What Is Great about Ourselves

Pankaj Mishra

  • The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce
    Little, Brown, 240 pp, £16.99, May, ISBN 978 1 4087 1041 8
  • The Fate of the West: Battle to Save the World’s Most Successful Political Idea by Bill Emmott
    Economist, 257 pp, £22.00, May, ISBN 978 1 61039 780 3
  • The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics by David Goodhart
    Hurst, 256 pp, £20.00, March, ISBN 978 1 84904 799 9
  • The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics by Mark Lilla
    Harper, 143 pp, £20.00, August, ISBN 978 0 06 269743 1
  • The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam by Douglas Murray
    Bloomsbury, 343 pp, £18.99, May, ISBN 978 1 4729 4224 1

Is it finally closing time in the gardens of the West? The wails that have rent the air since the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory rise from the same parts of Anglo-America that hosted, post-1989, the noisiest celebrations of liberalism, democracy, free markets and globalisation. Bill Emmott, the former editor of the Economist, writes that ‘the fear now is of being present at the destruction' of the ‘West’, the ‘world’s most successful political idea’. Edward Luce, for example, a Financial Times columnist based in Washington DC, isn’t sure ‘whether the Western way of life, and our liberal democratic systems, can survive’. Donald Trump has also chimed in, asking ‘whether the West has the will to survive’. These apocalyptic Westernists long to turn things around, to make their shattered world whole again. David Goodhart, the founding editor of Prospect, told the New York Times just before the general election that he believed Theresa May could dominate British politics for a generation. Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia and a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, wants the Democratic Party, which under Bill Clinton captured ‘Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny’, to abandon identity politics and help liberalism become once more a ‘unifying force’ for the ‘common good’. Douglas Murray, associate editor of the Spectator, thinks that Trump might just save Western civilisation.

The ideas and commitments of the new prophets of decline do not emerge from any personal experience of it, let alone adversity of the kind suffered by many voters of Brexit and Trump. These men were ideologically formed during the reign of Reagan and Thatcher, and their influence and prestige have grown in step with the expansion of Anglo-America’s intellectual and cultural capital. Lilla, a self-declared ‘centrist liberal’, arrived at his present position by way of working-class Detroit, evangelical Christianity and an early flirtation with neoconservatism. The British writers belong to a traditional elite; shared privilege transcends ideological discrepancies between centrist liberalism and nativism, the Financial Times and the Spectator. Murray and Goodhart were educated at Eton; the fathers of both Luce and Goodhart were Conservative MPs. Inhabitants of a transatlantic ecosystem of corporate philanthropy, think-tanks and high-altitude conclaves, they can also be found backslapping in the review pages and on Twitter: Murray calls Goodhart’s writing ‘superb’ and Luce’s ‘beautiful’; Emmott thanks Murray for his ‘nice’ review in the Times.

Goodhart is an especially interesting case. A former journalist on the Financial Times, he founded Prospect in 1995 together with Derek Coombs, a former Conservative MP and wealthy businessman (subsequently part-owned by a hedge fund, Prospect’s current majority shareholder is a financial investment firm in the City). Avowedly ‘centre-left’ when the centre seemed the right place to be, Prospect exemplified the alliance between finance, business and New Labour. In no other mainstream periodical was the prospectus for New Labour’s blend of social and economic liberalism so clearly stated. Blair himself argued there for the ‘Third Way’ and the imperatives of ‘modernisation’. In August 2002, a few months after Blair became a proselytiser for Bush’s global war on terror, Goodhart wrote that Blair had ‘reshaped British politics, if not yet Britain, and is Europe’s heaviest hitter. He knows what he is up to and has the intellectual confidence to describe it.’

A year later, however, Goodhart felt that ‘Tony Blair has finally lost his Midas touch.’ In October 2004, he carried the first of a long series of eulogies to Gordon Brown, then ‘odds-on to be prime minister before the end of 2008’. ‘The Brown transition,’ Goodhart wrote, ‘could help to realise the centre-left’s dream of governing Britain for a generation.’ What had happened?

Nothing had shaken Goodhart’s faith in neoliberalism: he was marvelling in 2005, two years before the worst financial crisis in history, that economics had ceased ‘to dominate political debate’. He did feel, however, that a third-term Labour government was ‘struggling to fashion an appropriate response to the new salience of security and identity issues’. Goodhart himself had prioritised issues of ethnic and racial identity over the perennially salient problems of class and gender in a Prospect article titled ‘Too Diverse?’ ‘We not only live among stranger citizens … squashed together on buses, trains and tubes,’ he observed, ‘but we must share with them.’ Elsewhere, he has argued that ‘most of us prefer our own kind’ and that immigration is undermining social solidarity and traditional identities, eroding Britain’s ‘common culture’ and making it ‘increasingly full of mysterious and unfamiliar worlds’. Elites supporting ‘separatist’ multiculturalism, he wrote, had ‘privileged minority identities over common citizenship’. Consequently, they had drifted out of touch with the views of ordinary people.

