Liberal theory starts by imagining a state of nature: a world that never existed, could never have existed, and leads liberals to a wholly unreal view of human nature. And yet as we reach its logical conclusion, ideological liberalism is causing the fragmentation of society, the emasculation of government, and a life, for many, that is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and increasingly short. Liberals are bringing about the state of nature their theorists invented and sought to escape.
Across the West, mass protests, demonstrations and acts of public disorder have ended the lockdowns and social distancing rules established to protect us from the pandemic. In America, the Black Lives Matter movement is campaigning not to reform the police, but abolish it. In Seattle, the Capitol Hill Organised Protest has created an alternative and autonomous community covering several blocks of the city. In Britain, left-wing thugs have attacked the police, desecrated war memorials and pulled down statues, while right-wing mobs have hit back. In Dijon, France, heavily armed gang members took control of the city before specialist, armed police units drove them away.
This is more than a response to the tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. We are experiencing the consequences of decades of liberal policy – economic and cultural – that have brought about inequality and social dislocation and destroyed the institutions and traditions that forge a common identity and purpose beyond our differences of ethnicity, age, class and gender.
On the right, market fundamentalists, following Hayek and Friedman, insist we must wait for the invisible hand of the market to bring relief to communities benighted by deindustrialisation and economic decline. But those who live in the struggling towns and cities of the North and Midlands of England, or America’s Rust Belt, would be forgiven for retorting that the invisible hand might well be invisible because it does not exist.
Of course market economies are superior to their socialist, planned alternatives. But economic decline and division shows us that the pure, unregulated market isn’t always right. Just because the market usually is the most efficient way of allocating resources does not mean it is the fairest way of doing so.
Markets often suffer from a lack of information available to sellers and buyers. Just like with the financial crash, traders might not understand the complexity of the product they are trading. Businesses might not comprehend the negative externalities of their actions. Companies might be able to exploit the absence of competition in a market to fix prices. And with international trade, the market price might not account for state support and subsidies enjoyed by foreign competitors.
And yet market fundamentalism has dominated economic policy for decades. In both of our countries, manufacturing jobs have been transferred east, mainly to China. Workers receive a lower share of the gains from productivity improvements compared to decades gone by. The labour market is becoming hollowed out, with mid-skilled and middle-income jobs disappearing. In Britain and America, income inequality has widened and economic insecurity, even for those in work, has increased. In the words of a British economist, “inheritance is probably the most crucial factor in determining a person’s overall wealth since Victorian times.”
On the left, meanwhile, cultural liberals are turning Western society upside down. Under the influence of postmodernist thinkers like Michel Foucault, they believe that discourse is oppressive: language, customs and traditions all exploit the weak and prop up the powerful. Even victims of the powerful participate in their own oppression through their own language, stories and assumed social roles.
And so the old ideal of equal political and civil rights is not enough. Cultural liberals believe oppressive discourses perpetuate exploitative hierarchies, so they end up penalising people who share the characteristics of those at the top. Because power lies with white men, whiteness and masculinity must now be attacked. Because we do not understand how our social roles are constructed, we do not understand even our own words. So those who hear us, especially oppressed groups, understand better than us the true meaning of what we say. And because discourse is a form of violence, violence is a legitimate response to language.
As a result, the customs, norms and institutions that once brought us together are no longer venerated, but assaulted as bastions of oppression. And so the bonds between us are destroyed. In place of a cohesive society, with common habits, symbols and traditions, we are reduced to membership of fragmented groups defined by racial and gender identities that inevitably conflict with one another.
And so from both right and left – and the so-called moderate centre too, which manages to combine a belief in market purity and individualism in social matters, while accepting the reductive and destructive premise of cultural liberalism – our sense of community and solidarity is under attack. Thanks to liberalism, the war of all against all described by the state of nature theorists is, ironically, becoming our reality.
Yet this slide into chaos is not inevitable and it is not too late to make a stand. Conservatives – bewitched for too long by liberal philosophy and liberal economics in particular – need to rediscover the essence of their own creed.
True conservatives, liberated from liberalism, understand that there is more to life than the market, more to conservatism than the individual, and more to the future than the destruction of cultures and nations. If we accept this reality, and confront the destruction brought about by unchallenged liberal policy, we can start to make the world a better, if not perfect, place. We can discover the solutions to our problems, and we can – like generations of conservatives before us – rebuild our communities, remake our nations, reimagine our futures, and succeed and prosper.