Liberalism, The Life of an Idea – Edmund Fawcett (2014)

This is what one could call a tour de force: a biography of liberalism from 1830 until now. As far as I know, the first of its kind. And its a great joy to read – at least for those interested in the history of ideas.
Fawcett (a former journalist) is clearly knowledgeable, has done his research and tells the story of liberalism from a wide set of viewpoints.
He sees four lines of thinking that have shaped practical liberalism; 1) the acknowledgement of unavoidable ethical and material conflicts in society 2) mistrust of power 3) belief in human progress 4) respect for others, summarized as: conflicts, resistance to power, progress and respect.

He makes a compelling case that liberalism is at its best as a political tool, fueling public discussion and forging compromises; it has never gained real popular support as moralist philosophy or when reduced to mere economics. Liberals, Fawcett insists, do not argue from a doctrinal checklist so much as they understand that conflict is unavoidable, distrust unjust authority, hold faith in progress and respect all, or at least most, people. It is more a way of doing politics than it is a fixed political position.

Fawcett goes on to describe the development of liberalism in four countries: US, Germany, France and Great Britain. In the 19th century its main rivals were conservatism (strongly believing in rulers and habits) and socialism (preaching radical transformation, instead of gradual progress). The 20th century brought two new enemies to the fore: fascism and communism. And lastly, in our current century a new range of -isms has emerged to challenge the liberal order: authoritarianism, state capitalism, democratic nationalism and theocratic Islamism.

The book is built up as set of mini-biographies of politicians and thinkers, describing their time and the most important notions they have put forward. Together this makes a great reference for other writes on the subject.
What I especially like is the liberal view on conflict. Since conflicts cannot be avoided, they need to be contained and directed. In a liberal order the first step is creating political institutions that prevent domination by one power or issue group. Secondly, the practice of negotiation, convincing and forging compromises needs to be firmly anchored in society. Ambitious goals, that have since their conception always been challenged by less liberal thinkers. But they have proven essential for the creation of a democratic society; and has helped creating our present day societies, based on the rule of law.

Nowadays, we  all know liberal democracy as something to strive for, but democracy has not always been liberals’ natural ally. From the liberal promise of protecting people from the whims of governments and rules followed a huge challenge, perhaps the greatest of all: a non-exclusive, democratic promise of respect for all people. At the introduction of this novel concept in the 19th century liberals didn’t quite seem to oversee its democratic impact. Since this right would include all people, whether or not ‘useful’ for society, this logic gave way to a fair amount of liberal protest, as at that time many so-called liberals weren’t men of strong meritocratic beliefs. But those in favor hold their ground and in the passing gave a huge boost to the process of European democratization.

The author uses a rather broad definition of ‘liberal’, resulting in an enormous range of liberal thinkers and politicians, from the usual suspects Humboldt, J.S. Mill, Hayek, Berlin and Rawls to more surprising candidates as Orwell, Keynes and Lyndon B. Johnson. He even includes the likes of Sartre, Thatcher and Mitterrand. Putting those last three in the same basket bears the risk of treading perilous ground, which Fawcett tries to counter by saying that they all have behaved in a liberal way. Quite a liberal stance, I would say…

This ‘history of an idea’ shows how liberalism has always striven to create a society wherein originality, entrepreneurship and openness were valued. Not always has the zeitgeist been favorable for liberal ideas, but liberalism has repeatedly survived potential fatal crises – thanks to its adaptive character and its lack of fundamentalism. And will again in the future.
By tapping into a powerful reservoir of an (almost) universal love for freedom, enthusiasm for human progress, innovation and with a genuine respect for differences, liberalism has been the driving force behind the welfare and well-being of so many peoples.