Goodhart getting down with the common people was a curious sight. He seemed aware of this, continually presenting himself as a brave contrarian, resisting a tenacious metropolitan consensus that was in favour of immigration and multiculturalism. ‘I am now post-liberal and proud,’ Goodhart wrote in March, and his new book proposes that the main political faultline in British society is the one dividing a powerful minority of university-educated professional ‘Anywheres’ (people like Goodhart) from disempowered ‘Somewheres’, who have ‘rooted’ identities based in ‘group belonging and particular places’. Anywheres prize ‘autonomy, mobility and novelty’ over ‘group identity, tradition and national social contracts’. ‘Somewheres’, who are ‘socially conservative and communitarian by instinct’, resist immigration and diversity.

In affiliating himself with the Somewheres, who in his view constitute the majority of the British population, Goodhart seems more majoritarian than contrarian. At last year’s Conservative Party conference, Theresa May reproved ‘citizens of nowhere’ for their rootless cosmopolitanism. Moreover, the straw-manning of multiculturalism has been popular in Britain’s right-wing press since Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie. And there is nothing ‘post-liberal’ about arguments for a less diverse population. Liberalism, flatteringly identified by Goodhart with cosmopolitan tolerance, has long been more at home with nationalism, imperialism and even racialism. Scholars from Uday S. Mehta to Duncan Bell have demonstrated that 19th-century liberal prescriptions about freedom and progress, emerging in an age of imperial expansion and capitalist globalisation, presupposed a chasm between civilised whites and uncivilised non-whites. Victorian liberals from Mill to Hobhouse simply assumed ethnic homogeneity at home and racial hierarchy abroad.

It was the historic reversal of population movements between the colonies and the metropolis after 1945 that incited a new ‘racism without races’ and ‘anti-Semitism without Jews’ (Gunther Anders’s phrase for the treatment of Turkish guest-workers in postwar Germany). In Britain, a bipartisan prejudice governed the subject of ‘race relations’ long after Windrush. Many former imperialists, such as Enoch Powell, had never stopped thinking in the categories mandated by their previously unchallenged dominance. In 1968, Powell warned that immigration from Britain’s former colonies would lead to a dire situation in which ‘the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’; ten years later, the prime minister-in-waiting Margaret Thatcher claimed in a television interview that British people were ‘really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture’.

A moral panic about people with a different culture is central to Goodhart’s worldview. The same panic drove the growth of far-right movements across Western Europe in the 1980s. The Front National (FN) in particular advanced the right to be culturally distinctive, and to exclude outsiders who would radically transform white, Christian Europe. In this vision, cultures rather than biologically defined races were presented as exclusive and unchanging across time and place, with cultural difference treated as a fact of nature – ‘rooted’ identities, in Goodhart’s phrase – that we ignore at our peril. Preferring our own kind, we apparently belong, in defiance of human history, to an immutable community bound by its origins to a specific place, and should have the right to remain distinctive.

Hectically naturalising cultural difference, the neo-anthropologists were careful not to preen about their superior origins and heredity as the supremacists of the past had done. They could even claim to be aficionados of racial diversity. ‘I love Maghrebins,’ Jean-Marie Le Pen declared, ‘but their place is in the Maghreb.’ Similarly, Goodhart earnestly regrets racism as an inevitable consequence of ignoring the natural and insurmountable divisions between people. From this perspective, liberal multiculturalists and leftists are the ones enabling racism, by ignoring the psychological and sociological repercussions of squashing ineluctably dissimilar people together on buses, trains and tubes.

Goodhart makes no attempt to figure out why a moral panic about people with a different culture has emerged against a background of obscene inequalities, progressive deregulation of labour markets and a massive expansion in the ranks of the precariat. He is indifferent, too, to the changes in working-class life and immigration patterns since 1945. Postwar immigrants from Britain’s former colonies arrived in a country enjoying full employment, a growing welfare state and potent working-class politics. Recent immigrants land in a country whose manufacturing base has crumbled, whose welfare state is weakened and trade unions neutered.

