Liberalism is ‘golden thread’ of progressive politics – Joyce McMillan

Michelle Obama's book Becoming has been flying off the shelves despite left-wing claims of 'vapid liberalism' (Picture: Jose Luis Magana/AP)
Michelle Obama's book Becoming has been flying off the shelves despite left-wing claims of 'vapid liberalism' (Picture: Jose Luis Magana/AP)
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Liberalism – treated with derision and contempt by some on the global left – embodies the idea of human freedom and the belief that we are all born equal and should be defended in the troubled century ahead, writes Joyce McMillan.

The book is called Becoming; and when it was serialised on BBC Radio 4 last week, hundreds of thousands of listeners were enthralled by the author’s own reading of the story of a black girl from Chicago’s troubled and poverty-stricken south side who eventually found herself – through her own achievements and those of her husband – presiding over the White House as First Lady of the United States. It is, of course, the political and personal autobiography of Michelle Obama; and since its publication on 10 November, it has been flying off the shelves, in the United States and elsewhere, at a rate of nine copies per second.

Michelle Obama’s success, though, apparently brings no pleasure to some on the left, either here or in the United States; for like all past successful mainstream political leaders of a non-right-wing persuasion (and Obama has become a de facto leader) she is an object of contempt and derision for some on the global left, a prime example of what they call “centrism” or “liberalism”, and often dismiss as a creed in some ways more damaging than fascism, because – in their view – it only acts to obscure and legitimise the most oppressive aspects of the current global economic system.

In the current issue of the New Statesman, for example, Ash Sarkar of the left-wing news website Novara Media argues that “Michelle Obama’s vapid liberalism is a dead end for the left”, listing her husband’s many failures, while in office, to achieve radical change for black people in the United States; and if you want to catch a glimpse of the venom often directed at so-called “liberals” or “centrists” on social media, try searching for the response to Tony Blair’s latest intervention on Brexit, or to the improbable idea – briefly touted last week – that Hillary Clinton might attempt another run at the Presidency in 2020.

Now it has to be said that so far as the substance of the case against recent centre-left leaders is concerned, a great deal of it is unanswerable. In terms of failure to challenge the ideological foundations of extreme market neoliberalism, and decisively to roll back its relentless marketisation of the public realm, both Tony Blair and the Clintons are guilty as charged; and they have that in common with a whole generation of centre-left and centre-right leaders across Europe and beyond.

They have failed properly to regulate the financial system with disastrous consequences, have failed to maintain a proper distance between government and commerce, have most conspicuously failed to confront the huge vested interests that are preventing us from tackling potentially catastrophic climate change; and both at home and in their ill-advised foreign wars and alliances, they have repeatedly betrayed the values on which they claim their societies, and their politics, are based.

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If Vladimir Putin’s Russia is trolling the West now, in other words – sponsoring hackers who work to distort our elections, or taunting Nato and the UN by seizing back territories like Crimea and now perhaps parts of eastern Ukraine, that were once part of the Soviet empire – it is because our recent failures to live up to our own stated values, and to protect our people from the worst excesses of extreme unregulated capitalism, have undermined the legitimacy of many Western governments to the point where they are vulnerable to attack from a new populist right that flirts with neo-fascism, and has no interest in maintaining the kind of international system that might effectively resist aggression from a new generation of leaders interested in destabilisation and conflict.

Yet if a complacent middle-class centre-left has effectively allied itself with the advocates of extreme free-market capitalism to create this alarming situation, it is still important to be clear that went wrong with those centre-left projects was nothing to do with their liberalism, which in fact left a strong positive legacy; with their anti-racism, their support for gay rights, or their willingness, given a chance, to use the power of government to redistribute wealth towards the worse off.

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On the contrary, it was specifically to do with their failure to resist an economic ideology of the right that inevitably tended to transfer wealth from the many to the few; and that was therefore constantly working against any genuine progressive measures those governments introduced, even as they introduced them. The name of that ideology is not “liberalism” but neoliberalism; and the only liberal thing about it is its determination to give maximum freedom to those who already have capital, to do with the rest of us exactly as they please.

Liberalism, on the other hand, is the idea of human freedom itself; and of governments which act to protect and extend human freedom, not only by protecting us from prejudice, discrimination and exploitation, but by providing us with the means to live richer, fuller and more dignified lives. It is the golden thread that runs through all progressive politics; the central enlightenment belief that human beings are born equal, and therefore have an equal right to life, liberty, and opportunity. To young radicals squirming at Michelle Obama’s remarkable story of love and achievement against the odds in black America, all of that of course sounds too “syrupy” and soft-edged to be of any use in fighting the manifest evils and stupidities of the current global system.

Yet without it – without that central aim of providing every human being with his or her birthright of life, of opportunity, and of a beautiful, liveable Earth to inhabit – none of the struggles of the left make any sense, or have any legible goal. The most radical movements on Earth, after all, have almost always started out from an understanding that in order to achieve those basic human rights for all – or for any traditionally excluded group – mountains of privilege and resistance have to be moved, and mighty enemies overcome; and that the cause of radical liberalism is therefore not an easy option, but the hardest there is – the one most bitterly opposed by those entrenched in privilege, and the one that will lead us into the greatest and most significant political battles of the troubled century to come.