘non-ideological’ politics of the centre.

But no political belief can be described as ‘non-ideological’. Usually, those who believe themselves to be above ideology are simply those who most endorse the status quo. The ideology they are promoting is invisible precisely because it is so pervasive. Statements like, for example, ‘the government has to pay off the national debt’ may seem apolitical, but that’s only because mainstream discussion of the public finances has been so warped for several decades.

Liberalism is an ideology like any other; and as such, it has its own enemies. All ideologies are constructed in opposition to something – populism simply involves making this counterposition visible in popular discourse.

Conservatism, for example, is an ideology founded on the idea of defending tradition, family and nation. The ‘other’ in this viewpoint is anything which threatens the integrity of these institutions – whether unmarried mothers or members of the LGBTQ community, migrants, minority racial and ethnic groups, foreign enemies and domestic dissenters.

For socialists, the enemy is the capitalist class – those who own the means of production. This is a very different kind of enmity, as there is no ambition to destroy the ‘other’ as a human being; rather the aim is to destroy the category of ‘capitalist’ by socialising ownership, allowing everyone to have a stake in society’s collective resources.

Liberals might claim to have no enemies. Yet, as we have seen over the last few days, this is far from true. To liberals, the main problem with our society is not rampant inequality, nor child poverty, nor climate breakdown – the main problem with our society is ‘division’, fostered by ‘extremists’ on both sides. These so-called extremists are, in reality, those who threaten the prevailing liberal social order from left and right.

In pursuit of this ‘anti-extremism,’ liberals – those who proclaim their commitment to upholding human rights most loudly – will regularly remain mute over the trampling of our civil liberties through legislation, such as the Spy Cops Bill, the Overseas Operations Bill, and now the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Instead, they will direct their ire at those resisting these changes: the ‘extremists’ who reject the sensible politics of parliament in favour of protest.

Throughout history, liberals have been some of the first to oppose the apparently extreme tactics used by the suffragettes, the civil rights movement, and the labour movement. Only when these movements have won, and a new common sense has been forged, do liberals claim these victories as their own.

Liberalism’s enemy is, in other words, anyone who dares to critique the current structure of society; with particular ire reserved for those who go beyond critique to active resistance. But there is little meaningful difference between remaining silent in the face of oppression and supporting it.

Left up to the sensible centre, the misery, exploitation and violence reproduced every day within capitalism would be, at best, quietly condemned and, at worst, cheered along. Socialists resisting these trends should pay no attention to the feigned moral outrage of liberals: those who seek to transform our broken social order are and always will be their number one enemy.