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New Labour’s surrender to the Thatcherite creed that ‘there is no alternative’ ruled out the party’s commitments to welfare-state social democracy and nationalisation. How, then, would it reconcile privatisation, worship of the entrepreneur and a general state of relaxation about people getting filthy rich with Labour’s old base in the public-sector middle class and working class?

In Free World: Why a Crisis of the West Reveals the Opportunity of our Times (2004), an early dirge about the waning of Anglo-American power, Timothy Garton Ash approvingly quoted a Canadian friend as saying that the trouble with Britain is that ‘it doesn’t know what story it wants to tell.’ This was certainly true of New Labour, which had invested heavily in storytelling and spin as substitutes for substantive change. Its projection of ‘Cool Britannia’ failed. The popular culture it referred to, as Stuart Hall pointed out, was ‘too “multicultural” and too “Black British” or “Asian crossover” or “British hybrid” for New Labour’s more sober, corporate-managerialist English style’. The only alternative was populist nationalism. In 2010, Gavin Kelly, former deputy chief of staff to Gordon Brown, defined this project in Prospect: to complement ‘“materialism” with a national popular project, embedded in the cultural aspirations and attachments of the British people’.

Brown seemed up to the job when in a lecture at the British Council in 2004 he appreciatively cited Goodhart along with Melanie Phillips and Roger Scruton in a disquisition on the ‘core values of Britishness’ (‘There is indeed a golden thread that runs through British history of the individual standing firm for freedom and liberty against tyranny’). On a trip to East Africa the following year, he announced that ‘the days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial past are over.’ No matter that Britain had never apologised: like his fellow Scot Niall Ferguson, Brown wanted British people to feel proud of their empire. At a conference in 2006 on ‘the future of Britishness’, Brown outlined an American-style patriotism, provoking even David Cameron, newly appointed as Tory leader, to object: ‘We’re not like that. We don’t do flags.’ Meanwhile, at Prospect, Goodhart was thrilled that ‘the national agenda is focusing on duty, community and stability … the “respect” legislation, school discipline, ID cards, identity and Britishness.’ When Brown finally moved into Downing Street in 2007, Prospect celebrated with a cover proclaiming ‘Gordon Brown, Intellectual’.

Goodhart’s romance with Brown, and intellectualism in general, eventually soured, to the extent that he began to root for the ‘dowdy’ and ‘inarticulate’ Theresa May, on the grounds that ‘we’ve done enough admiring of the cognitive elites and their marvellous articulacy.’ As early as 2008, sensing ‘drift and decay’ in Brown’s regime, Goodhart began to navigate the short distance from the centre-left to the reactionary right. In 2009, he hailed the neocon writer Christopher Caldwell, who had claimed that Muslims are ‘conquering Europe’s cities, street by street’, as a brilliant seer, who understood the consequences of undermining ‘national tradition’ with ‘liberal universalism’.

It may be unfair to pick on Goodhart’s exertions on behalf of a national popular project. The British press has consistently invited voters to see their struggles through the prism of immigration and dodgy foreigners in general. The upshot has been a rapid pin-striping of bigotry. Cameron’s description of refugees as a ‘swarm’ and fellow Etonians Zac Goldsmith and Boris Johnson’s calling London’s Muslim mayor a ‘terrorist sympathiser’ are of a part with Katie Hopkins’s comparison of migrants to ‘cockroaches’ and a deranged man’s shout of ‘Britain First’ as he assassinated a member of Parliament.

But Goodhart’s acute discomfort with diversity also reflects the profound fears and insecurities felt by metropolitan intellectuals in the second phase of globalisation. The events of 9/11, and then a series of humiliating debacles in the war on terror, cracked the illusion of superiority and security shared by Western writers and journalists during the Cold War and the euphoric decade that followed its end. The unexpected rise of China in the 2000s aggravated the post-imperial anxiety that, to borrow Sartre’s phrase, the West was ‘springing leaks everywhere’. The revolt of the insecure intellectuals presaged the revolt of the uprooted masses. Writing in the Financial Times in 2006, Lionel Shriver confessed to feeling pushed out by Guatemalan immigrants who had ‘colonised’ a recreation area in New York’s Riverside Park (‘The last few times I practised my forehand, I drew wary looks and felt unwelcome’). Asserting that the ‘full-scale invasion of the first world by the third has begun’, Shriver anticipated the Brexiteers’ comparison of immigration to Nazism. ‘Britain,’ she wrote, ‘memorialises its natives’ brave fight against the Nazis in the Second World War. But ‘the arrival of foreign populations can begin to duplicate the experience of military occupation – your nation is no longer your home.’

Shriver’s reference to plucky British ‘natives’ excluded the millions of Indians and African soldiers in the imperial army that fought Britain’s enemies across three continents. But then oppositions between ‘us’ and ‘them’, natives and foreigners, cannot be forged without suppressing the history of imperialism, which coerced all human beings into a single, cruelly stratified space, turning a vast majority into permanent losers. The long-term winners, now encouraged to check their privilege, can’t claim victimhood without obscuring the fact that conquest and colonisation endowed them with disproportionate wealth, power and intellectual authority. Unnerved by the prospect of decline, some members of this exalted minority began to conflate their own relative diminution with a more general disintegration, and to cultivate a dread of uppity minorities. Their paranoid conspiracies entered the mainstream long before anyone had heard of Breitbart News or Steve Bannon. The Canadian journalist Mark Steyn, who hoped in America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It (2006) that all Europeans would eventually come to the same conclusion that the Serbs had – ‘If you can’t outbreed the enemy, cull ’em’ – was hailed by Martin Amis as a ‘great sayer of the unsayable’. Bruce Bawer’s While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West from Within (2006) was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award, prompting one judge, Eliot Weinberger, to denounce Bawer for engaging in ‘racism as criticism’.

Worried that Hispanics were undermining ‘Anglo-Protestant society’, Samuel Huntington, writing in Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (2004), denounced multiculturalism as an anti-Western ideology. Westerners themselves, others argued, were the most fanatical anti-Westernists. On this view, a tradition of critical self-reflection, created to make sense of the atrocities of imperialism, slavery, genocide and two world wars, had trapped Westerners in self-loathing. As Pascal Bruckner put it in The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism (2006), ‘Nothing is more Western than hatred of the West.’ In 2011, Anders Behring Breivik reproduced many of these arguments against ‘cultural Marxists’ and liberal multiculturalists in the 1500-page manifesto he wrote before killing dozens of children at a Social Democrat youth camp in Norway.

‘The intelligentsia, once the vanguard of the ascending bourgeoisie, becomes the lumpen-bourgeoisie in the age of its decay,’ Arthur Koestler wrote. Nowhere in Anglo-America is this phenomenon more evident than in the British media, which even at its most reactionary used to maintain some commitment to wit and style. The Spectator, once suavely edited, now serves as a fraternity house for Douglas Murray, Toby Young, James Delingpole and Rod Liddle; pummelling Muslims and high-fiving on Brexit, these right-wing bros are to the posh periodicals what Jeremy Clarkson was to the BBC.

Murray’s book-length screed, The Strange Death of Europe, is full of Trump-style imaginings of uncontrollable Muslims killing and raping their way across a hapless continent. In an earlier book, Neoconservatism: Why We Need It (2006), he explained that American neocons possess a ‘moral clarity’ that allows them to find ‘answers to many of the problems facing America and the world today’. Murray defended the invasion of Iraq and proposed some American remedies for Britain’s ailing ‘socialist’ economy (‘Slash taxes … public services should be cut, and again not just cut, but slashed’). Murray’s latest offering is an unlikely lament, coming from a gay atheist, for the death of Christianity and the loss of Europe’s ancient cultural unity. A blurb from Roger Scruton graces the back cover, and the lessons of the master are evident in Murray’s investigation of popular culture (‘Unbearable shallowness. Was the sum of European endeavour and achievement really meant to culminate in this?’). He finds some figures to praise, like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who is intrepidly trying to keep Europe Christian by keeping Muslims out, and members of Pegida and the English Defence League, who are viciously defamed by politicians and journalists for making perfectly reasonable points. Recent events in the United States have also given Murray hope. In July he praised ‘the leader of the free world’ for ‘reminding the West of what is great about ourselves and giving an unapologetic defence of that greatness’.

Edward Luce, a speechwriter for the former US Treasury secretary Larry Summers, has few illusions today about the Washington Consensus he once helped promote: ‘Countries that swallowed the prescription suffered terribly.’ Social mobility is a delusion: ‘The meritocratic society has given way to a hereditary meritocracy.’ ‘Western liberal democracy is not yet dead,’ he writes, ‘but it is far closer to collapse than we may wish to believe.’ His apostasies risk alienating many in his post-Cold War generation of Anglo-American commentators whom the advent of Trump has thrown into despair, and who feel nostalgia for the good old days of the ‘liberal order’. As Fareed Zakaria wrote in a nervous review of The Retreat of Western Liberalism in the New York Times, ‘We all deserve criticism for missing the phenomenon of the “left-behinds”,’ but ‘there remain powerful reasons to embrace and uphold the liberal international order.’ ‘In France,’ for instance, ‘Macron is articulating a defence of Western democracy.’

As it happens, Luce is a more resolute liberal internationalist than Zakaria in his belief that Modi’s India would defend Western democracy better than any Western country would. Certainly, Luce cannot entirely break free from the ideological formation of his social and professional set. ‘Washington backed would-be democrats across the world during the Cold War,’ he wrote in a recent column. This is a neat reversal of the facts.

Luce admires Lilla’s ‘impeccable liberal credentials’, and quotes his admonition in a New York Times op-ed that ‘liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.’ Neither Luce nor Lilla thinks to mention that powerful white men were playing the identity game more than a century before the Ku Klux Klan was founded, or that racial exclusion has long been central to liberal universalism. Lilla, who praised the founding fathers’ ‘achievement in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights’, continues to offer in his new book the view from Mount Rushmore (and Paris, where, as an intellectual historian of France, he seems to have cultivated his peculiarly colour-blind notion of equal citizenship). French and American republics that promised democratic rights to all enforced at the same time a global hierarchy in which those rights were reserved for some and forbidden to the rest. America’s own exponents of self-evident truths withheld equal rights from women, and inflicted slavery on blacks and extermination on Native Americans. The long postponed end of segregation in the 1960s actually made exclusionary identity politics central to American democracy. Nixon’s Southern Strategy and Reagan’s war on drugs successfully stoked majoritarian fears of dark-skinned minorities. In describing Hispanic and Muslim immigrants as existential threats to the US, Trump was playing a game whose rules the founding fathers had laid down: making racial degradation the basis of solidarity among property-owning white men.

Lilla has little time for the historic victims of a majority’s potent identity politics. According to him, Black Lives Matter, with its ‘Mau Mau tactics’, is ‘a textbook example of how not to build solidarity’. ‘We need no more marchers,’ he declares, or ‘social justice-warriors’. Instead we need ‘more mayors’ and politicians able to imagine, as Reagan and Clinton apparently did, a ‘common good’. Lilla also repeats his earlier claim that the dupes of cultural studies and multiculturalism on university campuses are primarily to blame for Trump rather than his election being a consequence of the catastrophic loss of jobs, pensions, homes and self-esteem. Lilla says he is ‘appalled’ by an ‘ideology institutionalised in colleges and universities that fetishises our individual and group attachments, applauds self-absorption and casts a shadow of suspicion over any application of a universal democratic “we”’.

Extensive economic distress in Lilla’s account seems a secondary phenomenon to Rhodes Must Fall, and minority agitators asking for an end to historical injustice appear to be needlessly provoking and alienating an honest majority constituted by the white working classes or rooted Somewheres. His phrase ‘social justice warriors’ mocks the struggles for recognition and dignity on the part of people who have suffered not only from the barefaced identity politics of the right but also the equivocations of the ‘white moderate’ – once identified by Martin Luther King as a bigger obstacle than the ‘Ku Klux Klanner’. But it is Lilla’s contemptuous reference to ‘Mau Mau tactics’ that confirms the suspicion that an Anglo-American intelligentsia, confronted by the political and intellectual assertiveness of previously silent or invisible minorities and frustrated by its apparent failure to take back control, was the vanguard of the Brexiteers and the Trumpists. Certainly, to read The Once and Future Liberal is to understand why the cries of ‘check your privilege’ from the descendants of slaves grow louder all the time.

Lilla’s critique of minority-ism appeared just as Trump successfully remobilised white majoritarianism. Spectacularly ill-timed, it was nevertheless keenly embraced by the vital centrists, who cannot resist blaming Anglo-America’s political calamities on the pampering of minorities. ‘Trump and his supporters,’ Simon Jenkins wrote in the Guardian after the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, ‘thrive on the venom of their liberal tormentors.’ Perhaps such back to front conclusions are inevitable if the centrist establishment stays silent about its own iniquities and failures. Beating up cultural Marxists and identity liberals may even be mandatory if you believe that Reagan and Clinton, two hectic jailers of African Americans and slashers of social security, were promoters of the common good, and if your deepest wish is for figures like Brown and May to dominate politics for a generation.

‘Most of the white people I have ever known,’ James Baldwin once wrote, ‘impressed me as being in the grip of a weird nostalgia, dreaming of a vanished state of security and order.’ Today, longing for the ancien régime increasingly defines the Atlantic seaboard’s pundits as much as it does the fine people defending the honour of Robert E. Lee. It remains to be seen whether America, Britain, Europe and liberalism can be made great again. But it already seems clear that the racial supremacist in the White House and many of his opponents are engaged in the same endeavour: to extend closing time in their own gardens in the West.